Water bill would aid flood control in California

Michael DoyleMcClatchy Newspapers

Flood control projects in California’s Central Valley get a boost in a long-awaited water resources bill now flowing toward final congressional approval.

Under the tiller of some well-placed California lawmakers, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act authorizes major levee work protecting the likes of Sacramento County’s Natomas Basin, the Stanislaus County town of Newman and the Sutter County town of Yuba City.

“Sacramento faces some of the nation’s most severe flood risks,” noted Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., adding that she is “pleased that this bipartisan legislation includes critical flood control that protects lives and property in California.”

Boxer chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, putting her in the middle of the water resources legislation that by tradition is supposed to get passed every two years. The House and Senate passed their respective versions of the latest legislation last year.

The 532-page conference report, reflecting final congressional negotiations, is now set for passage next week. It’s all-but assured of victory, as the Republican-controlled House passed its original version by a 417-3 margin and the Democratic majority Senate approved its bill, 83-14.

The House is set to act Tuesday, and the Senate is expected to follow shortly thereafter.

The package authorizes Army Corps of Engineers’ projects, but for many, subsequent votes will be needed to provide actual dollars.

Some of these projects are huge. The final bill, for instance, authorizes more than $1.1 billion to strengthen the levees in the Natomas Basin, according to Boxer. Officials say this will safeguard more than 100,000 residents and protect more than $7 billion in property.

Other projects are more modest, though equally pressing for those directly involved. The bill, for instance, authorizes approximately $45 million for flood control measures in the San Joaquin River Basin to protect Newman. The project includes more than four miles of levees designed to withstand a 200-year flood.

“This is a huge step for the community of Newman and all of the groups who have been involved in pushing this project forward,” said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., adding that he was “pleased to see years of effort pay off.”

Denham serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which is the counterpart to the Senate panel chaired by Boxer.

The bill authorizes approximately $689 million for flood control measures in the Sutter River Basin, including Yuba City. The project would strengthen 41 miles of existing levees.

Beyond dollars and cents, the bill guides regulators. Levee safety and the Corps of Engineers’ levee vegetation policies, important to lawmakers like Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., are addressed in several ways. The bill, for instance, requires the Army corps to update its guidelines for the removal of vegetation from levees after seeking public input.

It also streamlines some corps studies in an effort to speed up needed work, and accelerates funding of projects from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.

The bill’s final cost hasn’t yet been estimated by the Congressional Budget Office. Over the next 10 years, though, it’s expected to fall somewhere between the Senate’s $12.5 billion version and the House’s $8.2 billion measure.

By Michael Doyle
McClatchy Washington Bureau