Greater Sacramento, California, is considered one of the most at-risk regions in the United States for catastrophic flooding. Its location, at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers, has made it necessary to rely on an aging system of levees, weirs, and passes, as well as Folsom Dam upstream, to reduce flooding.
In 1997, the area experienced significant flood events, which revealed deep under-seepage issues on the Sacramento River. This included areas, that only years earlier, had been remediated with shallow cutoff walls to address through-seepage.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, along with the Central Valley Flood Protection Board, California Department of Water Resources, and the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency, worked together to significantly reduce that flood risk. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 provided the Corps with approximately $1.5 billion of full upfront funding to efficiently implement upgrades to Sacramento's flood risk management system. This authorized work includes up to: 13 miles of seepage cutoff walls, 21 miles of bank protection, 5 miles of levee stabilization, 5 miles of levee raises approximately doubling the width of the Sacramento Weir and bypass.
As crews were preparing to get underway with the Sacramento River East Levee Contract 1 (SREL 1), COVID-19 presented itself. The reality of conducting business was transformed overnight, and normal day-to-day construction site activities as well as material and equipment availability, were significantly impacted. Scheduled public meetings were canceled or postponed, and methods USACE had traditionally used to disseminate information and garner public input were redesigned.
In short, USACE’s construction season was in jeopardy before it even began.
Despite these unprecedented challenges, construction of SREL 1 got underway in spring 2020 as scheduled. The construction encompassed approximately 3 miles of levee improvements, including a combination of seepage cutoff walls and seepage berms, at 5 locations along the Sacramento River East Levee.
Throughout the construction season, the communities of Freeport, Pocket, Little Pocket, as well as the Sacramento Marina, found themselves on the periphery of a construction zone. With much of the public at home due to a mandatory Stay-At-Home order, residents normally at work or school were confined to their homes with little respite from a major construction effort occurring nearby. For many, even the ability to enjoy outdoor living spaces and the trail along the Sacramento River, were now off limits. Though the impacted communities were aware construction was being undertaken to ensure public safety of nearly half a million people, ongoing construction work, increased truck traffic, and limited access to neighboring levees, boat ramps, parks and bike paths, proved a challenge.
Public meetings, which in the past were held to share project information, were now conducted virtually. The public were encouraged to utilize USACE websites, social media and USACE email lists, to receive up-to-date information on the project.
Not surprisingly, questions came pouring in to the USACE office.
“Why aren’t you delaying the project?” one e-mail asks.
“What if the construction crew gets COVID, and the project has to stop before completion?” asks another resident.
“Can’t this wait another year?” was the question asked most.
It was also one of the easiest to answer. No, this construction could not wait.
“The federal government provided over $1 billion of upfront funding to address the catastrophic flood risk to the City of Sacramento, as quickly as possible, and each year delayed places undo risk on the communities in the surrounding areas,” said USACE project manager Nikole May. “In order to meet this urgent need, we have to maximize the amount of work that can be accomplished each year, so that the following season’s work will not be delayed; thereby unnecessarily extending the time to reduce the risk to the public.”
It wasn’t always easy but after eight months SREL 1 was completed on time, ahead of the rainy season. While the team is still working hard to close out actions related to SREL 1, focus has shifted to the next phase of work, which is scheduled to begin this spring.
“Completion of these types of levee improvements in a single season is unprecedented,” said May. “It is a huge testament to the dedication, commitment and success of the entire USACE team, our partners, and our contractors.”
Sacramento River East Levee Contract 2 (SREL 2) is scheduled to begin by April 15, and like SREL 1 last year, crews are eager to begin as soon as possible to ensure the project can be completed this year. Communities at the southern end of Little Pocket and the northern end of Pocket will experience construction impacts this year.
Though the footprint of SREL 2 will be smaller, impacts to the public residing and recreating in the construction area cannot be avoided.
Levee access and levee bike paths in these areas will be impacted, with limited public access throughout the construction phase. Zacharias Park will be used as a staging area. As a result, there will be no public access during the project. Haul truck traffic, along with construction-related noise and dust, will be mitigated, but unavoidable to some degree. The team is diligently applying lessons learned from SREL 1 to further lessen the impacts to the local community. Completion of SREL 2 is expected in December 2021.
SREL 2 will encompass construction of approximately 2 miles of levee cutoff wall improvements along the Sacramento River East Levee between Pocket and Little Pocket. A cutoff wall will also be constructed north of the Sacramento Marina, in the proximity of Broadway. Unlike SREL 1, access to boat ramps will not be impacted during this year’s construction.
“We have made great progress and look forward to completing this work, which is the second of four large improvement projects to reduce the flood risk for the Sacramento region,” said May.
For more information about the project and this year’s construction, please visit USACE’s project web page at www.sacleveeupgrades.com. Here you can see the project’s progress, read the latest frequently asked questions, and sign up for a monthly construction update email.