Good politicians like Jerry Brown know not to waste a good crisis. And so last week he urged that lawmakers spend $437 million for flood control.
It is a modest request, though not nearly enough, as he readily acknowledged by displaying charts showing that upgrading California’s water infrastructure, including 1,500 dams and thousands of miles of levees, would cost $50 billion.
If we Californians are to live and prosper in our re-engineered state, we will need to pay for it, or, as Brown said, “belly up to the bar.” How to pay for it is less clear. But Californians can readily see what’s in store if we fail to find solutions.
When the deep erosion opened on the Oroville Dam emergency spillway, 188,000 downstream residents along the Feather River were evacuated. In San Jose, the usually meandering Coyote Creek became a torrent, inundating homes and forcing evacuations. Levees have slumped in Wilton, and Tyler Island in the Delta, and Don Pedro Reservoir upstream from Modesto has become dangerously full.
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Brown has appealed to President Donald Trump for infrastructure funding. Money from Washington would be nice. But Californians will need to take steps on their own. Here are a few, suggested by others, that make great sense:
▪ A Legislative Analyst Office report last month shows that $1.7 billion remains unspent from a $4 billion flood control bond approved in 2006. The LAO attributed the delay to the lengthy permitting process and complications of allocating funding among state, local and federal sources. That “can take years for individual projects.” In other words, red tape is getting in the way of the public good. That needs to end.
▪ Brown and the Legislature should revisit Proposition 218, the 1996 initiative that restricts local government’s ability to raise taxes to pay for public works. Brown is fully aware of the constraints imposed by Proposition 218, saying in 2015 that it is an “obstacle to thoughtful, sustainable water conservation pricing and necessary flood and stormwater system improvements.”
▪ In addition to altering Proposition 218, lawmakers should seek to lower the vote threshold for approving local taxes for infrastructure such as roads and flood control to 55 percent rather than the current two-thirds. Both steps would require statewide votes, which means we all would have the final say.
Without a doubt, many existing levees and dams need to be shored up and the state should greatly increase storage by expanding and building reservoirs and recharging aquifers.
But if, as the experts say, we are in for continued extreme weather as our climate changes, California must look beyond simply reinforcing levees and dams to battle nature. One environmentally sound solution is right in front of us.
Motorists driving over the Yolo Causeway today see what looks like a huge lake. The Yolo Bypass is one of the most elegant flood-control measures in California. It’s prime farmland during the summer and fall, lush feeding grounds year-round for birds that migrate over the Pacific Flyway, and vast open space for recreation.
It’s also a vital flood-control basin for water that otherwise would top Sacramento River levees. It ought to be replicated in other flood zones, though that might mean buying some low-lying land from property owners. Bypasses may seem extravagant in dry years but should be integral to any long-term flood planning.
The crisis isn’t over. Even if we get no more major storms this year, rivers will remain swollen with runoff for months and levees can fail on warm spring days.
Throughout his decades in office, Brown has tried to think beyond the crisis of the day. The storms of 2017 offer him and legislators a grand opportunity. They should not let it go to waste.