Autumn Payne / Bee file, 2009

Crews remove trees during work on the Natomas levee project in March 2009. A bill that would fund improvements to 24 remaining miles of Natomas levees has stalled in the Congress.

Boxer seeks Sacramento levee funding in water bill

Published: Sunday, May. 12, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, May. 12, 2013 - 5:28 pm

WASHINGTON – In contrast to contentious debates over issues such as guns, immigration and the federal budget, a bill to address critical water infrastructure – including flood protection for Sacramento – looked like it might have an easier time getting through a divided U.S. Senate.

The Water Resources Development Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, and David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, would authorize funding for Army Corps of Engineers projects, including dams and levees, ports and inland waterways, and coastal protection and restoration.

The $12.5 billion bill, which Boxer's Environment and Public Works Committee approved unanimously in March, would authorize more than $900 million to complete one of her biggest priorities: the Natomas Levee Improvement Project. The first 18 miles were completed last year at a cost of $400 million. Funding for the project's remaining 24 miles has stalled in Washington.

"It's long past time," Boxer said on the Senate floor last week when she introduced the bill, the first of its kind in six years. "Flood control and flood protection is critical. All we have to do is look at Sandy."

Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast in October, killing more than 100 people and causing $60 billion in damage, especially in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.

Seven years earlier, the costliest disaster in U.S. history, Hurricane Katrina, toppled levees in New Orleans, flooding the city and killing more than 1,000 people on the Gulf Coast, with damages reaching more than $100 billion.

Boxer's bill aims to prevent a similar – or perhaps even worse – disaster in Sacramento, where the levee system is at high risk for failure in catastrophic flooding. That would jeopardize the safety of tens of thousands of people and billions of dollars in property, and disrupt commerce and government in the country's most populous state.

"We have to strengthen the levees there," Boxer said. "We are talking about the need to prevent terrible flooding."

Sandy and Katrina demonstrated the vulnerability of the country's aging flood protection system. The American Society of Civil Engineers 2013 Infrastructure Report Card gave dams in the country a D and levees a D-minus. The Corps of Engineers has a backlog of roughly $60 billion in projects.

Congress last passed a water resources bill in 2007. Senate Democrats and Republicans praised each other for their work on the current legislation, but it also must pass the House of Representatives, where bipartisan agreement is even harder to achieve.

But the water legislation may be the best chance for lawmakers to prove they can reach bipartisan agreements.

Overall, the legislation includes funding for flood control and storm protection projects across the country and has broad support from business and labor groups.

But it also faces opposition.

Environmentalists, several senators and the White House have voiced concern over provisions that would put Corps projects on a faster track to completion and give the agency more discretion to choose which projects to fund – including those that environmentalists oppose, such as an Auburn dam.

"It should be Congress' job to authorize projects," said Ron Stork, policy director for Friends of the River, a Sacramento environmental group. "There are projects that should not be authorized."

The bill also would speed up the environmental review process for Corps projects. Critics of the process, including both Republicans and Democrats, complain that the reviews contribute to delays and cost overruns.

Usually an ally of environmentalists, Boxer has been taking some heat.

Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, accused her of sacrificing the country's "premier environmental law," the National Environmental Policy Act.

"There was enough incentive in the bill to get bipartisan support … without undercutting one of the key environmental statutes," he said.

Boxer and Vitter amended the bill to address some concerns of environmentalists and others, but the streamlining provisions clearly opened a rift. Boxer defended her environmental record and the bill – and chastised some erstwhile allies.

"I don't think they've read it," she said Tuesday.

Stork, whose group supports authorization for the Sacramento levee project but opposes streamlining, disagreed. "A lot of people who are pretty darn knowledgeable have read the bill," he said. "They're pretty appalled by those provisions."

Government watchdogs, meanwhile, are upset about the bill's price tag.

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a fiscal oversight group in Washington, warned that it ultimately would cost taxpayers more than advertised. "We need to prioritize," he said. "This does nothing to do that."

Call Curtis Tate, Bee Washington Bureau, (202) 383-6018.

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