House approves long-awaited bill that would restart Natomas levee repairs

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013 - 10:49 pm
Last Modified: Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013 - 9:29 am

The House voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to approve a bill authorizing water-related projects across the country, including levee improvements needed to protect Sacramento’s Natomas basin from a catastrophic flood.

The Water Resources, Reform and Development Act was approved by a vote of 417-3. It aims to shorten the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers review process, which critics say delays projects such as the Natomas Levee Improvement Program and increases the cost to taxpayers.

The bill authorizes the Corps to begin work on the $600 million in levee repairs that remain to be completed in Natomas – amounting to 24 miles of levee work. The project aims to achieve 200-year flood protection for Natomas, home to 80,000 people.

The Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency finished upgrading 18 miles of levees in December 2012 at a cost of $410 million. The project has been effectively stalled since then while Congress fought over the water bill, a delay that was deeply frustrating to Sacramento officials and Natomas residents, who continued to suffer under a federal flood insurance mandate and a de facto building moratorium while the project languished.

“Today’s vote represents real progress,” said Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, who is also SAFCA chairman and a Natomas resident. “For me it’s not just a policy victory, but it’s a personal one, quite frankly.”

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, who has spent five years trying to get a bill through the House to protect Natomas, called Wednesday’s vote “a major victory for the people of Sacramento.”

“We hoped we would get it done sooner rather than later,” she said just before the final tally came in.

The Senate approved its version of the bill with a bipartisan vote in May after a push by Sen. Barbara Boxer. The California Democrat is chairwoman of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, which drafted the Senate bill.

Matsui said she hoped the two chambers would move quickly to reconcile their versions and get the funding measure to President Barack Obama’s desk by year’s end.

It will still be some time, however, before construction can begin on the remaining Natomas levee work. That’s because the Corps needs Congress to appropriate money for the work in order to hire contractors. And before construction can begin, it also must acquire land in the Natomas area for the larger levees that are proposed.

“Our next step is to focus on getting into the appropriations cycle,” said Rick Johnson, SAFCA’s executive director. “But this is a giant step forward. It’s a huge step.”

There will also be some waiting before the flood insurance requirement and building restrictions are lifted in Natomas. Approval of the water bill is the final requirement before the Federal Emergency Management Agency will consider dropping those requirements, which can be lifted on a preliminary basis while the remaining construction is underway.

The city of Sacramento and the counties of Sacramento and Sutter will submit a formal application to FEMA as soon as the bill is signed by the president. From that point, it could take as much as a year for FEMA to drop the building restriction and insurance requirements.

With the drama of the government shutdown and debt limit over, at least for now, the bill presented an opportunity for lawmakers in both parties to come together on major legislation.

Congress last passed a water infrastructure bill in 2007 with overwhelming bipartisan support. In May, the Senate approved its version on an 83-14 vote. Last month, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed it unanimously.

The three “no” votes on the House bill came from congressmen Walter Jones, R-N.C., James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Collin Peterson, D-Minn.

House leaders Wednesday hailed the bill’s changes, which include an expedited project-approval process aimed at clearing a $60 billion backlog of Corps projects. The bill would limit studies to three years and $3 million. It de-authorizes $12 billion in projects that have languished for years.

The bill also contains no earmarks, or pet projects in lawmakers’ home states or districts. The last bill had hundreds.

Fiscally conservative groups such as Taxpayers for Common Sense and Heritage Action warned the legislation would give too much authority to the Corps and hide pork-barrel spending in other ways. Environmental groups such as the National Wildlife Federation said it would weaken long-standing environmental protections.

The White House said in a statement that Obama supports the House bill, but expressed concern that it would authorize marginal projects, shift too much cost to taxpayers and undermine the environmental review process.

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