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Flood hazard areas get much-needed focus

Here in the land of snow-covered peaks, high mountain passes and hilltop cabins it's easy to forget that flooding can be a serious problem.

While virtually all of us in the hills face the threat of wildfire each summer and we insure our homes against it, flooding is a bit more selective and sporadic in choosing its victims. But every few years Mother Nature uses a sledge hammer to show us water can be just as devastating as flame.

Dry or trickling creeks that run through many of our neighborhoods, some residents learn the hard way, can turn into foaming, roiling monsters in a matter of hours.

Just ask those living along the banks of Cosgrove Creek in Valley Springs. In April of 2006 its rising waters flooded more than a dozen homes and brought the evacuation of more than 100 in the La Contenta area.

Calaveras County government could have shaken its head, saying "Whew, that was a close one" and hoped that the next 100-year storm really takes a century to get here. But instead it has done the right thing.

First the county hired Cal Fire crews to clear brush and debris clogging a one-mile stretch of the creek near La Contenta. Acting almost as a dam, the years of collected bushes, brambles and branches backed up the creek's high waters was deemed largely responsible for the extent of the 2006 flooding.

Now Calaveras County is in the midst of a project that could yield more accurate and detailed flood plain maps, firm requirements for those building in flood hazard areas and, ultimately, lower flood insurance rates for those required to have it.

The work is being done in cooperation with the California Department of Water Resources and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Calaveras County already has FEMA-certified flood insurance rate maps, but they are out of date. They list some areas that never flood as high risk and don't include others that regularly become inundated. Adopted in 1990, the old maps do not take into account levies and other flood-control projects built since then.

Now the county's flood maps are being revised both to accurately reflect what is on the ground and to take advantage of digital technology that has emerged in the nearly two decades that have passed since their adoption.

To be included is information from the State Water Resources' own maps of "awareness flood plain areas."

Earlier this month, Calaveras County revised its flood damage prevention ordinance, which set restrictions for building in on flood plains. Among other things, the rules require that the first floor of any homes built in hazard areas be at least two feet above FEMA's "designated flood elevation," the level waters would likely reach during a 100-year storm.

The revised ordinance requires permits for such homes and, for developments of 50 lots or more, mandates that developers first conduct detailed flood studies.

Finally, FEMA is ready to spend $1 million on "detailed studies" of county areas where flood risks are most serious. Where exactly the studies will focus, said Dave Pastizzo of the Calaveras County Planning Department, will likely be decided after series of public meetings that could begin next year.

Red tape? Layers of bureaucracy? With the federal government involved, certainly.

But there will also be benefits: With updated maps and a revised ordinance in force, those living in flood-prone areas will qualify for flood insurance, which is often required by lenders. Also, with new maps and regulations in place, premiums should be lower.

Most importantly, because the flood plain project's focus will likely be low-lying and fast-growing western Calaveras County, homes built there are likely to far safer from the kind of flooding that hit Valley Springs in 2006.


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