By Dave Sorem, P.E. ECA Government Affairs Chairman email: [email protected]

California Governor Jerry Brown announced plans late last month to raid the water bond funds approved by voters in November 2014 to “improve flood protection” following the storms this winter, but not to fix the flood damaged Oroville dam in Butte County.

The Democratic Governor’s plan announced at a press conference February 24th, would spend $50 million from the general fund and “repurpose” $387 million from the $7.5-billion water bond. Proposition 1 was sold to voters as a way to build NEW storage dams and improve aging water system infrastructure. Flood control wasn’t a hot item in the public relations run up to the election.

The cost of repairing Oroville Dam’s spillways will be paid for by the customers of the 20 water districts that depend on the dam as one of their primary storage facilities, according to the state Department of Finance. The plan is very sketchy about how the bond raid money will be used for specific projects.

Money Not the Problem

California voters have passed eight water bonds since 2000 and there were $11.8 billion in unsold “natural resources” bonds as of the end of 2016, including $7.4 billion from Proposition 1. The Governor’s budget proposes almost $1.3 billion in natural resources bond sales through December 2017. The state also is spending $634 million, left over from Proposition 1E and Proposition 84 (both passed in 2006) bond money, for flood control over the next two years.

Brown also is asking the federal government to streamline the environmental regulatory review to make repairs to the 770- foot earthen dam. During the last round of federal licensing for the dam in 2005 environmental groups and local officials called for concrete armoring of the emergency spillway area that threatened to collapse during the recent storms, but they were ignored then and won’t be heard now.

Fed Help on the Way

On Valentine’s Day, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced that federal disaster assistance had been made available to California to supplement recovery efforts in the areas affected by severe winter storms, flooding and mudslides from January 3 to January 12, 2017.

Federal funding is available to state, tribal, eligible local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work and the repair or replacement of facilities damaged by severe winter storms, flooding, and mudslides in 33 northern and central California counties. Funding is also available on a cost-sharing basis for hazard mitigation measures statewide.

Timothy J. Scranton was been named as the federal coordinating officer for recovery operations in the affected area. Scranton said additional designations “may be made at a later date if requested by the state and warranted by the results of further damage assessments.”

Meanwhile, Back at the Legislature

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, who may be a candidate for governor next year, is talking up a plan to provide $500 million in competitive grants to local and regional agencies for flood protection. 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 scheme 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.

Senator Bob Hertzberg, a Van Nuys Democrat who is leading the Senate oversight committee hearings 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 said he was excited about efforts to capture stormwater for reuse or to recharge groundwater aquifers—but didn’t mention new dams.

Republicans and some Central Valley Democrats, frustrated by the State Water Resources Control Board’s iron-fisted handling of irrigation deliveries, are pushing for more surface storage projects but are still encountering resistance. Big city Democrats have made careers out of opposing new reservoirs because of active opposition from environmental groups and aren’t likely to change.

Another problem is the short attention spans in Sacramento, so when the rains stop, there is fear that attention to storage will disappear. While the voters approved $2.7 billion for new storage projects in the northern half of the state (nothing south Bakersfield) no new dams have emerged from the bureaucratic process. With all the trouble from the floods, state bureaucrats will push the new dams further into the future while they scramble to fix the old ones.