Planning August/September 2015

Water Warrior

When the next flood comes, Roseville, California, will be ready.

By Matt Weiser

In March 1983, heavy storms swept across the Pacific Ocean and soaked California, causing isolated flooding. The city of Roseville, about 20 miles northeast of Sacramento, was among the hardest hit. A network of local creeks swelled out of their banks, and 25 homes and six businesses were inundated.

Three years later, in February 1986, it happened again. This time, the storms didn't stop for days. One person died and 209 homes flooded when the creeks rose.

"Both of them were devastating, because the water destroys everything it touches," recalls Jo Ann Branich, a longtime Roseville resident. "In '86, I had four feet of water in the house. That water, it was raging. It was just amazing."

Flooding had visited Roseville before. But this one-two punch spurred the city to action, and today Roseville is considered a leader in flood preparedness. It is the only community in the U.S. to achieve a top "Class 1" ranking under the Community Rating System overseen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The voluntary Community Rating System encourages local governments to take extra measures to reduce flood risk, from improving flood warning systems to buying out homes in flood-prone areas. It rewards them by granting discounts on flood insurance, and not just token cuts. Roseville's top-level Class 1 ranking means local property owners get a 45 percent break on flood insurance.

Roseville first joined the CRS as a test community in 1989, one year before the program was officially launched. It attained the Class 1 rating in 2006.

Roseville first studied the extent of its flood risk by preparing floodplain maps, like this one of the downtown from the late 1980s, showing base flood elevations for the 100-year storm event for the fully developed, unmitigated upstream scenario

Facing disaster

Suburban Roseville, on first glance, doesn't seem positioned for leadership in disaster management. The city of 122,000 incorporated in 1909 alongside the largest rail yard in the West. Today, Interstate 80 is an equally important artery, serving commuters headed to jobs in Sacramento and shoppers drawn to Roseville's regional shopping mall and its large auto mall. Roseville doesn't border a major river, it doesn't lie in a fire-prone forest, and despite California's reputation, it doesn't even have much earthquake risk.

But over the past three decades, Roseville leaders have charted a determined path out of the same kind of flood risk that now plagues much of the nation. And as federal reforms boost the cost of flood insurance, experts say Roseville provides a good example for other communities to manage those risks. [See "Feds Revamp Flood Risk Management Standard" in this issue.]

"It really has to be among your top priorities as a community," says Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. "Because it's not a matter of if it's going to flood in the future. It's just going to be a matter of when."

Roseville pays for its ongoing flood-control efforts using general fund dollars and developer fees. It supplements these sources with state or federal grants, when available. The city had sales tax revenues of $47.5 million in fiscal year 2013–14.

Roseville's city budget for the current fiscal year is $435 million. About two-thirds funds the city's own electric utility and its water and wastewater treatment systems. The budget for general fund programs, which includes flood protection, is about $138 million.

Jason Rizzi, a division chief with the Roseville Fire Department, says the city may be in a good position for preparedness because it is a "full-service" city, despite its relatively modest size. That means the city provides its own fire protection, drinking water treatment, wastewater treatment, and operates its own electric utility.

This broad responsibility underpins the city's efforts to become more resilient in the face of disasters, and not just flooding. Rose-ville recently established its own citywide emergency management team — led by Rizzi — to better prepare for any hazard, whether natural or man-made.

The team brings together representatives from every city department. At regular meetings and drills, they discuss and practice how each department is responsible in different disaster scenarios, who should respond where, who will give orders and who will take them.

With this comprehensive approach, when disasters occur, Rizzi says, the city is more capable to respond more seamlessly; the public sees an effective response by the city. "It's got to be a real high priority from the top — the city manager or city leaders in general. It's a constant process of improvement. It's never a job that's complete."

Rising waters

Flooding has been Roseville's greatest threat for several decades. It is also the most common natural disaster in America, and its impacts are increasing. Growing population and housing density are two reasons. Another is climate change, which is raising sea levels and increasing the severity of storms in some regions.

According to a 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service, the amount of flood insurance claims paid out in the decade ending in 2011 increased fourfold compared to the preceding decade. Bill Lesser, a senior program specialist at FEMA, says such trends are driving more interest in the CRS.

About 40 new communities have joined the program in each of the last four years, he says. In the past, it was usually public safety or public works officials who initiated involvement on behalf of their communities. That also has been changing.

"Now we're seeing a broader range of folks interested in CRS because of climate change and sea-level rise," Lesser says. "Economists are taking an interest; planners are taking an interest."

The National Flood Insurance Program requires that communities protect themselves from a 100-year storm. Those that don't will be required to restrict development and pay flood insurance. What few people realize, Lesser says, is that this 100-year requirement is considered a minimum safety standard. The CRS is designed to encourage communities to exceed that standard by planning for bigger storms, controlling development more tightly, and taking other measures to reduce risk.

