Flood and basketball

Jeff vonKaenel

Sacramento will survive if the Kings go to Seattle. But will we survive the Kings' arrival, which had less to do with basketball and more to do with rezoning land in a floodplain?

On the front page of a recent Saturday’s Sacramento Bee, there were two seemingly unrelated stories. The first, “Mayor to make All-Star pitch to keep Kings,” was about Mayor Kevin Johnson trying to convince NBA owners to keep the Kings in Sacramento. A second story, “Levee fixes grind to halt,” explained how 24 miles of much-needed levee repairs have not been completed. While 18 miles of new levees have been finished, at a cost of $400 million bankrolled by local taxpayers and the state of California, there remain another 24 miles of levees that still need to be completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, costing taxpayers an additional $410 million. Unfortunately, this levee project has been stalled for the last two years, since the House of Representatives banned earmark projects, including flood-control projects in Natomas and the Midwest.

After Hurricane Katrina, the United States made a $14.45 billion investment in flood control around New Orleans. Now, Sacramento has a higher risk of a levee failure than any other city in the country. Why do we have 100,000 Natomas residents living in a floodplain? We can trace it back to the Sacramento Kings and shortsighted sports-loving politicians, who deserve more technical fouls than DeMarcus Cousins.

In the late 1970s, some landowners, including Gregg Lukenbill and Richard Benvenuti, began buying up relatively inexpensive farmland in north Natomas. This soggy land was right in the middle of a floodplain and would have been great for rice farming. In the early 1980s, local developers drafted a proposal to open up more than 4,000 acres in the north Natomas Basin for development. Part of the land would be set aside for a baseball stadium, to attract a major-league team to our city.

Baseball did not happen. But in 1985, Lukenbill and a group of developers bought the Kansas City Kings. They would move the Kings to Sacramento if their floodplain in Natomas was opened up to development. It was, and now we have 100,000 people living in a floodplain.

Environmentalists and others bitterly opposed this development and accurately predicted the folly of developing on a floodplain. But the love of sports trumped reason. And while the landowners received the benefit of this rezone, it is the Sacramento residents and taxpayers who are left footing the bill.

And I hope that our only bill is for the levees. A global-warming flood or a break in the levee could cause unimaginable loss of life and property damage. Mayor Johnson’s “All-Star effort” to keep the Kings here should actually be applied to fixing the damage caused by their arrival.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.