Sutter Basin study nears final Corps approval

Published Oct. 23, 2013

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – In February 2011, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to change the way it does business.

Studies were getting too expensive, too detailed, and some were taking decades to complete. As a result, the Corps set out to improve its study process. As a result, the Sacramento District’s Sutter Basin Pilot Feasibility Study was chosen as one of two Corps studies selected nationally to participate in a pilot program designed to help make Corps studies faster and cheaper.  

While the Corps’ planning process was drastically changed in April 2012 before the conclusion of the pilot studies, the Sutter study continued to lead the way through the Corps’ planning modernization process.

Now it’s ready for its final Corps review. Corps headquarters’ six-member civil works review board approved the Sacramento District’s recommended plan Oct. 22, allowing the study to move forward with its final review by the state and affected agencies before going to Corps Commanding General Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick.

With his signature, the study report, then called a Chief’s Report, will be ready for approval by the president’s administration and consideration for Congressional authorization and funding. The Chief’s Report is scheduled to be complete in spring 2014.

“Our team has been extremely dedicated to making this a successful study, and now we’re ready to finish strong,” said Laura Whitney, project manager for the Corps.  

The Sutter Basin is a low-lying area of California’s Central Valley, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The region has frequently suffered serious flooding since settlers reclaimed it 150 years ago, with more than 19 floods since 1950, and 38 deaths from the 1955 flood alone. The plan is to strengthen and add erosion control to approximately 41 miles of levees along the Feather River to help reduce the risk of flooding for more than 95,000 residents.

Solving significant flooding issues doesn’t happen overnight, and the Sutter study has endured a long journey to get to this point.

After floods in 1986 and 1997, a feasibility study was initiated in 2000 but struggled to get going. In 2007, the study became more focused after the creation of the Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency, which joined California’s Central Valley Flood Protection Board as a local sponsor for the project. And the study really began to make steady progress in 2010, when local voters approved an assessment to study and construct a flood risk reduction project for the region.    

“The need for improved flood protection is very real to our communities,” said Michael Bessette, director of engineering for the Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency. “People are tired of being afraid when the river rages, and they have stepped up and cast votes to tax themselves to fix the problem and now we must deliver.”

The study’s unsteady progress made it difficult, and illustrates one reason why Corps studies needed to change.

“[The new process] has taken a study that was struggling with time and funding, and, with the new ideas under the planning modernization, is moving it to completion in an expedited manner, where it's getting the visibility, prioritization, funding and resources that it needs," said Alicia Kirchner, chief of planning division for the Sacramento District, when the civil works transformation was unveiled last year.

In addition to significant progress, the study’s ability to efficiently work through the new process validates the dedication and hard work of the entire team.

“We had a huge challenge,” Whitney said, “but our team was resilient, flexible and adaptive to meet the challenge head-on and now we’re almost to the end [of the feasibility study].”

The results were apparent to the project partners, as well.

“After being selected for the pilot program, the study gained a sense of urgency and priority,” Bessette said. “We became integrated as a full team member who helped deliver products and provide input into the process.”

Whitney said the increased partnership was instrumental in the study’s success.

“The entire process was transparent,” Whitney said. “Having our partners at the table helped us significantly in moving through the accelerated process to get to where we are today.”