Any community can enroll in the CRS. But Lesser acknowledges that it can be a cumbersome and expensive process. It requires communities to complete an assessment of their flood risk and propose how they will address those risks. This often requires dedicating a city employee to the work, which can take several months.

Once enrolled, each participating community is given an initial rating from 10 (the lowest) to one. Each level entitles residents of the community to a five percent cut in flood insurance costs. Each step in the rating system is achieved by completing projects that reduce flood risk, which come from a menu of options prepared by FEMA. They range from relatively simple tasks, like educating residents about flood danger, to complicated jobs such as buying out and demolishing high-hazard properties prone to repeat flooding.

A basic problem with flood risk is that many American communities were built in flood-prone areas. Cities often arose along waterways, which were the nation's first avenues of commerce. Development continued because the land was relatively flat and easy to build on. So it was inevitable, after a few years or decades, that a big storm would provide an education. These areas are flat because they are floodplains: a part of the river channel where the river spills out of its banks during natural extremes of hydrology.

Most communities responded by building levees — simply dirt or river-bottom sediment piled hopefully along the river's edge. Others opted to live with the risk and deal with periodic flooding, if it wasn't too bad.

The home of resident Jo Ann Branich was elevated in 1998 using federal funds

Dry in name only

That was Roseville's choice at first. The city was founded along Dry Creek, which tumbles out of the Sierra Nevada foothills. The stream's name reflects its behavior in the city's early days: Roseville went 60 years without a dangerous flood on the creek, which includes tributaries such as Cirby Creek and Linda Creek.

Then things began to feel different. Floodwaters that once swelled merely up driveways and lapped at doorsteps began rising higher, spilling into those doorways. Since 1973, Roseville has had six major floods that inundated homes and businesses, triggered evacuations, and damaged public facilities, like the city library and important bridges.

The worst came in January 1995, when a series of heavy storms soaked California for weeks. The damage was severe: 358 homes and businesses were inundated. Roseville homes were flooded to the rafters. It became known as the "storm of record" for the city, surpassing the events of 1986.

In the aftermath, Roseville was classified as a federal disaster area. President Bill Clinton visited the city to tour the damages. At the time, Roseville had already approved a comprehensive plan to mitigate its flood risk, but it didn't have the money to build the most expensive projects.

During his visit, Clinton offered the city millions of dollars in federal disaster assistance. Luckily, says Carl Walker, Roseville's floodplain manager, efforts to that point meant the city was primed and ready to use that money. And it was ready to spend it not just on disaster recovery, but on building projects to prevent another.

Walker calls this an important lesson for other communities. "It worked well for FEMA, because we had a plan in place," says Walker, a senior civil engineer for the city. "It showed the community was trying to find its own way out of the problem since the 1986 flood. The first part of that is to identify the problem, and then develop a plan to solve that problem."

The measures already in place included a new section of the city's general plan that addresses flood risk and preparedness; regulations stating that new development must create "no adverse impact" on flood risk; plans for new flood walls and drainage systems to reduce flood depths; and a flood warning system that was already operating.

"The planning process really sets the tone," says Kevin Payne, Roseville's director of planning and development services. "We're going to look at this from entitlement to occupancy to make sure public safety is being addressed on a daily basis, so that if there is a large-scale event, the impact is minimal."

That warning system consists of 30 stream monitoring and precipitation gauges that report conditions in real time, by radio signal, to alert officials and residents about approaching flood risk. This system includes a reverse-911 warning system that calls residents when flooding is expected in their neighborhood, and a website where anyone can monitor streamflow. Today, Walker says, the system can provide as much as 72 hours' notice of an approaching flood, and includes the ability to alert residents by text message.

Most important, the city prepared a comprehensive Flood Improvement Plan to reduce risk. The city began drafting the plan in 1989; it took three years to complete. The seven-phase plan recommended projects including bridge replacements, stream channel widening, flood walls, and stormwater bypass channels. It also advocated something controversial: buying out selected private properties to prevent repeat flood damages and public safety risk.

After the 1995 floods, with President Clinton's blessing, Roseville received $8.7 million from FEMA. The city matched this with $10.3 million of its own funds. The money was used on a variety of projects to remove 445 properties from federal floodplain regulations. This was done either by modifying the home or business itself, or building flood-control projects which changed the boundaries of floodplain maps, thereby excluding properties from regulation.

