New floodplain maps for the Santa Clara River released in May revealed thousands of property owners in Ventura County are now sitting in a floodplain or a floodway. The maps are only a preliminary analysis of where floodwaters would go based on studies conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and given to local municipalities for further analysis.

According to the new maps, thousands of property owners in Oxnard now sit in a floodplain, especially those owners in the new Riverpark development off Oxnard Boulevard. The majority of property owners in Fillmore are also in a floodplain, if not a floodway.

City engineers and local water officials are scrambling for solutions to minimize if not eliminate the designation of new floodplains and floodways before FEMA releases the maps to the public in September.

“Nothing compares to the Santa Clara River,” said Jeff Pratt, director of the Ventura County Watershed Protection Agency, comparing it to the floodplain maps of Calleguas Creek released two years ago, which barely affected property owners.

FEMA floodplain maps are created for property owners to have adequate insurance when a flood occurs. FEMA officials estimate that at least one time in 100 years a huge storm will hit the region and flood over the levees of the river and into urban areas.

For property owners in a floodplain, which is flat land near or adjacent to a riverbed, all property owners must purchase flood insurance totaling around $1,000 a year.

For property owners in a floodway, which is the area in a floodplain where the water is likely to be deepest and fastest, no new construction can occur, including new development or even a renovation.

The reason these cities are now considered highly vulnerable to flooding is because FEMA officials think the levees are insufficient. Because of incidents such as Hurricane Katrina, FEMA now requires levees to meet certain standards and become certified.

“The levees are inadequate and don’t meet our standards,” said Ray Lenaburg, Risk Assessment Branch Chief for FEMA Region IX of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “When talking about Fillmore and the southern part of the river, the levees can’t be certified, they are going to have to be fixed.”

The floodplain maps show that of the 20 levees throughout Ventura County, only six have been pre-qualified by FEMA to be certified. And to get the certification of just these six levees, plus an additional levy FEMA did not pre-qualify near the Riverpark development, it will cost the watershed protection district and affected cities $3 million to $5 million.

Pratt said the levy near Riverpark is just shy of meeting FEMA height standards and feels it would qualify with only a few additional studies.

Vincent Y. Su, engineer for the watershed protection district, said the local municipalities are required to conduct their own costly hydraulic and geotechnical studies on the pre-qualified levees to get the certification.

Lenaburg said the biggest problem is the levees are not high enough, which means when this 100-year storm hits, the levees won’t be able to contain the water. FEMA standards require the levees to be 3 feet higher than the top of the flow of water. Some of the levees are only inches from hitting the 3 feet range, while others could be off by a couple of feet.

The other 13 levees, especially those on the Sespe Creek tributary off the Santa Clara River in Fillmore, will either have to be raised or demolished and rebuilt, Lenaburg said.

Raising the levees is a costly endeavor at a price of up to $200,000 per mile. Rebuilding the levees would cost up to $2,000 per foot.

But Pratt and city engineers said before they fix anything, they will analyze FEMA’s findings and do their own study and surveys. Pratt said more research has to occur before finalizing those maps and agreeing that the problem is as bad as FEMA says it is.

He said the watershed protection district and the cities of Fillmore and Oxnard will hire a consulting firm to review the studies and get them up to certification standards without raising or rebuilding. Currently Pratt isn’t convinced the levees are as inadequate as FEMA claims.

“We are going to challenge the levee issues, including technical and policy issues,” Pratt said.

He said part of the reason the levees don’t meet certification is the fact the bottom of the river has been raised because of sediment being carried along its bed.
When the levees were originally built, the bottom of the river used to be dredged and mined for minerals. The sentiment now sits on the bottom, raising water levels.

Pratt said the levees shouldn’t be disqualified because the original levy builders didn’t know the dredging would stop.

Raising levees for new development in Los Angeles County around the Santa Clara River has also caused water levels to rise for Ventura County, Pratt said.

In addition to pointing out Los Angeles’ spillover effect, Pratt said he will also challenge and try to reduce the 3-foot standard from the top of the levy to the top of the water flow.

He said because of factors that have little do with Ventura County or the original construction of the levees, property owners in these areas shouldn’t be punished with high insurance bills or shutting down construction projects.

The biggest concern is Fillmore.

If the new floodplain maps remain unchanged, new developments could be completely abandoned in Fillmore because much of the city would be sitting in a floodway.

Bert Rapp, city engineer of Fillmore, said the construction of a new business park which could bring necessary jobs to the city and improve its relatively high unemployment rate has been shut down for the moment.

“We were two months from selling bonds to build the infrastructure,” Rapp said. “The problem is the investors are not willing to borrow the $20 million for the bonds if they can’t build the park.”

Rapp said the city of Fillmore will be meeting with public officials, including county supervisor Kathy Long, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and Congressman Elton Gallegly to see what options are at their disposal.