Lessons Learned from the 1986 Linda Levee Failure


In February 1986 a narrow levee break occurred along the left bank of the Yuba River near its mouth with the Feather River. The breach inundated the towns of Linda and Olivehurst, California, inundating more than 4000 homes and businesses, displacing more than 24,000 residents, and causing over $400 million in damages. Eyewitness accounts described a dramatic softening of the land side toe just before the embankment "fell into a hole" and disappeared. The break occurred after the flood had crested, when the water surface was 2.62 m below levee crest, nine days after the storms began. Post-failure evaluations included developing an historical database that traced the developmental history of the Yuba Basin, including past flooding problems, four generations of levees, circumstances surrounding past levee failures, geomorphic processes shaping the channel, excavation permits, and maintenance activities by the local reclamation district. The first round of conventional borings failed to detect a highly conductive gravel cobble channel passing beneath the breach because it was slightly deeper than the height of the levee, and Corps of Engineers procedures specified that foundation characterization need not exceed a depth equal to the height of any embankment. Subsurface samples were recovered for classification and testing, and detailed stratigraphic correlations performed across the area. When these data were combined with the developmental and flow history of the same zone, a working model emerged which predicted levee failure at the precise location and within the timing parameters that were observed. A consolidated class action lawsuit was filed by victims of the flood damage, which was in litigation for almost two decades, leading to a landmark decision by the California District Court of Appeal in 2003 (the California Supreme Court refused to review the decision in 2005). The decision resulted in the State being held liable for failure of a flood control project to function as intended by applying a constitutional balancing test that weighed the benefits provided by the project against the gravity of the harm caused. This resulted in a finding of unreasonable conduct that if left uncompensated, would require plaintiffs to bear more than their fair share of the costs of the public project. The case was resolved with payment to plaintiffs in excess of $450 million-the largest award of any flood litigation case in the United States (California Appellate Courts, 1999; 2003).

Meeting Name

Geo-Risk (2017: Jun. 4-7, Denver, CO)


Geosciences and Geological and Petroleum Engineering

Keywords and Phrases

Laws and legislation; Levees; Product liability; Stratigraphy; Class action lawsuits; Corps of Engineers; Flood control projects; Geomorphic process; Historical database; Maintenance activity; Precise locations; Stratigraphic correlation, Embankments

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Document Type

Article - Conference proceedings

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© 2017 American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), All rights reserved.

Publication Date

01 Jun 2017