  • Forty-four homes were physically elevated by raising their foundations above the predicted base flood elevation. FEMA paid 75 percent of this cost, up to a maximum of about $34,000 per home.
  • Three particularly risky homes were purchased by the city and removed completely. One was cleared away to construct a large bypass culvert on Linda Creek, a tributary of Dry Creek, consisting of two nine-foot-diameter pipes. When the creek swells, water flows into the culvert, reducing flood depths for dozens of homes.
  • The city constructed several thousand feet of new concrete floodwalls to contain high water within the creeks, preventing it from spilling into areas where housing density was so great that few other options were available.
  • A partnership with Union Pacific Railroad allowed construction of a new railroad bridge over Dry Creek, replacing drainage culverts that restricted flow. Union Pacific paid 90 percent of the cost. The project removed about 150 structures, homes and businesses, from the mapped floodplain.

Jo Ann Branich, on Columbia Street, is one of those who benefited from the house-elevation program. The home she has owned for 41 years with her husband Nick received FEMA money to be raised above the mapped floodplain. They spent extra money to raise it further so the space could be used as a garage and workshop.

Since then, says Branich: "We've had a couple of scares, where the water came up in the road. But it's never come in the house."

In 1995, the creek flooded this footbridge. Today, the city's vulnerability is greatly reduced

Custom-built maps

Another key early action was that Roseville paid a consultant to prepare its own detailed maps of the floodplain to identify the high-risk areas. Many communities rely on FEMA mapping for this purpose, but FEMA maps may not offer enough detail and they are only updated periodically. Roseville didn't map merely the 100-year floodplain regulated by FEMA, but the estimated 500-year floodplain, which encompasses a much larger footprint.

City leaders did this because they wanted to understand what the ultimate flood risk looks like. The city does not regulate development according to the 500-year level, but to the depth of a 100-year "unmitigated" flood, or one that would occur without the floodwalls and drainage improvements that exist now.

The extra mapping cost about $1 million, a significant bill for a medium-sized city in the late 1980s. But this became a major step toward achieving a high ranking under FEMA's Community Rating System. The advent of GIS technology has cut the cost for this kind of mapping, and Walker now estimates it would cost about half as much for a city Roseville's size.

"My experience has been that you've got to invest the time and energy in the studies and analysis up front," says Payne, the city's development director. "The city leadership that established the standards at the time wanted a very conservative approach to make sure folks were not exposed to future risk."

A basic feature of FEMA regulations is that development must be tightly regulated in the mapped floodplain. Roseville went beyond this rule by setting strict standards for new construction adjacent to the floodplain: Any new structures adjacent to the floodplain must be elevated two feet above the base flood elevation, a significant protective measure.

The aim was to account for potential increases in flood depths caused by future development — both within Roseville and in the upstream watershed — as well as uncertainty about future flood severity. This acknowledges the reality that all flood mapping is based on measurements that happened only during recorded history. It is a limited view of actual flood risk, because no one knows what has happened over past millennia.

In short, it is likely that future floods will be worse than those we have seen already — without even considering climate change.

The rigorous standards have not slowed down development in Roseville, Payne says. But sometimes it does lead to protracted negotiations with builders.

"At times there is difference of opinion," Payne says. "We work through that as part of the whole planning process, which ultimately defines that build-to (elevation) line. Once that's defined, it gives the developer some certainty that they can move forward without having to deal with that issue in the future."

Roseville's tough standards produced big battles at public meetings when they were first debated. Some residents were concerned that the rules would affect land values, or limit what they could build. Others worried that flood-control projects would harm important riparian habitat along Dry Creek, home to wildlife such as fall-run Chinook salmon, which travel hundreds of miles from the Pacific Ocean to spawn in the creek.

"It was a huge battle, socially and politically," recalls Gregg Bates, executive director of the Dry Creek Conservancy, which works to protect wildlife and habitat. "It was a really bitter fight, with people calling each other names in council meetings."

Bates would prefer to see Roseville move away from "hardscape" solutions to its flood risk, such as concrete floodwalls and drainage culverts. A better solution, he said, is to restore more of the natural floodplain along local creeks, which would also expand wildlife habitat.

City officials are taking steps in that direction. FEMA's new manual for the CRS requires more environmentally friendly solutions. Roseville is in the midst of renewing its CRS rating, and is amending some of its programs to comply. This includes a new requirement for developers to dedicate areas of floodplain within their project sites as nature preserves.

Claudia Gamar served on the Roseville city council during a decade in which many of the critical flood-safety measures were approved. She recalls a few heated meetings. But after so many devastating floods, a desire for protection against flooding won out, she says.

"You have to be honest about where your problems are," says Gamar, now retired, who also served four years as mayor. "And you have to work with the community. The people of Roseville are really special people. They are intelligent, they are caring, they don't just think about now. They think into the future."

Matt Weiser is a freelance writer and managing editor of, a website that covers California water issues.


Images: Top — Roseville first studied the extent of its flood risk by preparing floodplain maps, like this one of the downtown from the late 1980s, showing base flood elevations for the 100-year storm event for the fully developed, unmitigated upstream scenario. Map by City of Roseville. Middle — The home of resident Jo Ann Branich was elevated in 1998 using federal funds. Photo by Matt Weiser. Bottom — In 1995, the creek flooded this footbridge. Today, the city's vulnerability is greatly reduced. Photo by Matt Weiser.

