YUBA CITY, Calif. – On Jan 2, 1997, a break in a levee on the rain-soaked Feather River – which lies north of Sacramento – unleashed a devastating flood, leaving vital farmlands under 30-feet of water. The deluge caused $25 million in damages to the large population of Sikh American farmers, who grow most of the nation’s peaches and prunes here in the Yuba and Sutter County region.
Former Yuba City Mayor Kash Gill, who farms 200 acres of peaches and almonds, told India-West the 1997 floods made his town a ghost town for several days.
“Everyone was evacuated, all the businesses were shut down, a lot of trees were under water, and debris, garbage, oil and lead was running through the water system.
“When I got elected six years ago, fixing the levees was my first priority. We don’t want a disaster like New Orleans happening here,” he said, referring to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
Fixing the levees must be a priority for government at all levels, and for the Sikh American population in this area, said Gill, who sits on the board of the Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency.
“It’s a race against time,” he said. “You never know when you’re going to get hit again and whether there will be money to fix it then.”
The levees on the Yuba and Feather Rivers, in rural Northern California, have been in a state of disrepair for at least 50 years, causing economic hardship for the area’s sizable Sikh American farming community. The constant threat of flooding threatens vital cropland, hydropower plants that supply electricity to hundreds of thousands of people, and a rich cultural heritage of the Sikh community that dates back to the 19th century.
And while these farmers have rebuilt their lives and farms after multiple floods, they are still waiting on promised federal funding to fortify the levees and gird against the next deluge.
Fertile farmlands and floods
A number of tributaries flow into the Feather River, creating ideal conditions for fertile farmlands.
The Sikh American population in the area is the largest outside of India, informally estimated at 100,000 people. Ninety five percent of the nation’s peaches are farmed by Sikhs here. Sikh farmers also produce 60 percent of the nation’s prunes here, and 20 percent of the country’s almond and walnut supplies.
But, what makes the region a productive farmland also makes it flood-prone, underscoring the need for a well-maintained and robust levee system.
The 2007 assessment by the Army Corps of Engineers found 125 observed “levee performance problem locations” on the Feather River since 1955. The problems include seepage, erosion, boils, breaks and cracks. The study concluded that a levee failure at any one of the problem locations could cause flooding with a depth of one foot to over 20 feet.
The study also found that most of the levees on the system did not meet the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) standard of a 100-year protection plan – the length of time the levee should stay intact, resulting in much higher flood insurance rates for the area’s farmers.
Jaswant Bains, president of the Sacramento Packing Company, which farms 400 acres of walnuts and prunes, told India-West he lost an estimated $1.5 million in damages to his orchards, equipment and structures during the 1997 floods.
The Indian American agricultural entrepreneur has lived in the Yuba City area for more than 43 years. He said the Punjabi farming community has kept up a steady push to get the levees repaired and in 2010 paid assessments to fund some of the work.
The region has suffered massive flooding twice before: in 1955, a levee break at the Shanghai Bend levee on the Feather River killed 38 people on Christmas Day and forced 30,000 people to evacuate the area. In 1986, 895 homes were destroyed and 3,000 people were evacuated in the farming towns of Olivehurst and Linda after a levee break on the Yuba River.
Power and water
The YCWA also annually provides 350,000 acres of water to 18 irrigation districts, serving as many as 100,000 farmers.
Curt Aikens, general manager of the YCWA, told India-West that during the 1986 and 1997 levee breakages, all four hydro-electric plants were shut down for “several days,” leaving a large segment of PG&E customers without power.
Nevertheless, said Aikens, levee damage has had minimal impact on the agency’s ability to supply water and power to the region.
PG&E manages five hydroelectric plants on the stretch of Feather River that runs closest to Yuba City and Marysville, collectively producing 353 MW of hydroelectric power.
But the damaged levees have little impact on the corporation’s ability to supply power to its consumers, according to Paul Merino, PG&E’s spokesman in Chico, Calif.
“The electricity generated by these plants isn’t dedicated,” Merino said. “It goes into a general pool from several sources.”
Digging for dollars
The Army Corps of Engineers oversees California’s extensive system of levees, which is owned by local and private agencies. Local agencies will occasionally ask ACE for help with a levee improvement project, but ACE has no overall mandate to repair or improve the state’s levee system, explained Chris Gray, a spokesman for ACE’s Sacramento district.
Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat who began representing this region in 2013, said ACE repair projects could take years – even decades – to begin.
“You’ve got some of the richest farmland in the nation in one of the highest hazard levee systems in the country,” he said, noting the hydrology and topography of the area.
“Devastating floods have simply wiped out their [Sikh] farms,” said Garamendi, who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “They understand the necessity of improving the levees.”
