Photograph of Arboga area of Yuba County - 1997 FloodYuba County is fortunate to count three major rivers – the Yuba, Feather and Bear – among its many assets. However, these rivers have also caused devastating flooding, most notably since the early 1800s. As the population increased, so did the consequences of each flood event. There have been ten major floods during this century on the Yuba River alone.
 
The risk of flooding has been greatly reduced in recent years, thanks to the County, the Yuba County Water Agency, the Three Rivers Levee Improvement Authority, Reclamation Districts 784 and 2103, the City of Marysville, the State of California, and the US Army Corps of Engineers. In fact, since 2007, just under half a billion dollars has been spent on repairs to dozens of miles of levees protecting Marysville, Wheatland, Linda, Olivehurst, Arboga and Plumas Lake.
 
 
 

Brief History

In the early 1800s, local farmers began building levees to control the flow of the three rivers and protect their crops from seasonal flooding. In time, however, the levees became the last line of protection for a growing number of residents who called Yuba County home. Multiple levee failures since the 1800s put residents and the communities at grave risk. To follow are highlights of some of the more notable flood events.
 

1950

The Yuba cut through its banks at Hammonton and inundated southern Yuba County, causing millions of dollars in damage.
 

1955

In 1955 as every watershed in California was hit by tropical storms, the Yuba became a ravaging torrent that choked its mountain channel, poured over the dams at Bullards Bar and Englebright Reservoir and ripped into the valley. The 1955 Yuba River flood came within inches of flooding Marysville, wreaked havoc in Yuba City, killed 40 people, forced almost 30,000 people to flee the county, and reinforced the contention that there was an urgent need for a major water program.
Courtesy of the Yuba County Water Agency
 

1986

A massive flood in Linda and Olivehurst was triggered by a levee break along the Yuba River. Water quickly inundated the towns. More than 3,000 homes were damaged and 895 were destroyed. Flood waters were 10 feet high in some places. Losses were estimated at $22 million. In the years immediately following, millions were spent by the US Army Corps of Engineers and the state to improve the area’s levees and correct problems. Unfortunately, that would not be the end of the story for Yuba County.
 

1997

The Arboga area was ravaged by flood waters when a levee broke on January 2 (the Country Club break). Another levee gave way three weeks later, causing additional flooding in some of the same areas (the Bear River break). These levee breaks occurred in areas scheduled for repair, having been identified as deficient following the 1986 flood.
 
Homes closest to the breaks were destroyed by the force of the rushing water, with some reports indicating flood depths of 30 feet. Farther from the levee breaks, many homes were damaged beyond repair due to water depths of 10 feet. In total, 38,000 Yuba County residents were evacuated, including almost everyone in Marysville. Three people lost their lives. Portions of the communities are still trying to recover today, more than 20 years later. Other impacts:
 
  • Land: 1,000 acres of residential, 15,500 acres of agricultural and 1,700 acres of industrial were flooded.
  • Homes: 322 were destroyed and 407 suffered major damage.
  • Shelters: 46 emergency sites provided respite for 23,600 people.
  • Cost: Estimated at more than $300 million.

The Yuba County Water Agency - Role in Flood Protection

 
The snow that packs the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the rain that falls in the Yuba County foothills are all managed by the Yuba County Water Agency (YCWA). The Yuba County Water Agency is a stand-alone government agency created in 1959, primarily to improve flood protection in the region and to improve the water supply in Yuba County.
 
The water agency is best known for one of its biggest accomplishments: New Bullards Bar Dam and the 966,000 acre-feet reservoir it created – all part of the Yuba River Development project. The Reservoir provides 170,000 acre-feet of dedicated flood storage, which is governed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the flood season.
 
YCWA’s current flood protection role is to help plan and fund the local share of flood improvement projects in Yuba County. The Water Agency also manages flood releases from New Bullards Bar Reservoir in coordination with the Corps of Engineers, the California Department of Water Resources Flood Operations and Oroville Reservoir.
 
- Information courtesy of the Yuba County Water Agency
 

Yuba County Water Agency Led the Way on Levee Repairs

Following the 1986 flood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers worked with the State of California and the Yuba County Water Agency on the “Levee Systems Evaluation Project,” an effort to repair and strengthen levees. Despite another levee failure in 1997, the Corps believed that the repairs being made under the project would provide the much-needed flood protection.
 
Meanwhile, the California Department of Water Resources and the Corps started a study to determine the ability of the levees to withstand a one hundred year flood event, or a flood that has a one percent chance of happening in any given year. The Federal Emergency Management Agency imposes development restrictions and flood insurance requirements on communities that are protected by levees that do not provide this minimal level of protection.
 

Three Rivers Levee Improvement Authority

In 2004, Yuba County and Reclamation District 784 (RD 784) – the agency responsible for levee maintenance on behalf of the State – created the Three Rivers Levee Improvement Authority (TRLIA). The joint powers agency was given a mission to finance and construct levee improvements on RD 784 levees, with the goal of achieving 100-year and 200-year flood protection.
 
System improvements began in 2004. Early public-private partnerships with local developers provided resources for the initial investment in levee improvements. By the end of 2006, significant work had been completed on Yuba River, Western Interceptor Canal, and Bear River levees.
 
The highlight of early work was the Bear River Setback Levee, an example of civil engineering excellence and the subject of several prestigious awards from professional engineering associations. A partnership with River Partners resulted in the planting of one million shrubs and trees in the setback area, creating 600 acres of wildlife habitat benefiting several threatened and endangered species.
 
By late 2006, TRLIA’s levee improvement program had expanded to four phases covering 29 miles of levees, including 13 miles along the Feather River. In May 2008, TRLIA broke ground on the program’s highly acclaimed engineering accomplishment – the six-mile long Feather River Setback Levee, the largest of its kind in the State. Like its counterpart along the Bear River, the Feather River Setback Levee provides significant benefits for regional flood protection. In fact, it is expected to lower water levels in the Yuba and Feather Rivers by more than one and one-half feet during large flood events, taking pressure off levees in Marysville and Sutter County. The setback area, which required the acquisition of 1,600 acres of land, is being evaluated for recreational, agricultural and environmental uses. A regional trail system may someday run along the top of the levee, much like the one along the American River in Sacramento. To date, the project has earned several awards from the American Society of Civil Engineers, and most recently the Floodplain Management Association.
 
The final phase of construction work, the Upper Yuba Levee Improvement Project was completed in October 2011. However, TRLIA’s work is not yet complete.
 
In 2011, interest was renewed in understanding the flood risk associated with the Goldfields. Located northeast of Marysville, the Goldfields is a large area – nearly 10,000 acres – that has been mined for gold and aggregate for more than 100 years. In 1950, a mining operation led to a break in Yuba River south bank in the Goldfields, which caused flooding in South Yuba County.
 
The Corps studied flood risk in the Goldfields as part of its Yuba Basin Feasibility Study. The Corps concluded that the Goldfields did present a risk of flooding to South Yuba County from a 200-year flood event, but not a 100-year event. TRLIA conducted a more detailed hydraulic analysis, the results from which are being used to make improvements and reduce flood risk. For more information, visit TRLIA’s website.
 

Marysville Ring Levee Work Underway

The City of Marysville, in partnership with the Yuba County Water Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is constructing repairs and improvements to the 7.6 mile ring levee that surrounds the City. Although a Marysville levee has not failed in 135 years, four miles of the levee system need critical repairs. A four phase, $100 million project to prevent seepage through the levee, or under-seepage below the levee, is underway with a goal for completion in 2013.  More than $10 million in stimulus funds approved by Congress in 2009, and a $2 million line of credit from the Yuba County Water Agency, helped jump start work on Phase I in 2010. A large share, approximately $90 million, will be covered by current and future federal funding.
 

Reclamation District 2103 (Wheatland)

Reclamation District 2103 maintains portions of the Bear River and Dry Creek Project levees. These levees protect the City of Wheatland and surrounding agricultural land from winter storm runoff. In 2006, problems with the Bear River levee were identified, and a $14.7 million project was planned and constructed to make the needed repairs. The levee has received accreditation from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as providing protection against a 100-year flood event.