Climate Change Vulnerability in the Sacrament

Sacramento Confronts Flood and Drought Risks

09-07-2021

 

City of Sacramento's website:

"The City of Sacramento recognizes it is important to prepare for climate change impacts. Some of the potential impacts expected in our region include:

  • More frequent extreme temperatures
  • Higher energy demands
  • More limited water supplies
  • Increased fire and flood risk
  • Public health risks such as air quality impacts and disease vectors

We can prepare for climate change by planting heat resistant tree species to help keep our city cool; improving the efficiency of how we use water and energy; preserving and expanding water sources; protecting the public from increased health risks and safety hazards; promoting a climate-resilient economy; and planning for potential impacts to public infrastructure."

 

Introduction

As part of our effort to raise awareness of the need to improve home resilience and to educate homeowners in the U.S on solutions to mitigate climate risks, we gather information on resilient actions, strategies, and challenges from key cities in the U.S.

In this blog, we focus on the city of Sacramento, California, and its emphasis on climate resilience.

I spoke with Greg Sandlund, the planning director at the city of Sacramento, who thoroughly described the challenges the city faces and the work that is being done to address those challenges and overcome them.

 

Risks

Sacramento is located at the convergence of the Sacramento River and the American River, low in elevation but high enough that planning sea-level rise is not yet a requirement.

Sacramento’s primary risk is flooding, which can occur due to flooding of the two rivers, local creeks, or due to more frequent and severe storm events. The Folsom Dam, which is located about 25 miles northeast of Sacramento, provides 200-year flood protection, which reduces the risk of flooding to 0.5%.

Located farther from the ocean, Sacramento also experiences high temperatures during the summer. Although it usually enjoys a nice cool breeze from the delta in the afternoon, there is a prediction of hotter, more frequent prolonged heatwaves. However, due to historic hot summers, most homes are equipped with air conditioning.

The city is currently experiencing drought conditions and has to manage its water supply carefully. Despite the proximity to the two rivers, there is a decrease in the overall water supply. The main reasons are the increase in water demand due to the higher temperatures and the decrease of the snowpack. Less snowpack can result from the snow melting too early and can lead to water trickling down to the city, sometimes fairly quickly. This is an ongoing challenge that forces the regional water authority to decide how much water to hold in reservoirs and how much to let keep flowing and avoid future flooding. 

In addition to drought and flooding, although Sacramento is not exposed to a high risk of wildfires and does not consider actual damage from wildfires as a major concern, wildfires from nearby locations expose residents to unhealthy and occasionally hazardous smoke.

 

Building codes

Sacramento holds its own local Building Code Requirements for Special Needs Facilities, mainly against flood protection. The code requires large buildings of 40 square feet or more or subdivisions of two acres or more to have a specified evacuation space at least one foot above flood water. The code also requires large buildings to include a refuge area accessible to the public that supports flood evacuees.

The city plans to reduce GHG emissions and works toward building electrification to remove natural gas from buildings altogether. By January 2023, the city is anticipated to require all new buildings with a maximum of four stories to be fully electric. By 2026, this requirement will address all new buildings. One challenge the city is trying to figure out is how to avoid negatively impacting new restaurants and industrial uses. 

  

Insurance

Residents who live at a location with a high risk of flooding must purchase the National Flood Insurance Program.  In Sacramento, residents that live in North Natomas have A99 designation, which means they are at a higher risk of flooding. According to FEMA, the origin of this designation is due to inadequate levees that do not adhere to 100-year flood protection requirements.

Yet, the city highly recommends that all property owners purchase flood insurance, even if they are not required. Sandlund himself owns flood insurance.

 

The City’s climate-resilient actions

Leadership and governance: Sacramento’s resources to address climate issues are growing. The city updates its climate action and adaptation plan every five years, which helps it stay nimble and adapt to changes.

In addition to an Interim Climate Action Lead position, the city created a Climate Manager position to work with council members and help organize the efforts to adapt to climate change. It includes working with utilities, building, planning, solid waste, public works, and urban forest.

Utilities: the city is working on an incentive-based approach with Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to convert homes to all electrified buildings. This work raised an equity challenge: “We see natural gas rates going up significantly in the next few years due to a decrease in demand and increase in maintenance cost, and low-income families will be vulnerable to higher gas rates.” says Sandlund. 

Sacramento plans on working with disadvantaged communities through a pilot program to provide financial incentives to convert natural gas usage to electricity. Eventually, there is a vision that after moving a whole area to 100% electric, the city would be able to shut off natural gas infrastructure in those areas entirely.

Flood protection: Sacramento was required to raise their levees to provide protection of a 200 flood plain from 100. Surprisingly, two-thirds of the city is in a floodplain, second only to New Orleans. Sacramento heavily depends on levees and continues to improve its levees, weirs, and bypasses to increase its flood protection.

Air quality: for dealing with hazardous air due to the smoke from wildfires, Sacramento is working on creating centers to allow vulnerable people to breathe clean air at times of wildfire events. During the 2020 fires, the city opened two such centers.

