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Mitigating Flood Risk in California’s Unincorporated Communities

Danielle Zoe Rivera, UC Berkeley

Flooding is the most common and pervasive environmental hazard in the United States. Yet, most of our theories and tools for proper mitigation (lessening and avoidance) of flood risks are predicated on strong city-level governance. Despite a third of United States residents residing in “unincorporated areas,” which lack city-level governance, we still have not identified the barriers they face in mitigating flood risk or developed tools specially designed for rural contexts. Instead, recent research shows how rural communities often adapt their mitigation plans from templates intended for large cities, leading to poor outcomes for their plans. Additionally, rural communities have seen greater decreases in hazard mitigation funding relative to urban areas.

This project aims to address these gaps by conducting community-based research with unincorporated communities throughout California’s Bay Area. To hone our efforts, the project identifies three of the highest risk unincorporated communities to ground this initial work. Our aim is twofold: (1) to identify the policy barriers facing rural flood mitigation and (2) to develop a policy and planning toolkit to support stronger rural flood mitigation planning. These aims structure our research into two overarching phases. Phase 01 identifies the barriers facing rural flood mitigation. In this phase, we will conduct interviews with local community leaders/officials and focus groups with residents to ascertain the barriers they face to mitigating flood risk. These barriers will be analyzed and assembled into public reports for our participating communities. Phase 02 builds upon these reports to identify any environmental planning and policy interventions necessary to address the known barriers to rural flood mitigation. These techniques will be assembled into a Rural Flood Mitigation Toolkit intended for all of California’s unincorporated communities. As a result, the toolkit will be developed not just with input from local residents and officials in our case communities, but also with county and state planners and policymakers.

From this project, we expect widespread benefits to unincorporated areas around California. The professional reports of the barriers facing rural flood mitigation will be presented to communities and policymakers with the goal of building local capacity to withstand floods, identifying unresilient infrastructure needing improvement, and streamline information channels between rural communities and county governments. With these changes, we can see better post-storm outcomes in rural communities, mainly: preventing widespread displacement of rural households during major storms, keeping public infrastructure (such as roads) accessible, and reducing flood damage to properties.