Garamendi is a former Lieutenant Governor of California and he has served in Congress since 2009. He said California must prepare itself for climate change, which would bring on more, major storms and have disastrous effects on the 100 miles of levees within his district.
At a June House Transportation and Infrastructure committee hearing, Garamendi urged the Corps to fast-track levee work in his district in spite of the fact that ACE’s budget has been slashed by a quarter billion dollars.
After long delays, two levee restoration projects are currently underway on both the Yuba and Feather rivers, but the work falls short of what is needed.
On Aug. 7, Garamendi and Rep. Doug LaMalfa joined state and local officials to kick off the Feather River West Levee Project, three years after it was slated to begin. The project aims to fix 41 miles of broken levees to get them to a 200-year level of protection at a cost of $312 million.
The project was initiated in 2010, but needed a 408 permit from ACE before beginning construction. ACE approved one mile of the complex project on July 17 this year, and approved the remaining 40 miles of the project on Sept. 13.
Traditionally, ACE has maintained its complex levee system across the country, but Garamendi noted it takes years – even decades – to get on the agency’s priority list.
The Feather River West Levee project has bypassed the ACE system and created a unique initiative funded by local assessment bonds and state dollars, and managed by local and state agencies.
Local assessments in 2010 kicked in $41 million for the project. On top of that, the State Department of Water Resources has committed $57 million to the first phase of the project, which is expected to be completed in 2015.
Delayed ACE approval means construction will start late: repair work must end in November, before the rains begin. In June, Garamendi and LaMalfa urged ACE to approve the 408 permit, noting that a break in a part of the levee could impact 40,000 residents in the area.
“We could have been going another mile this year but ACE has not given us permission,” said Mike Inamine, executive director of the Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency. “It’s been a very lengthy bureaucratic process. We’ve been applying a lot of pressure to Garamendi, LaMalfa and (Sen. Diane) Feinstein to get the projects approved.”
Inamine said that an additional five-mile stretch south of Yuba City has not been factored into the current project. The south stretch of the river is mostly agricultural land. The proposed project in this south area would fix levees to a FEMA-approved 100-year level of protection, reducing what Inamine called “draconian” flood insurance rates for farmers in the region.
FEMA “strangling” rural economy
FEMA regulations mandate that farmers have flood insurance against at least 100-year levels of flood protection. Inamine said that requirement is “strangling the rural economy.” No new structures can be built until the levees come up to code. Existing structures can’t be replaced.
FEMA has been remapping flood plains, designating many portions of Sutter County as a “Special Hazard Flood Area.” The remapping has raised flood insurance at cost-prohibitive rates; existing structures must also carry new insurance to meet FEMA’s standards, reports AgAlert, a weekly newspaper, quoting Sutter County farmers who said that meeting FEMA’s standards would mean a shut-down of their long-standing businesses.
Garamendi last year introduced the “Flood Insurance for Farmers” bill in Congress, which would allow farmers to build new structures and refurbish existing structures, despite the FEMA remapping. Farmers would also be allowed to purchase flood insurance at subsidized rates for new and existing structures. The measure is still pending, according to Garamendi.
A second initiative, the Marysville Ring Levee Project, finished its first phase of construction in June. The first phase was a 4,600 linear foot cut-off wall in an urban area of Marysville, reducing seepages from existing earthen levees.
All four phases of the Marysville Ring Project – a $92.5 million initiative – are expected to be completed by 2017, Robert Kidd, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, told India-West. Further construction has been stalled until additional federal funds are allocated, said Kidd, explaining that the federal government was expected to kick in two-thirds of the funds, while state and local sources would pay the remaining third. Those federal funds are in question, Kidd said, given sequestration cuts.
“Marysville has a strong interest in continuing to work on this project and reducing their risk of flooding,” said Kidd. “The community has many recent memories of flooding and has stepped up to make sure this project will get done.”
Rice Kings of Colusa
Economic hardships amid the forces of nature embody that Sikh American experience in the region.
Sikhs and Muslims migrated to Yuba City around 1907. Few of them spoke English, and they didn’t have professional skills, so they turned to farming.
The small community, never larger than 10,000, was not allowed to own land, but nevertheless leased thousands of acres. Later, changing miscegenation laws allowed the Indian American pioneers to marry Mexican women and buy land in their names.
“It’s amazing how well they did, given all the restrictions,” said Bruce LaBrack, professor emeritus at the University of the Pacific, noting that back in the day, Indian farmers in the region were known as “The Rice Kings of Colusa.”
He said the Sikh farmers have always been resilient.
“Farms got washed away, but then the rains stopped, the floods receded, the levees were repaired and they got back to work,” he said.
This story was produced as part of a 2013 NAM Fellowship on Energy and the Environment for Northern California Ethnic Media (a collaboration with SoundVision Productions’ Burn: An Energy Journal) with the support by S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and PG&E.