Drought: Sacramento took some time to adjust to the change from having an abundance of water to a drought tolerance culture, but the city is now in the right direction. Sacramento finally accelerated and completed installing water meters due to state requirements. The city has watering restrictions and allows landscape irrigation on specific days of the week.

The city also provides an impressive list of city-approved landscape designers as part of their River-Friendly Landscape program, which helps homeowners modify their landscape area to reduce irrigation.

Solar gain and Forestry: Sacramento initiated an inspiring program in 1990 to provide a solution to the heat island effect, cleaner air, and floodwater absorption. This program is called Sacramento Shade; it continues to this day and significantly contributes to Sacramento’s urban forest. SMUD and Sacramento Tree Foundation cooperate in providing all property owners and SMUD customers with a free landscape assessment and up to ten free shade trees that can be planted on any qualifying area on the property.

The city’s Urban Forestry Division initiated an Urban Forest Master Plan in 2018 to engage the community to support Sacramento’s impressive tree canopy. Despite the Sacramento Shade program, the city realized that stronger economic parts of the city have better tree coverage. Therefore, the city surveyed residents and found that some residents in disadvantaged regions of the city prefer to avoid the financial burden of the maintenance, watering, and disposal of the shade trees.

To address this challenge, the city allows planting trees in the city right of way, provides a list of approved and suitable trees for the climate and soil, and a guide for planting and early care. The city’s Urban Forestry conveniently maintains these trees.

Sacramento is looking into a new program to create a more resilient community, similar to the San Francisco Neighborhood Empowerment Network. This program aims to create a community organizing model to get neighbors together to discuss essential solutions for staying safe and ways to help each other during emergencies.

 

Recommended climate-resilient strategies:

Following are city-expert recommended strategies that may help improve home resilience for Sacramento’s residents: 

  • Generally, the city discourages using impervious materials for landscape since those materials prevent floodwater from penetrating the soil and contribute to runoff and local flooding. Instead, the city encourages using climate-appropriate native plants that thrive with minimal watering and maintenance and contributes to local ecosystems through a design assistance program (see incentives).
     
  • The city encourages implementing water conservation solutions and provides rebates for several such strategies (see below).
     
  • Through SMUD rebates and the PACE program, the city promotes electrical appliances and moves away from natural gas.
     
  • For flooding, the essential strategy is for homeowners to be prepared for flood events if they need to evacuate. Also, homeowners should make sure their homes adhere to building code measures, that mainly focus on structure elevations.
     
  • Homes should invest in an efficient air filter, to protect from hazardous smoke and make sure occupants can breathe healthy, clean air at home during wildfire events.
 

Incentives

As mentioned, SMUD provides rebates for replacing gas appliances with electric ones, such as heat pump water heaters and heat pump HVAC appliances.

The city provides rebates to help with water conservation, such as:

  • Replacing your lawn with a drought-tolerant landscape. 
  • Purchasing high-efficiency watering systems. 
  • Purchasing rain barrels to store stormwater for usage during the dry season. 
  • Purchasing laundry to landscape greywater systems.
  • Purchasing high-efficiency toilets and washing machines.

The Landscape Design Assistance refers to approved landscaping designers to help with the design and preferred materials for replacing impervious surfaces with climate-appropriate native plants.
 

Sacramento provides a few Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs to help homeowners finance energy-efficient and water conservation home improvements.

 

As mentioned, the Sacramento Shade program encourages tree planting by providing residents with a free landscape assessment and free shade trees that can be planted in any qualifying area on the property.

  

Education and awareness

Sacramento holds a flood preparedness week, from October 17th to 24th. During this week, all customers of key utility providers receive information brochures in the mail with links to the city website, the flood-ready websites, links to FEMA with flood evacuation maps, and evacuation routes in case there is damage to a levee.

The city provides an emergency alert notification system through the office of emergency management. Residents can sign up and receive text alerts in case of an emergency.

 

Final thoughts

The city of Sacramento has identified several climate challenges, mainly flooding and drought, and confronts them. Although the city’s resources are growing, Sacramento still has to find ways to divert resources for resilience strategies. One of the city’s challenges is income inequality. More than 50% of the city population are considered low income, and many residents struggle with the increased cost of living and rising rents. Another challenge is figuring out ways to improve existing structures to be more resilient, as most of the city is already built.

Yet, Sandlund stated that the city has many more resilient actions to come, as city experts are working on the third update of the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan and the first Vulnerability Analysis. This work requires city experts to determine areas with populations vulnerable to climate change and develop further resilience strategies. 

 

In  the meantime, residents can work to improve the resilience of their homes, communities, and their city by:

  1. Becoming knowledgeable of the risks that a changing climate exposes and its challenges.
  2. Leverage existing mentioned incentives that the city and county provide to make their home truly sustainable - resilient to local risks and eco-friendly.
  3. Find licensed and accredited professionals that can build/fix to code and get the best return on investment.

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