California dam repairs will cost billions. Can we afford not to spend it?

California’s dam inspectors appear to be doing their jobs well. Unfortunately, too many dam operators are falling down on the job, and could be placing the public at risk.

That’s the message of a report by The Sacramento Bee’s Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler. It’s also a part of life in California. As vast swaths of Southern California smolder from the unusual late-season fires this dry December, people naturally are focusing less on rain, potential flooding or dam safety.

But as climate changes and the Santa Ana winds to the south and the Diablo winds in our region become more pronounced, Californians will have no choice but to invest in flood control and other water-related public works.

Kasler and Sabalow reviewed reports by dam safety inspectors who identified problems at 93 dams, 91 of which are “high hazard,” meaning people live and work downstream. They’re owned by a miss-mash of operators that include local water districts, utilities and the mighty Metropolitan Water District, which provides water to 19 million Southern Californians.

Problems generally are minor, initially, and no dam seems likely to fail any time soon. But small problems can become big problems if left unaddressed. Or as Jeffrey Mount, a water expert at the Public Policy Institute of California, says: “You’re lucky until you’re not.”

That became evident when the Oroville Dam spillway crumbled in February under pressure from the deluge in what would become California’s wettest rainy season on record. The final analysis of what went wrong at Oroville is not complete. But experts believe tree roots clogged the drainage system, undermining the spillway and leading to a $600 million rebuilding project.

A telling example cited by Kasler and Sabalow involves North Fork Dam, which was built in 1939, holds water from the small Pacheco Creek, and, loosely speaking, is operated by the Pacheco Pass Water District in Santa Clara County. Year after year, inspectors cited damage caused by roots and cracks in the spillway. It all went uncorrected until 2016, when the reason for the seemingly lackadaisical approach to safety became evident. The Pacheco Pass district was being dissolved, the inspector noted.

Now, the potential bill is coming into focus. In August, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which hopes to take over the Pacheco district, submitted an application to the California Water Commission seeking $484.5 million to expand the 6,000-acre-foot reservoir to one that would hold 141,000 acre-feet.

The Water Commission is scheduled to meet on Wednesday to consider that request and 10 others like it. Competition will be stiff. The commission has $2.7 billion to allocate for water storage as part of the $7.5 billion Proposition 1 bond approved by voters in 2014. Requests total four times that $2.7 billion.

The Department of Water Resources estimates the cost of repairing dams statewide could be $5 billion. And there are many obstacles to raising money, not the least of which is that a 1996 initiative requires that dam owners obtain a two-thirds vote from affected people to raise taxes to pay for repairs.

Uncle Sam evidently will be little help, despite President Donald Trump’s promise that he would invest heavily in infrastructure. Congress seems incapable of funding public works. Congress last year approved legislation supposedly to help reinforce dams, but authorized a mere $10 million nationwide for the current year, and $445 million over 10 years. None of the money has been appropriated.

In 2011, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that a mega-storm of the sort that has struck California before could cause $725 billion in damage. The Central Valley Flood Protection Board estimates that we must spend as much as $21 billion during the next three decades to prepare for Central Valley floods. Statewide, the number exceeds $50 billion.

As we have written before and since the Oroville spillway crumbled, Californians must face the hard costs of living in this re-engineered state. Though the cost is high, the price of not acting could be huge.

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