The 2014 levee construction season is shaping up to be like nothing the region has ever seen.
And the main event of the summer will be the Feather River West Levee Project.
By year's end, 37 miles of levee will have had installed a slurry wall designed to protect parts of Sutter and Butte counties, and the billions of dollars' worth of property they contain, from 200-year floods similar to the 1955 disaster that sliced through the Feather River levees and killed 38 people.
Details of the operation are not known — the first round of bids for $90 million of the construction was just sent out Feb. 3 — but it will dwarf last year's work on a mile-and-a-half stretch at Shanghai Bend — the site of the 1955 breach. "We're aiming for an absolute explosion of work," said Stanley Cleveland, Sutter County board of supervisors chairman.
"This season will be unprecedented," said Mike Inamine, executive director of the Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency. "We'll be in the belly of the beast."
Work will occur simultaneously throughout all three areas of the project, stretching from Thermalito Afterbay in Butte County to Star Bend in southern Sutter County.
In total, about $150 million of work on the $280 million project will be completed. Construction crews that could eclipse 200 workers will funnel 7.3 million square feet of the water-repelling slurry into wells that, in places, are more than 100 feet deep.
It's a massive undertaking. Last year, 170 people were employed to work on less than two miles of slurry-wall construction. This year, that number will increase significantly, Inamine said.
On top of the intricacies of pumping the slurry, which consists mostly of bentonite — a type of clay — the project will also work around 117 pipes, ranging in diameters from inches to feet, that punch through the levees, transfering water from the Feather River to fields and communities.
Most of the pipes don't meet current standards and will need to be replaced.
"It's a major challenge," Inamine said. "The execution is different for every pipeline, so each one is its own project."
When work is completed in 2015, most of Yuba City and northern Sutter County will have 200-year flood protection. The designation will spare property owners from tens of millions of dollars of mandatory flood insurance costs, Inamine said.
The work will also meet the timeline established by SB 5, a state bill mandating that all communities achieve 200-year flood protection by 2025 or face development and building restrictions.
Delays plaguing Feather River West Levee Project
Delays on the state and federal levels have been a common theme for the Feather River West Levee Project. Obstacles still remain.
The Sutter Butte Flood Control Agency has been waiting on the Department of Water Resources to complete changes on the guidelines for how agencies apply for money.
The agency has already obtained approval for $73 million in state funds. The money has been accounted for in the state budget and is waiting in a bank account, but, so far, the agency cannot access it.
The delay has stretched further than Mike Inamine, executive director of the agency, expected, but work on the levees has continued due to the sale of $40 million in bonds last summer and a $25 million line of credit from Rabobank.
"We can't wait for the state," Inamine said. "We anticipated the delay; that's why we put the bonds up for sale last year."
The agency also waited longer than anticipated for the final 408 permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, needed to begin the project in 2013.
That delay is part of the reason why the 2014 season will be so hectic — work intially planned for 2013 was not completed and was pushed into 2014, Inamine said.
The unanswered question involves how to fund the final seven miles of the project south of Star Bend.
The state has not committed money for the project, but Inamine has kept his eye on the Water Resources Development Act, which is in conference committee in the Senate.
The project is not mentioned specifically in the bill, which allocates funds for flood control projects, but Inamine said there is some draft language that could authorize the project.
The bill could provide about $60 million in federal funds, Inamine said.
Other levee projects also planned for 2014
The Feather River isn't the only site for levee work in 2014.
Reclamation District 1001 is looking into raising its property assessment on landowners within the district to provide a local match to Department of Water Resources funds.
The money would go to complete about $5 million of work to about a mile of the district's levees that were designated as in "critical need," the worst classification of a levee's condition, by the DWR.
Currently, the district, which hasn't raised the assessment since 1997, is running at a deficit, said Andrew Stresser, the district's secretary manager.
The district started the year paying off $75,000 from last year, Stresser said.
"There's no contingency fund. There's no reserve fund. That's why we're looking to do the assessment," Stresser said.
The district has 44 miles of project levees that protect 32,000 acres. None of the district's levees have 100-year flood protection.
Elsewhere, in Yuba County, the Three Rivers Levee Improvement Authority is gearing up to construct an embankment in the Yuba Goldfields, which would capture and contain flows that breach the Yuba River during high water events.
The 2.1-mile embankment would provide 100-year flood protection to parts of Reclamation District 784.
Other areas of the county are still considered at-risk for floods, including District 10 north of Marysville and parts of Yuba County lacking proper storm drains, said Mary Jane Griego, Yuba County supervisor.
Tom Schultz, chairman of Reclamation District 10, has said that 28 miles of the district's levees need work, which could cost between $117 million and $351 million.
CONTACT reporter Andrew Creasey at 749-4780 and on Twitter @AD_Creasey.