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Congress makes urgent call for Central Valley water infrastructure repairs

Flooding in the small Merced County community of Planada reached up to five feet in some areas after an atmospheric river brought heavy rain to the state.
Esther Quintanilla
The Merced County unincorporated community of Planada flooded when a levee along Miles Creek failed in January 2023.

Click here for more coverage of the 2023 floods in the San Joaquin Valley.

WASHINGTON, DC - A bipartisan congressional delegation led by California Democrat Senator Alex Padilla and Republican Representative Doug LaMalfa on Tuesday sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers urging them to prioritize “critical emergency repairs” to levees in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River watersheds.

Months after wet winter storms drenched the Central Valley, blanketed the Sierra Nevada in record-breaking snowpack and strained dams and reservoirs, parts of Central California’s water infrastructure are still in need of repairs.

The letter comes ahead of what is likely to be another wet winter.

“The relentless storms of 2023 caused extensive damage to this network, leaving numerous communities susceptible to potential levee failures during the upcoming flood season,” the letter reads. “The consequences of such failures would be devastating, resulting in property damage and destruction, severe economic setbacks for our constituents, and even potential loss of life.”

The letter echoes a similar appeal to the Army Corps written last month by the California Central Valley Flood Control Association. The Sacramento and San Joaquin are two of the state’s largest rivers, and the association estimates that the levees that sustained damage protect more than a million residents in cities and rural areas.

“We cannot stress enough the importance of addressing this situation promptly,” reads the letter, signed by association executive director Melinda Terry. “Every day of delay in implementing emergency levee repairs increases the threat to our communities and exacerbates the potential property damage and displacement of residents during the upcoming flood season.”

Levee safety and managing flood risk are two of the Army Corp’s primary missions. The agency has the authority and funding to make emergency repairs following flooding events.

Over the summer, Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order to expedite levee repairs throughout the state. He also committed $20 million in relief to the 4,000 residents of Planada, an unincorporated community in Merced Countythat endured catastrophic flooding following a levee breach in January.

According toa climate advisory earlier this month from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, there’s a high likelihood of a “strong” El Nino event, which in our region typically results in above-average rainfall. The agency estimates a 30% chance that El Nino will be “historically strong,” which could rival the winters of 2015-2016 and 1997-1998.

There are “a lot of pieces in play for some new extremes we haven’t seen in decades,” said state climatologist Michael Andersonduring a press briefing earlier this month.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.