Though winter rains are finally ending, managers of California’s many dams and aging, sometimes dilapidated levees expect the system will face serious challenges into the summer. While many observers have warned a “Katrina-style” disaster is possible in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River system running through the Central Valley, environmentalists say restoring the levees will be a long-term, multibillion-dollar project involving many levels of government. And environmental justice organizations point out that people of color, especially Latinos, are disproportionately located in flood-prone zones.

Last week Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in 16 of the state’s 58 counties, increasing state funds to deal with the crisis caused by weeks of heavy rainfall and an exceptionally heavy snowpack in the High Sierras.

The governor called for

$6 billion in state funds for levee repairs. He had earlier requested $3 billion in federal funds, but the Bush administration and Congress have not yet responded. Funds for levees are also included in a state infrastructure proposal that stalled when bond issues providing partial funding failed to make the June ballot.

Earlier this month several levees broke, forcing evacuation of nearby residents and flooding at least two mobile home parks.

“A lot of low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately located in flood zones that are not protected for well-maintained levees,” said Miriam Torres of the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water (EJCW). “Many people say residents need to get out of those areas,” she added, “but that’s not a viable option for low-income communities.”

Torres said adequate mapping of flood-prone areas, and making national flood insurance affordable for low-income flood plain residents, would help, but the requirement that communities have flood protection programs is a barrier for poor communities and unincorporated areas.

EJCW is calling for state funding to help low-income communities and communities of color finance flood management plans and obtain comprehensive federal flood insurance.

The Central Valley’s levee system was created starting in the early 1900s, with some early levees built by farmers, said Monty Schmitt, restoration scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Levels of protection also vary along the same river channel, he said.

“Another major problem with the current flood control system is that many levees were built to protect agriculture, rather than people and homes,” Schmitt said. In addition, he said, “funding for maintenance, repairs and even inspections has not been there over time,” even in areas with known problems.

Schmitt pointed to the current pressure to develop housing on lands in and around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where much of the area used to be wetlands. Diking off land for farming has created conditions where soils have subsided significantly in some areas, leaving them vulnerable to rapid, severe flooding. “It raises the question,” he said, “where is it appropriate for housing to be?”

Schmitt urged development of a comprehensive system-wide plan combining flood control and ecosystem restoration, incorporating studies done in the last 20 years, including the 2000-2003 Comprehensive Study by the state Department of Water Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers.