Editorial: Congress needs to get serious on flood control

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 10A
Last Modified: Friday, Aug. 9, 2013 - 8:51 am

The highest priority of the federal government should be to protect lives and property. That's especially true when the threats – foreign armies, floods, hurricanes and other natural disasters – are so great that local and state governments can't be expected to fully provide needed protection.

Somehow, that essential federal function has been forgotten ever since President Barack Obama and Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives became obsessed with banning earmarks.

Because specific projects can no longer be designated for congressional spending, the federal government has suspended its historic partnership with local and state governments on improving levees and other flood control structures. The earmarks ban applies even to flood control projects with the highest level of federal review and approval – a "chief's report" from the leader of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Natomas basin and several other communities nationwide are paying the price for this overly broad earmarks definition. As The Bee's Matt Weiser reported on Saturday, state bond money and basin property owners have generated $400 million for upgrades on 18 miles of the most at-risk levees in Natomas.

Yet completion of upgrades on the remaining 24 miles of levees depends on an authorization by Congress, which the earmarks ban has prevented for more than two years.

Natomas and its 100,000 residents will remain vulnerable to floods until Congress comes to its senses. So will federal assets in the basin, including an interstate highway and an international airport.

Fortunately, it appears the new Congress might be more interested than the previous one in crafting a solution. Rep. Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican and the newly appointed chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, recently met with Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency officials. They report that Shuster has put a high priority on passing a Water Resources Development Act. Historically, such legislation – known as WRDA or "worda" – has been used to fund flood protection for Sacramento and scores of other communities nationwide.

That's the good news. The bad news is the House isn't moving very fast on a WRDA bill and is leaving it to the Senate to craft language. The delay means a House bill may not be ready until after Congress clashes over the March 1 sequestration deadline. If it ends up being an ugly clash, the WRDA bill could become collateral damage.

There is common ground here. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, borrowing an idea from Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento, has introduced a WRDA bill that would fund flood control and other water projects, but without the specificity that would run afoul of the earmarks ban. Only projects with a "chief's report" and White House clearance would qualify for authorization.

There's good reason for Congress to get behind this proposal. The earmarks ban is so broad it is stymieing ports and navigation projects, which some lawmakers believe are vital for economic recovery. That is raising the profile of a WDRA bill among lawmakers of both parties.

You'd think that the specter of another Katrina or superstorm Sandy would be enough for Congress to pass a WRDA bill for flood control reasons alone. But if ports and navigation will help float this boat of common sense, Natomas and Sacramento will be glad to ride along.

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