Capitol Alert

Trump could divert money from Folsom Dam to fund a border wall; Democrats vow a fight

President Donald Trump is reportedly considering raiding disaster recovery funding — including more than $1.7 billion for Sacramento-area flood protection projects — to help pay for a wall on the southern border.

Congressional Democrats are promising a fight.

“Congress allocated these taxpayer dollars for vital flood protection projects all over the country, including projects that safeguard Sacramento and over half a million of my constituents,” Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento said in a statement. “It’s unconscionable that President Trump wants to take Sacramento’s flood protection funding away to build his border wall, which he repeated, time and time again, that Mexico would pay for.”

According to members of Northern California’s congressional delegation, the White House is weighing a plan to tap $5 billion in supplemental appropriations that Congress approved for the Army Corps of Engineers to finance urgent flood-control projects in California and Puerto Rico. This includes more than $1.7 billion for Sacramento projects, such as elevating the height of Folsom Dam.

“This allocation of resources was designated because the Corps of Engineers recognized the severe flood risk Sacramento faces, as the second-most flood prone major city in America,” Matsui’s office said.

Yuba County is also worried about losing $13.5 million in funding for a flood-control project to protect Marysville.

“The Marysville Ring Levee project is an essential lifesaving project for our community,” said Curt Aikens, general manager of the Yuba Water Agency. “We’re hopeful the administration will fully fund the project to completion and not redirect money away it, which would leave the city of Marysville at increased risk of future flooding.”

The White House is looking at ways to fund the wall on the border with Mexico that Trump promised during his 2016 campaign. The federal government shut down in late December after the president and Democratic negotiators failed to reach a deal on funding for the wall in a year-end spending bill. Trump has demanded more than $5 billion for the project, which Democrats have argued is a waste of money.

With the government now on Day 21 of the shutdown, and federal workers beginning to miss paychecks, the White House has sought other ways to end the standoff. In one scenario, the president could declare a national emergency, which gives the executive branch additional powers in the midst of a crisis. Among other things, that would allow the administration to re-route the funding from civil works projects towards wall construction.

In Sacramento, the $1.7 billion at stake involves several projects that would help bring the Sacramento region to 300-year flood protection by 2024. These include raising Folsom Dam by three feet; upgrading levees in the Pocket and Little Pocket neighborhoods on the Sacramento River; protecting levees on both the Sacramento and American Rivers from potentially dangerous erosion; and widening the Sacramento Weir to release more water into the Yolo Bypass.

Richard Johnson, executive director of the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency, said Friday he had not yet talked to Army Corps officials about the potential for funding to be diverted. But he is taking the prospect seriously.

“We are preparing, if this does occur, to go back and make a case for ourselves,” he told McClatchy.

According to the office of U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat from Walnut Grove, seven flood-control projects totaling $2.46 billion in California could be affected by Trump’s proposal. Another $2.5 billion in projects for Puerto Rico could also be affected.

Members of the California congressional delegation say Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers, accompanied the president to Texas on Thursday to discuss the projects. The headquarters of the Army Corps did not immediately respond for comment.

Any diversion of funds would also almost certainly invite legal challenges.

“Under no circumstance are these funds to be used to fund the president pet project so he can claim a win. There is no emergency on the border,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, said in a statement. “If necessary, my colleagues and I will use every available method to stop him in this effort.”

In brief comments at the White House Friday, Trump urged Democrats to “come back and vote” to fund the wall and reopen the government. Asked about the potential of using his executive authority to build the wall, he said: “What we’re not looking to do right now is national emergency.”

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Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.
Stuart Leavenworth is a national correspondent for McClatchy, covering the environment, science, energy and other assignments. He landed in DC in 2017 after three years in China, as McClatchy’s Beijing Bureau Chief. Previously he worked at The Sacramento Bee and (Raleigh) News & Observer. His work has been recognized by the National Press Foundation, Best of the West and other journalism groups.