Water & Drought

California flood control called a life and death crisis, but federal funding is uncertain

Experts say California’s Oroville dam crisis demonstrates the life-and-death urgency of federal spending to upgrade aging dams. But there are doubts about whether President Donald Trump will agree.

California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird told the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday that further deterioration of the nation’s aging flood control and water infrastructure systems will put lives at risk.

He said the Oroville crisis, in which nearly 200,000 people were ordered to evacuate last month out of fear of catastrophic flooding, had brought necessary attention to the issues.

“We should use the opportunity presented by this situation to invest in existing infrastructure and fund innovative projects that leverage science to meet the challenge of extreme weather,” he said.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., brought up the flood vulnerability of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the center of a bitter debate over whether water goes to farmers or wildlife.

“That seems to occupy a lot of the discussion about the Delta. But I’m concerned about another point, which is that we may not have that debate if the infrastructure that supports the Delta is compromised,” Harris said.

Trump told Congress on Tuesday that he would ask for a $1 trillion package “financed through both public and private capital” to improve the nation’s infrastructure.

But administration officials and congressional leaders have indicated the focus is likely more on tax credits and public-private partnerships, such as toll roads, than on new federal investment.

Dams need federal dollars, Larry Larson, director emeritus of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, told the Senate committee Wednesday.

“Private financing will not suffice. We’re going to have to have substantial federal investment in this, as well as state and local investment,” Larson said.

Larson said the Oroville crisis, along with 80 failures of smaller dams in South Carolina over the past two years, should represent a wake-up call for the nation.

“Perhaps we were not far from a failure in northern California that would have immediate flooding consequences for tens of thousands of people and left the state’s water supply vulnerable to severe shortage,” Larson testified.

Trump is light on specifics when discussing his infrastructure plan. So it’s not clear exactly what he has in mind and whether federal investment in dams will be part of it.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said Trump’s speech to Congress on Tuesday night was “preciously short on how you pay for this, which is always the challenge: how to pay for stuff.”

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo. said he was open to spending money on dams.

“I believe any infrastructure bill this committee develops should consider the need to modernize and maintain these structures,” Barrasso said.

California Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday redirected $50 million and asked the state Legislature for an additional $387 million for immediate flood control and emergency response.

California Natural Resources Secretary Laird said the state’s longer-term flood control challenges included climate change and potential earthquakes. A 1-foot sea level rise would cause the western Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to see a level of flooding every 10 years that usually would be once in 100 years.

“If there were a major seismic event and a number of these levees failed, salt water would actually drain from the San Francisco Bay into the Delta and you would have a real difficult time recovering farmland,” he said.

The area is the heart of a California agricultural industry that produces half the nation’s fruits and vegetables.

“It’s a huge ticket to do all the repair work that might need to be done,” Laird said.

Sean Cockerham: 202-383-6016, @seancockerham