California Advances Funds to Army Corps for Critical Levee Repair

WASHINGTON, DC, April 6, 2006 (ENS) - California Department of Water Resources (DWR) Director Lester Snow told Congress Thursday that the state will advance funds to the federal government for repairs to California’s failing levees. The levees hold back flood waters during winter storm events.

In testimony before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Water and Power, Snow announced that California will provide approximately $30 million in advance funds for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to repair 10 of the 24 most critical erosion sites on California’s ailing levee system.

Most of these critical sites are along the Sacramento River.

"California cannot wait years to complete the repair of erosion sites the Corps has already designated as critical," Snow said in his testimony. "Therefore, Governor [Arnold] Schwarzenegger has pledged funds from state reserves so that emergency repairs can be made this year without waiting for traditional cost-sharing."

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Lester Snow is director of the California Department of Water Resources. He has experience as a water agency manager at the regional, state and federal levels. (Photo courtesy CDWR)
The state will also be seeking federal credit for the advance payments and is requesting expedited permitting processes by federal agencies to complete repairs for the other critical sites.

"The business as usual approach will eventually result in a catastrophic flood that will destroy businesses and take lives," Snow told the subcommittee. "To avoid catastrophe, we must eliminate this backlog of repairs."

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta faces the greatest flood threat from winter storms. The 700,000 acre region in California's Central Valley is where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers come together in a maze of channels and sloughs and flow to San Francisco Bay.

Like New Orleans, these are lands with elevations below sea level that are protected by fragile levees.

Snow said the flood threat from winter storms has grown over time as the Delta islands have subsided, requiring taller levees to protect them.

"Today we recognize that global climate change poses additional threats. The careful hydrologic records we have kept since the 1940s have already documented the changes that are taking place."

"Over the next century we expect sea level in the Delta channels to rise by a foot or more. At the same time, we expect warmer storms to produce higher peak flood flows," he said.

San Joaquin County Supervisor Jack Sieglock told the subcommittee that "investing money today and not waiting 10 years, 20 years" is the best solution. "We need to be proactive" and not reactive with planning for a levee breech, he said.

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High wind and flood conditions on February 7, 1998 on a section of the Delta known as the Webb Tract. (Photo courtesy CDWR)
Subcommittee Chairman George Radanovich, a California Republican, said, "Today's hearing gave us a better grasp of the abilities and capabilities of the local governments' efforts at improving the safety and security of the Delta, and what deficiencies exist so that we know what additional efforts are required to solve our two-part problem of levee security and water storage."

On the Senate side Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved an amendment sponsored by California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, that would provide $22.3 million to strengthen California levees and flood control.

Last fall, Congress provided $41 million for the highest priority levee restoration and flood control projects in fiscal year 2006.

"Breaches today in Central Valley levees illustrate that this funding is urgently needed," Senator Feinstein said. "This funding would contribute to achieving 100-year flood protection for 95 percent of Sacramento. And it funds long-term planning efforts."

On a tour of California flood control infrastructure earlier this year, Feinstein said she saw, "beautiful communities, subdivisions, farms, and businesses protected by simple earthen levees."

"A major storm or earthquake could lead to major flooding, loss of property, and loss of life," the senator said. "A major earthquake could bring the state to a halt. No levees equals no water for two-thirds of the state. No water equals no economy. And no economy equals no jobs."

California Senator Barbara Boxer, also a Democrat, said, "The San Joaquin Delta levees are extremely vulnerable to collapse, threatening 2/3 of California’s water supply and the safety of our communities. Without this extra funding, the Army Corps’ work to assess and improve our levees in the Delta would have stopped next month."

The federal government has traditionally been a partner to states and communities in providing funding for flood control repairs and improvements.

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Crews work to reinforce a Delta levee at Bouldin Island. 1998. (Photo courtesy CDWR)
Back in the House subcommittee hearing today Snow explained that using conventional processes and funding mechanisms would have hindered the Corps’ ability to complete even five of the critical sites during this calendar year.

"Many of our levees were built as part of the federal flood control system more than a century ago using primitive designs and construction techniques. These levees have been further weakened by deferred maintenance," Snow told the legislators. "Funding for maintenance and repair of levees has dwindled over time as governments at the federal, state, and local level struggle to meet all their financial commitments."

"Meanwhile," he said, "escalating development in floodplains increases the potential for flood damage to homes, businesses, and communities." All together, more than $47 billion in infrastructure is protected by central valley levees.

By taking the lead on these 10 sites during this emergency, the federal government will help the state concentrate on completing repairs at the other 14 critical erosion sites throughout the year.

Brigadier General Joseph Schroedel, with the Army Corps of Engineers, summed it up, telling the panel, "It's time for action, it's time to stop studying. Not 10 years from now. Now!"

Snow urged the Subcommittee to appropriate funding for traditional federal-state cost-shares and to authorize new funding for emergency preparedness and levee repair work by the Corps in the Delta.

Congressman Richard Pombo, a California Republican who represents Stockton and chairs the House Resources Committee, commented on the ongoing study of the levee situation now being conducted by the Army Corps.

"While we impatiently await the completion of the Corps 180-day study, we know that preventative measures are the only way to help secure the Delta and continue to seek a solution to our growing security risk," Pombo said. "I cannot stress enough that it's not a matter of if and when, but rather how fast we can get this done."

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Van Sickle Island levee project during the storm on January 11, 2001 (Photo courtesy CDWR)
City of Stockton Vice-Mayor Gary Giovanetti told the legislators that when combined with failing levees, lack of proper water storage causes catastrophic results. "We don't have a water supply problem in the Delta," he said, "we have a water storage problem."

On February 24, 2006, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for California’s levee system and signed an Executive Order instructing DWR to repair 24 critical levee erosion sites in the counties of Colusa, Sacramento, Solano, Yolo, and Yuba.

Since then, DWR has been conducting various field and environmental surveys of the affected areas and has begun designs to repair each of the sites. Repairs are scheduled to begin this summer and be completed by the end of this year.

Levee maintenance and repair projects ordinarily require several environmental permits before they can proceed, and environmental permitting has sometimes been blamed for delaying levee projects, Snow explained.

To address this situation, last year Snow convened a committee of policy-level managers from state and federal agencies to consider how to "avoid, minimize, or mitigate for the environmental impacts of levee work in ways that would allow the projects to be implemented quickly."

"One tool we are investigating is the use of mitigation banks," said Snow, "so that project mitigation is taken care of in advance of the levee work itself."

A mitigation bank is a wetland, stream, or other aquatic resource area that has been restored, established, enhanced, or preserved to provide compensation for unavoidable impacts to aquatic resources permitted under a federal, state or local wetland regulation. The value of a bank is defined in compensatory mitigation credits.

Snow's informal committee now proposes to formalize and expand itself as a Levee Repair Executive Oversight Committee to see that the federal and state agencies responsible for permitting and environmental compliance work together to perform the critical levee repair work this year.