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Messing with Mother Nature, and paying for it

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: June 26, 2008 2:12 a.m.
Updated: August 27, 2008 5:03 a.m.
 
Don't mess with mother nature." This common colloquialism, often said with a knowing chuckle, becomes all too real and serious after major storms such as the current flooding in the Midwest.

These rains were unusual but not unprecedented, with similar flooding occurring as recently as 1993.

FEMA is taking credit for its initiative in moving people and buildings out of the flood plain since the floods 15 years ago. But in many Midwestern communities, local governments - like our own city of Santa Clarita - continued to approve new development in the flood plain, undermining FEMA's efforts.

Ironically, SCOPE's submittals to our local planning agencies on flood plain issues typically include an article published in July 1993 by the New York Times entitled "The High Risks of Denying Rivers their Flood Plains," written to illustrate the problems caused by levies and development during the 1993 Mississippi River flooding.

The article graphically outlines the hydrology that causes a backup and flooding upstream of the levee and the pressures that may cause levee failures downstream.

This phenomenon may, in fact, be the cause of the 2006 flooding in the Newhall trailer park where a new concrete channel that narrowed the flood channel and funneled the storm waters was installed over protests from members of the community.

This phenomenon also occurred during the '68 and '97 floods in Santa Clarita, during which floodwaters backed up behind the river channel narrowing caused by the Bouquet Canyon Bridge.

Now the bottleneck will be the Riverpark project and the filling done for Newhall's Condominium project on the opposite bank. We will see what Mother Nature and the Santa Clara River will do there in the next round of heavy rains.

SCOPE and other local, state and national environmental organizations, as well as the Governor's Task force on Flood Plain Management, the new state-mandated floodway rules, and many other government agencies have spent a lot of time and effort talking about NOT building in the flood plain.

During the Riverpark, Newhall Ranch and other project hearings, many SCOPE members spoke before the city and county to beg them not to approve those developments in the flood plain of the Santa Clara River.

During the Riverpark approvals, Jonas Minton, a staff member from the statewide Planning and Conservation League, came to the city to do a presentation on water issues.

He closed his discussion by saying he was actually most concerned about the approval of this project within the 100-year flood plain of the Santa Clara River. All to no avail. The project was approved in the flood plain anyway.

We also have objected to filling in the flood plain, arguing that the river needs room to stretch itself out during a heavy rain.

Giving the river room will encourage groundwater recharge to: make sure we have sufficient water supplies; slow down the flood flows; reduce erosion by allowing the flows to spread out; and protect property by not allowing structures to be built in harm's way. But to no avail.

For example, considerable filling was granted to Newhall Land over the community's objections for an auto dealership right next to the river. Thank heavens that it wasn't built before the 2006 rains, because the banks washed out.

If it had been built then, there undoubtedly would have been a call to concrete in the river in that area to protect property against future damage.

Flood plains are also often liquefaction areas that are extremely unstable in earthquakes - remember the collapse of houses in the Loma Prieta earthquake due to liquefaction?

Much of the housing that is built in a flood plain is also in a liquefaction hazard zone, according to maps released by the State Deptment of Conservation and Mines.

So there is an added public safety benefit to not approving housing in flood plains.

Then there is the cost to society as a whole. We build where we shouldn't build in the first place. When the storm that we know will eventually arrive does arrive, and it destroys lives and property, the public must pay.

We will pay for the emergency equipment, for the ambulances, for emergency room care for those without insurance, for storm rescues.

We will pay through our property taxes and insurance premiums for the damage to property that shouldn't have been located there in the first place.

If the premiums don't cover the high costs, the general tax-paying public will end up with the tab. And the ultimate insult: Eventually we will probably pay to line with concrete the flooded area, a scheme that may cause the very same problem to occur again upstream in the next big storm.

On Tuesday night, the city of Santa Clarita opened the public hearing on new flood-plain regulations required by the state of California in order to obtain flood insurance. The hearing was continued to the July meeting.

We urge the public to get involved and demand strong flood-plain protection, along with prohibitions against development in the flood plain.

Such protections will not only save us the heartache of seeing community members lose their homes to flooding, it will save our pocketbooks the huge, unexpected expenses of repairing the damage.

Lynne Plambeck is president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE) and a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own views, not necessarily those of The Signal. "Environmentally Speaking" appears Thursdays in The Signal and rotates among local environmentalists.

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