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Obama signs bill allowing levee repairs, but Natomas recovery is a long way off

North Natomas building moratorium
North Natomas building moratorium
Edith Allen

President Obama signed what Sacramento area locals are calling the "Natomas Levee Bill." He gave the go-ahead for nationwide flood control projects on Tuesday. This will help to stop a devastating, seven-year building moratorium in north Sacramento's newest neighborhood. According to a June 10 KCRA 3 News report, the entire bill actually approves 34 water-related projects around the nation. Most important to Sacramento are the long-delayed levee upgrades that will protect the Natomas neighborhood and end a seven-year moratorium on new construction.

As it is, North Natomas is a beautifully laid out suburban planner's dream, but certain sections look as if the apocalypse has ended civilization as we know it. When we dine at the local Denny's, for example, we are reminded that the modern world was suddenly left behind.

Empty lots and partially constructed office buildings stand as reminders of how FEMA brought the area's construction boom to a crashing halt.

Estimates are that, as soon as the levee repairs and water draining systems are completed, six or seven housing developments could start up right away, but Natomas is a long way from a serious return to its previous construction bonanza.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency abruptly determined the Natomas levees were unsafe in 2008, according to a Fox 40 TV news report. This determination was treated as a ban on all new building and large-scale repairs. Since then, the local flood control agency has completed work on 18 miles of the project.

The final levee work will be completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and will take care of the area where the Sacramento and American rivers come together. That confluence of rivers represents runoff from most of the vast northern Sierra watershed. There will also be work on drainage canals at the eastern edge of Natomas.

Now for the bad news: The remaining work will cost up to $1 billion and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does not have that money yet. Congressional Rep. Doris Matsui says there are some funds for initial design and engineering that were left over from the last cycle.

Expectations are that, with broad bipartisan support, Congress will fund the national bill, but that leaves several more processes:

First, FEMA must lift the moratorium against new construction and major repairs. FEMA says it will accelerate the process, which usually takes about 24 months.

Second, the process of reissuing permits must begin. There is no way a sudden, comprehensive building boom is going to happen. Priorities have been set and they are very tight, since the levees are still substandard.

Third, this is just lightening up on the rules to allow the local economy to recover. The levees will continue to be substandard for about five to ten more years until the Corps of Engineers completes the upgrades.

Thus, the only new construction work will probably be limited to repairing damaged homes, reinstating some infrastructure projects and allowing some commercial development. One of the infrastructure/commercial projects is a 1,900-acre Metro Air Park, for example. Perhaps those propped-up commercial buildings can be finished and light industry can start up again.

Natomas might have to wait a while for anything like the building boom that went on before 2008.