Flood Risk and Environmental Justice in California's Central Valley

Posted by Mark Tompkins on Thursday, December 22 2011


Mark Tompkins

The relationship between flood risk and environmental justice has received increasing media and scholarly attention in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, drawing the nation’s attention to the potential for inequitable distribution of flood risk along lines of race, class, and other markers of social marginality.  Despite the national attention directed towards southeastern Louisiana, very little research or public awareness exists regarding flood risk and environmental justice within one of the nation’s most flood-prone regions: California’s Central Valley.  Preliminary, but limited, data and research suggest that a significant correlation may exist between social vulnerability and flood risk in this region.  High rates of regional poverty, increasing ethnic diversity, and a recent study of levee failures and social vulnerability in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta area (Burton and Cutter 2008) all support this preliminary hypothesis. 

To address this issue, American Rivers, along with Switzer Fellows Mark Tompkins (2004), Carolina Balazs (2009), and Chris Bacon (2001) are developing a Switzer Innovation Grant project titled “Flood Risk and Environmental Justice in California’s Central Valley.” The primary “deliverable” from this project would be a one-day workshop that would bring together leading policy makers, scientists, planners, and engineers engaged in the fields of flood management and environmental justice in the Central Valley to explore this issue and chart a course for research and action.  Our topic was inspired by the Switzer 2011 Spring Retreat that took place in the San Joaquin Valley and provided a wonderful opening for fellows (and Leadership Grant organizations) with interests in river restoration and environmental justice to discover the social and environmental challenges associated with resource allocation and decision making in the Central Valley.

We plan to organize a one-day workshop in the Central Valley to document the state of knowledge regarding flood risk and environmental justice in the Central Valley and to catalyze further research and policy action on this issue.  This workshop will be preceded by basic research on key topics surrounding environmental justice and flood management, development of communication and workshop facilitation materials, and outreach to leaders in these fields. We also anticipate producing a brief White Paper summarizing the most important outcomes from the workshop and outlining critical future work in this area. Ultimately, we hope to put environmental justice prominently on the flood management policy agenda in California by building collaborative relationships between the conservation community, the environmental justice community, governmental organizations, and local community groups.  Through this workshop, we hope to spark an innovative approach to flood management policy which speaks to the joint ties between the environmental justice, conservation, and public safety agendas.

In our efforts to implement this project, we are seeking input, support and collaboration from Switzer Fellows who may be interested in the following tasks:  leadership and facilitation, GIS mapping, research, and workshop participation.  As we refine our proposal, we will also seek additional suggestions and ideas for innovative contributions.  We are looking to build a rich network of collaborators to address this important and salient issue.  Please contact Mark Tompkins at mtompkins@newfields.com regarding your interest or ideas.


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