A little more than a year after hurricane Katrina turned New Orleans into a real-life Atlantis and focused scrutiny on flood-imperiled cities nationwide, California voters will be asked this fall to spend billions to prevent a Katrina-size disaster in the heart of their own state. But despite widespread agreement that something must be done about the aging system of levees, the $4.09 billion flood bond’s prospects on November 7 seem uncertain at best.

For one thing, voters appear to be in a tight-fisted mood. Offered relatively painless opportunities to spend money on two feel-good programs — borrowing to build libraries and taxing rich people to finance pre-school — voters on June 6 rejected both propositions by wide margins. The November general election could be an even more troubling environment for spending proposals.

The flood measure is one of five major bonds on the November ballot. The collective price tag is a record-setting $42 billion, a deluge of prospective borrowing big enough to daunt even the most spendthrift voter. The money would finance everything from school and road construction to low-income housing, water projects, and habitat conservation.

The flood-protection bond also is carrying some extra political baggage. Levee repairs financed by the bond proceeds would be largely exempted from the rigorous analysis requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). That exemption is contained not in the bond bill, but in separate legislation, AB 1039, by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) and signed by the governor on May 19. That legislation also extends the CEQA exemption to seismic retrofit work conducted with the proceeds of a highway bond also on the November ballot.

Water and flood-protection districts have long sought CEQA exemptions for their favorite projects, and appending such a clause to the bond might have posed a thorny dilemma for environmental advocates. Flood projects typically have the potential to disrupt riparian and aquatic ecosystems, some of the most vulnerable and compromised elements of California’s natural heritage. But actively campaigning against the bond measure because of the associated CEQA loophole would put die-hard environmentalists in the position of arguing that fish and trees are more important than farmers and homeowners.

Environmental organizations so far have declined to take issue with the CEQA exemption. The bill was tailored to apply only to repairs of existing structures, not their enlargement or relocation, minimizing its effect.

The Sierra Club, “concentrated on trying to insure that there would be no CEQA jailbreaks in the bonds, and it appears there were not,” state Legislative Director Bill Allayaud wrote to the group’s members,

The flood bond’s more significant potential liability is its conflation of two related but distinctly different threats: possible collapse of the aging network of farm levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, and inadequate protection for urbanizing floodplains in and around Sacramento. The bond measure mashes them together and throws wads of money at the whole mess, leaving the precise allocation among competing ideas and priorities unspecified and subject to future negotiations between the Legislature and the governor. Yet the two problems have very different origins, involve very different sets of public-policy decisions, and have different long-term solutions.

The threat in the Delta clearly has statewide significance. Some 1,100 miles of earthen levees form a precarious barrier protecting land that is generally below sea level. The Department of Water Resources (DWR) last year concluded that a moderate earthquake on one of the many seismic faults west of the Delta would cause at least 30 breaks. That would flood 3,000 homes and 85,000 acres of cropland, close the Port of Stockton and two highways, disrupt electricity and natural-gas supplies, and send 300 billion gallons of sea water toward the pumps supplying drinking and irrigation water to two-thirds of California through the Central Valley Project and State Water Project.

The other Central Valley flooding issue pertains to urban development in the floodplains of the Sacramento and American rivers. Multiple dams and 1,600 miles of levees protect about 400,000 people in and around Sacramento, which faces the highest risk of flooding of any major American city, according to the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency (SAFCA). The agency has spent more than $300 million during the past 10 years repairing, strengthening and raising levees, and estimates it needs to spend twice that much again.

However, it is hard to make the argument that taxpayers statewide have an obligation to defend floodplain development in the Sacramento region. Supporters of the flood bond may find it difficult to craft a clear campaign pitch for a measure that makes no meaningful distinction between the two types of threats.

The fact that development continues unabated in the flood prone Central Valley may not help the campaign, either. According to an analysis of regional development plans conducted in Katrina’s wake by the Sacramento Bee, at least 115,000 new homes are in the pipeline for land in the valley that is protected by levees and has been flooded repeatedly in the past. The total, according to the newspaper’s analysis, could be as high as 170,000 units, but no one really knows because no single agency keeps track.

“Levees are piles of dirt,” Jonas Minton, a former deputy director at DWR now with the Planning and Conservation League, told the Bee. “They have a tendency to fail. If people are living behind levees, many feet below the water surface, it is only a matter of time ’til some of them flood.”

The flood bond does contain one unambiguous objective: It would commit the state to developing a formal Central Valley flood plan to replace the mishmash of statutes and structures that have developed over the past century without any real coordination or oversight. According to Alf Brandt, a consultant to the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife, this comprehensive approach is a direct response to the landmark decision in Paterno v. State of California (113 Cal.App.4th 998; see CP&DR Legal Digest, January 2004). In Paterno, the Third District Court of Appeal concluded that the state’s acceptance of substandard levees made it legally and financially responsible for the failure of those structures even if it had nothing to do with building or maintaining them.

Alf Brandt, Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife, (916) 319-2096.
Bill Allayaud, Sierra Club, (916) 557-1100.
Disaster Preparedness and Flood Prevention Bond Act of 2006: http://leginfo.ca.gov/pub/bill/asm/ab_0101-0150/ab_140_bill_20060519_chaptered.html