July 2005

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Levee Costs are Breaking the Bank
By Robert Dutton

Senator Bob Dutton represents the 31st Senate District which includes parts of Riverside and San Bernardino County.

California's flood control systems – the levees, weirs, and dams that steer rivers and streams throughout our state – are in many ways as important to our State’s economy as our highways.

First and foremost, levees defend lives and property from raging flood waters. But state levees also shield the fresh water that flows into the State Water Project from salty ocean tides, protecting the water supply for millions of people who live in the Central Valley and Southern California. Some of our flood control systems also guide commercial waterways. Like our highways, decades of neglect have left this crucial part of California’s infrastructure crumbling.

The Legislature is now considering a comprehensive flood control protection program for the Central Valley, estimated now at $2 billion. Some of the proposals for financing that exorbitant amount include new taxes. The Legislature is also considering an exemption from the voter approved Proposition 218 – that would allow local agencies to raise fees and assessments on homeowners without the approval of affected residents.

No one denies the importance of flood control, but before we propose new taxes and gut taxpayer protections to pay for it, a thorough regulatory and financial review of the existing program is overdue.

Clearly, the dam has broken on project costs. A recent report by the state Department of Water Resources noted that the cost of levee repair has skyrocketed from $300 per linear foot in the 1980s to $5,000 today, nearly a twenty-fold increase! Project costs and delays are also putting lives, property and taxpayers at serious risk, playing a key role in several preventable disasters.

The primary culprit in delaying levee projects and inflating costs is the interpretation of our environmental laws by both federal and state bureaucrats. Today, at least five different agencies enforce laws related to endangered and threatened species, clean water, and environmental quality. As some local reclamation officials have described, these agencies often compete with each other to impose the harshest regulations on flood control projects.

For instance, the Endangered Species Act simply requires all projects where a listed species is involved to include “no net loss” of habitat.  Federal regulators, however, often require a five-to-one mitigation ratio when that habitat is vegetation. Such was the mandate on a levee project in Yuba County north of Sacramento in 1990, where the local reclamation district spent $10 million on environmental mitigation for a $3 - $4 million repair. Part of the expense came from an order from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to mitigate the destruction of 43 elderberry bushes — home to a beetle that had never been spotted in Yuba County. USFWS required five new bushes be planted for every stem of more than one inch in diameter on the 43 bushes to be removed, totaling 1,538 elderberry bushes. The district acquired 76 acres of a nearby peach grove to comply and spent a total of $1.9 million on the project. That’s about $44,000 per bush. The Pentagon’s infamous $600 toilet seat is a relative bargain.

But the greatest tragedy was not the expense. The extensive mitigation delayed this crucial levee work for six years. Five months before project construction could begin, the levee broke on January 2, 1997, killing three people and flooding 25 square miles.

Similar regulatory restrictions and delays are restricting or preventing the proper maintenance of flood channels. The Mojave River flood earlier this year was caused by overgrowth of vegetation, and did $80 million in damage. Due to regulatory impediments, San Bernardino County had shut down its maintenance of the flood channel eight years earlier. Likewise, regulators thwarted the removal of massive build-ups of silt and vegetation in the Pajaro River in Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties over decades, with edicts such as a requirement that shovels be used instead of bulldozers. With channel capacity reduced by 20%, the rivers levees gave way in 1995 and caused over $350 million in damage.

Flood disasters such as these will have added costs of their own in the future: a court ruled recently that the State is liable for damages caused by poorly maintained levees. That same ruling led to a $450 million settlement this year to victims of a 1986 breach, money that will come directly from state taxpayers. In other words, this affects us all directly, whether we live in a flood plain or not. As levees deteriorate further, our liability only increases.

Consumers are rightly concerned about the doubling of gas prices in the last five years. They should be just as concerned about levee costs that have increased seventeen times, and even more so when that looming expense prevents maintenance and repairs altogether. Making the situation all the more unacceptable are the regulatory delays of five to ten years on a levee system DWR itself describes as a “ticking time bomb.”

Recent events demonstrate that the regulatory system overseeing levee maintenance is in as much disrepair as the levees themselves, dangerously so. A truly comprehensive flood control program for the State of California must evaluate and address the weaknesses of both.

(c) 2005 California Taxpayers' Association