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Development of the Lower Sacramento Valley Flood-Control System: Historical Perspective

L. Allan James, Michael B. Singer | July 1st, 2008

Natural physical conditions and the politics of flood management provide the historical context for structural flood control that underlies modern flood hazards in the Sacramento Valley. The valley is a broad, low plain with backswamp basins that were frequently inundated prior to Anglo-American settlement, continuing until the modern flood-control system was established. Early attempts to emulate the Mississippi River single-channel levee strategy failed repeatedly in the Sacramento Valley due to high flow variability, mining sedimentation, lack of a coordinated levee system, and the inability of the main channels to carry most of the flood flows. Hydraulic mining caused massive sedimentation in major east-side tributaries, such as the Feather, Yuba, Bear, and American Rivers, and in the Sacramento River below the Feather River confluence. This sedimentation led to a flood-control design that relied on levees with narrow cross-channel spacings to promote channel scour and facilitate navigation. Even without sedimentation, floods were not contained within channels, but were largely conveyed through a system of low-land basins. In the early twentieth century, an innovative channel bypass system was adopted that emulates the natural system by routing excess flood waters over a series of weirs and through broad, channelized bypasses that cross the basins. This system has been successful in reducing the extent of frequent inundations of broad lowland areas of the valley. It is in need of maintenance and improvement, however, and cannot eliminate the risk of future flooding in low areas behind levees that are being rapidly developed.


flood management, floodplain restoration, Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, sediment

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