Living with the Saint Vrain, from APA's Community Planning Assistance Teams program (November 2014), recommends policies for Lyons, Colorado, but reflects national best practices.

"Law Caps Flood Insurance Premiums," by Mary Hammon, June 2014:

More from the Sacramento region: "The Devil Is in the Delta," by Paul Shigley, January 2012 (web exclusive):

On Cedar Rapids: "The Road to Recovery," by Jill Schultz, July 2010:

Three communities have Class 2 rankings in the Community Rating System: Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Pierce and King counties in Washington State, home to Tacoma and Seattle, respectively. Learn more at www.

Firewise Community Lessons

By Andrea Watts

Of the 72,681 communities in the U.S. currently at risk of wildfire, only 17.5 percent are considered appropriately prepared, according to the National Association of State Foresters' Communities at Risk Report for fiscal 2013. In the absence of local regulations requiring the adoption of wildfire-mitigation efforts, it falls to volunteers to seek a way to become a prepared community — whether by forming a Firewise committee or a Fire Safe Council and writing a Community Wildfire Protection Plan. The stories of three Firewise-certified communities show how volunteers were inspired to pursue certification and maintain it.


A resident of South Carolina's Keowee Key since 2001, Dick Hiss didn't know that the 1,600 acres of hardwoods and pine surrounding his home are prone to wildfire. Then in 2006 community Fire Chief Mark Lee suggested that Keowee Key — a planned community with more than 3,000 residents — become a Firewise community. Hiss formed a Firewise committee, eventually becoming its chair, and the Keowee Key community underwent a comprehensive wildfire assessment. Its revelations shocked Hiss. "[We] were off the charts in terms of being in a highly susceptible situation if a wildfire got started," he says.

Having lived in Colorado's Vallecito Lake community for nearly 20 years, Steve Walb can recall several big wildfires that claimed his neighbors' homes, notably the 2002 Missionary Ridge fire. Yet it wasn't until 2012, during a briefing of the Vallecito Fire when Chief Bruce Evans of the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District delivered a message — "This community has done little in the previous 10 years to protect itself from future wildfires" — that Walb and fellow resident Marilyn McCord "started banging the drum" and took on the role of Firewise Ambassadors.

The North Fork community in northwestern Montana consists of nearly 500 landowners along a nearly 35-mile-long valley. Although they knew the valley was fire prone, it took two back-to-back fires in 2003 that burned over 100,000 acres for people to "get religion and conclude that we as landowners really needed to do something to mitigate the risk — not only to [protect] ourselves and our structures but to [protect] the firefighters who were putting it all on the line for us," says Molly Shepherd, cochair of North Fork Landowners' Association Fire Mitigation Committee.

Keowee Key, South Carolina, sponsors regular 'chipping days' to encourage residents to reduce the fuel loads on their properties

Agency expertise and resources

These community Firewise ambassadors got help from the National Fire Protection Association, which administers the Firewise Communities Program, plus local expertise and guidance. In Keowee Key, Hiss worked with a representative from the South Carolina Forestry Commission, who conducted the wildfire assessment, and the agency provided funds for outreach efforts.

The Vallecito Lake Community drafted a CWPP, and Melody Walters, the Firewise coordinator with Firewise of La Plata County, served as a liaison between the committee and local agencies, such as the Upper Pine Fire District and Colorado State Forest Service.

With nearly three percent of the land in the North Fork privately held, the Fire Mitigation Committee meetings there included representatives from the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the state of Montana. The agencies "recognized what we were trying to do was entirely compatible and helpful for them in the long term," Molly Shepherd says. She credits Bill Swope, now with the Flathead Economic Policy Center, for serving as their liaison during the process.

Activities and outreach

These three communities overcame residents' apathy by hosting wildfire-mitigation efforts, such as regular chipping days in Keowee Key and Vallecito that encouraged residents to reduce the fuel load on their properties. On the annual Firewise days in the North Fork, presentations highlighted the neighbors' mitigation efforts and maps showed the community's accomplishments.

Wildfire risks remain on residents' minds throughout the year thanks to Facebook, websites, newsletters, and community forums. And these outreach efforts have proven effective: Both Keowee Key and North Fork have remained certified for 10 years, and Vallecito achieved certification in 2014.

Andrea Watts is a Seattle-based freelance science writer. She writes for magazines and websites on silvicultural research, the timber industry, sustainable agriculture, and senior living.


Image: Keowee Key, South Carolina, sponsors regular "chipping days" to encourage residents to reduce the fuel loads on their properties. Photo by Jon Bachman.