The state Legislature wrapped up its business for the year without passing substantial land use legislation. A bill addressing Central Valley flooding threats failed to even get a vote in the state Senate, despite the attention focused on the flood catastrophe Louisiana. Bills seeking to alter eminent domain or redevelopment authority also failed to pass.

Before adjourning on September 8, the Legislature did pass a handful of housing bills aimed at getting local governments to approve more units. But even housing advocates offered faint praise of lawmakers’ production this year. Many lobbyists, Capitol staff members and even lawmakers said 2005 was one of the Legislature’s least productive years in memory. When lawmakers returned in August from their summer recess, the normal mad rush to pass bills never occurred because both lawmakers and the Schwarzenegger administration were focused on the November special election for eight initiatives.

A much-discussed housing package from the administration never materialized in bill form. Neither did an anticipated agreement between the League of California Cities and the California Building Industry Association. A promised Democratic bill to amend the California Environmental Quality Act to ease housing projects remained only a promise.

Legislation related to flood control appeared as if it would gain new momentum during the Legislature’s final 10 days based on the Hurricane Katrina disaster in the Gulf Coast. Lawmakers did approve one minor bill, AB 1200 by Assemblyman John Laird (D-Santa Cruz). The measure requires the departments of Water Resources and Fish and Game, as part of a current study of Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta levees, to evaluate the potential impacts of Delta levee failure and rate options for addressing the risks. A report is due to the Legislature in 2008.

Laird’s more substantial flood bill, AB 1665, passed the Assembly after significant amendments but never got out of committee in the Senate. As originally written, the bill would have created the Central Valley Flood Control Assessment District to tax lands in a floodplain or that drain to a floodplain. The massive district would have replaced the state Reclamation Board, a small agency that now oversees Central Valley flood control.

The bill passed the Assembly only after Laird removed the assessment provisions. During the Legislature’s final days – with about 1 million people in Louisiana displaced because of flooding — Laird amended the legislation to require the Board to map areas at risk of flooding and to notify landowners annually if their property is within a levee protection zone. Real estate interests opposed the notification requirement.

“After New Orleans, people looked a little differently on the bill,” Laird said after the session ended. However, he said, the New Orleans catastrophe occurred late in the Legislature’s year, and moving a substantial flood bill during the final week was too difficult.

“All the way along, it was designed to be the administration’s bill. But the administration never really vetted all the issues with the interest groups early on,” Laird said. He declined to characterize those who were against AB 1665 as the “opposition.”

“It’s not opposition. It’s different interests in the solution,” said Laird, who vowed to return with legislation in 2006. Developers believe they have the right to build, and farmers believe they should not be penalized for problems created by urban growth, and neither of those groups wants to pay more than their fair share, Laird said.

Laird estimated that fixing California’s levees would cost “in the billions. The alternative, as we have seen with Katrina, is billions and billions of dollars in recovery costs.”

The assessment district proposed by Laird and the administration — and a companion bill, ACA 13, which would have exempted the district from Proposition 218’s election requirement — went nowhere this year. After lawmakers concluded their year, state Senate President Pro Tempore Don Perata (D-Oakland) restated his intention to pursue a large bond that would fund levee improvements, in addition to transportation and port projects.

Gov. Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, urged the federal government to provide $90 million that Congress authorized last year for California flood protection. Schwarzenegger recommended most of the money be spent on projects near Sacramento, which, the governor noted, has the lowest level of flood protection of any major urban area in the country.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein and U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Tracy) also urged the Army Corps of Engineers to pony up the money approved by Congress

“If we don’t address this problem, we may suffer the same fate as Louisiana — it’s just a matter of time,” Feinstein and Pombo wrote to the Army Corps of Engineers. “A massive Delta levee failure could severely harm the area’s farms, its rapidly growing towns and the majority of the state’s water supply, which passes through the Delta.”

Underlying everything, of course, is the issue of land use in flood-prone areas. Laird called land use “an incredibly thorny issue,” but one that must be addressed at some point.

“There is a significant number of people both inside and outside the Legislature that are asking the question of whether we should be building thousands of homes that on their best days have 100-year flood protection,” Laird said.

Members of the Reclamation Board are among the people asking that question. In September, the board approved a policy for the agency to comment on development proposed in areas protected by levees. The Reclamation Board has commented only selectively in the past, but will now start sending standard letters to every city and county reviewing projects behind levees, said Steve Bradley, the board’s chief engineer.

“It’s not just 1 or 10 or 100 houses anymore. It’s 10,000,” Bradley said of the scope of development in the flood-prone areas. “We’re getting tons of development going on right behind our levees. People are thinking these levees are providing more protection than we think they are. A lot of these levees have never been certified.”

The issue is not simply the height of levees, Bradley said, it is their structural stability. In fact, most of the major Central Valley floods during the last 20 years resulted from levee failure, not from water overtopping a levee. The Central Valley and the Delta have something on the order of 1,600 miles of levees, many of which were built during the early 20th Century with little engineering and from whatever material was available.

The Reclamation Board’s interest in local land use, however, stirred up a great deal of controversy. Less than two weeks after the board approved its new policy, Schwarzenegger replaced the entire board with seven new members.

Still, the former Reclamation Board members are not the only ones with doubts about the levees. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said in August it will start requiring local governments to certify that levees in their jurisdictions can withstand a 100-year storm. If certification is not provided, FEMA will require property owners to buy flood insurance.

Local governments are looking anew at the levee system. In San Joaquin County, where several rapidly growing cities rely on levees, the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to start conducting special hearings this month. San Joaquin County Supervisor Jack Sieglock said he wants a complete study of the levee system’s governance, funding and stability.

San Joaquin County has no fewer than 51 reclamation districts that are responsible for levees. The county needs to consider whether governance options are needed, Sieglock said.

“This is an opportune time. The Legislature is paying attention. People are paying attention,” Sieglock said. “This is important to the entire state, not just to San Joaquin County or Stockton.”

Indeed, a major levee failure in the Delta could cause a saltwater intrusion that shuts down the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project for an extended period. Some experts have predicted that a major Delta levee failure, possibly caused by an earthquake, is more likely than not before 2050.

Assemblyman John Laird, (916) 319-2027.
Steve Bradley, State Reclamation Board, (916) 574-0609.
San Joaquin County Supervisor Jack Sieglock, (209) 468-3113.
Department of Water Resources: