No disaster is entirely natural in our re-engineered state and valley. Owing to our hubris, we humans have a direct hand in them all.
We have built cities on earthquake faults, balanced mansions on hillsides that burn in one season and slide into the ocean in the next, and moor boats in marinas where tsunamis are known to strike.
Having dammed almost all major rivers in California and many tributaries and creeks, we have constructed entire cities in what a century or 150 years ago was swamp, and made islands of rocks piled on peat.
And then the bill comes due.
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The most immediate bill is for the shattered concrete spillway and eroded emergency spillway at Oroville Dam. Reconstruction will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s a debt that must be shouldered by us all.
Direct beneficiaries of the 3.5 million acre-feet of water stored in Lake Oroville will surely pay much of the cost. Altogether, 27 public water agencies serving 26 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland depend on Lake Oroville.
They include the huge Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Kern County farmers, and 3 million people living in Alameda and Santa Clara counties. But they should not bear the entire burden.
All California taxpayers benefit from the dam and the flood control it provides. In December, when Californians were most worried about the drought, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León introduced Senate Bill 5, proposing a statewide vote on a $3 billion bond for water projects and parks.
Parks always are in need and must not be forgotten. But with climate change upon us, we seem destined to toggle between searing drought and raging atmospheric rivers.
De León’s staff is amending the bill to include hundreds of millions of dollars for flood control. Local reclamation districts should be called upon to turn to property owners to come up with matching funding.
The nation has a stake in California’s plumbing, too, and the Trump administration opened the way for federal disaster aid last week, appropriately so.
To underscore the urgency of Gov. Jerry Brown’s request for disaster assistance, Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican whose district includes Oroville, sent a letter to the president signed by 10 other California congressional Republicans including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
In California, the aqueducts, like the freeways, make clear that red and blue California are one. McCarthy’s conservative Kern County district relies on Feather River water, as does the Democratic-dominated Silicon Valley.
The ultimate cost of the damage caused by the storms might not be fully known for weeks or even years. Levees could fail when the sun comes out, as happened 21 years ago, almost to the day.
On Feb. 21, 1986, after nine days of rain, a 150-foot section of levee on the Yuba River gave way, flooding Linda and Olivehurst, as reported by The Los Angeles Times in 2005. Why 2005? That was the year the bill came due.
Having lost an inverse condemnation lawsuit, the state of California in 2005 paid $464 million to about 3,000 landowners whose property was damaged in the 1986 deluge. It was a breathtaking, budget-busting sum. As the article noted, the total was more than the annual budgets of the state’s Department of Parks and Recreation, Department of Fish and Game, or Energy Commission.
In 2005, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger responded with a package of bills to limit future liability and upgrade levees. The main legislative author was then-Assemblyman John Laird, a Santa Cruz Democrat who, as Brown’s resources secretary, now is responsible for Oroville and its repairs.
Although that package ended up getting pared back, the effort led in part to a $4 billion bond, approved by voters in 2006, to carry out flood control work. That money has been spent, which probably is one reason there hasn’t been widespread flooding so far in 2017. But it’s only a matter of time.
Ever since the Gold Rush days, Californians have known what a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officer so bluntly explained: The intensity of flood conditions in the Sacramento Valley was greater than in any other American river system. That assessment was made in 1927, as recounted in “Battling the Inland Sea,” by the late Robert Kelley, a book that should be read by any policymaker who professes to represent this state.
A century and a half ago, Kelley wrote, rivers would spill from their channels, turning the Central Valley into a sea, which would turn into a swamp in summer months. To hold back the water, we have built 1,500 dams and 20,000 miles of levees.
The Department of Water Resources has estimated as much as $52 billion is needed to shore up levees and dams. There’s another $57 billion in deferred maintenance for roads, the focus of much legislative debate. Billions more are needed for school and university construction and maintenance, another form of infrastructure.
They are impossibly large numbers. But this state and its historic ambitions are impossibly large, too. If we are to maintain the lives we have, literally, built for ourselves here, we must ante up, all of us.