Capitol Alert

Amid Oroville emergency, California Legislature moves to make flood-control fixes

As heavy winter storms continue to hammer California, the Legislature is launching a review of dam and levee safety and bracing for major investments necessary to shore up flood control throughout the state.

Amid the ongoing crisis at Oroville Dam, lawmakers have taken only tentative steps so far. The first oversight hearing to review what happened in Oroville is scheduled for next week, and the Senate leader is proposing a one-time funding source for flood protection efforts.

Broader solutions for California’s aging flood-control facilities will likely not emerge for months, until at least the current emergency passes. But long-standing disagreements over how best to resolve the compounding water problems facing the state are already resurfacing, pointing to the challenges ahead for a deal when tax revenue is tight and budget commitments vast.

“The state of California is excellent at reacting. We’re just not very good at being proactive,” said Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres. “At some point, we’ve got to start spending some money on these things.”

An initial plan to provide $500 million in competitive grants to local and regional agencies for flood protection is forthcoming from Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León. The money would be added to the plan for a $3 billion parks and drought recovery bond that de León, D-Los Angeles, is seeking to place on the June 2018 ballot.

The total includes $300 million for water and flood districts in the Central Valley to repair flood-control systems or build new ones. Another $100 million would go primarily to bolster Delta levees, with the remaining $100 million aimed at projects to prevent damage from stormwater and mudslides.

“There is a larger issue we can no longer ignore,” de León said in a statement. “Climate change is here, and it’s real. It is impacting our communities. It is costing our state billions in damage and severely affecting peoples’ lives. California needs to build greater resiliency into its water and flood systems.”

Republicans for years have been pushing for new dams they say would have counteracted the devastation of California’s recent drought. Lawmakers such as Cannella now say the surging waters that cannot be contained by existing facilities prove yet again why more storage is needed.

Assemblyman James Gallagher, a Yuba City Republican who represents the communities threatened by a possible failure at Oroville Dam, was granted special permission to discuss the situation on the Assembly floor Tuesday. He urged his colleagues to “be laser-focused on getting infrastructure right.”

The “boom and bust” cycle of floods and drought has become predictable to California, he said, necessitating “consistent commitment in our budget” to cover current maintenance and construct more “infrastructure that will help protect (us) from devastating floodwaters, while better capturing that water for use during years of drought.”

“Oroville Dam is perhaps the exclamation on that point,” he said.

Those pushing for more surface water storage, which includes some Central Valley Democrats who represent farmers frustrated by waning irrigation deliveries that have fallowed their fields, are likely to encounter resistance. Many Democrats traditionally oppose new reservoirs because of the cost and environmental impact.

Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Los Angeles Democrat who is leading the Senate oversight hearing next week on what caused the situation in Oroville and the state’s response, said it is time for California to find a new water strategy. When it comes to storage, he’s more enthused about efforts to capture stormwater for reuse or to recharge groundwater aquifers.

“I’m interested in the big, grand vision,” he said.

Even commitment to restoring the state’s existing flood protections – a vast network of dams, weirs, bypasses, pumping plants, channels and levees jointly managed by the federal government, California and local districts – may wither when the bill comes due. Another major deal to fix roads and highways has been repeatedly delayed over how to pay for it.

Repairs to the badly damaged spillway at Oroville Dam are estimated at more than $100 million – and there are 33 more storage facilities in the State Water Project alone. The regional flood-management system in the Central Valley consists of nearly 1,600 miles of levees.

In the coming months, the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee plans to conduct hearings to assess what other work may need to be done on flood management systems across the state. Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, a Coachella Democrat who chairs the committee, said he expects to push for maintenance to be a part of the state budget.

“It has to be,” Garcia said.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s Department of Finance would not say whether new flood-control funding will be part of his revised budget proposal in May.

Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-Greenbrae, announced last week that he intends to introduce a bill requiring annual physical inspections of auxiliary spillways at all dams managed by the state and an update of operation manuals.

Attention is also turning to major projects that are outside of California’s purview.

Sen. Ten Gaines, R-El Dorado Hills, on Wednesday sent a letter to President Donald Trump, asking him to order an inspection of federally operated Folsom Dam, a new auxiliary spillway that is nearing completion and any levees downstream that may be affected by spillover or a dam failure.

“Sacramento is one of the most at-risk flood areas in the country,” Gaines wrote in his letter. “A failure of the dam or its spillways would lead to grave consequences for hundreds of thousands, or possibly millions, of people.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff