California governor plans to spend nearly $450 million on flood control but says more needed

Floodwaters surround homes and cars on February 22, 2017, in San Jose, California.
Noah Berger | AFP | Getty Images

California Gov. Jerry Brown said Friday he wants to spend about $450 million for flood control but concedes billions more in water infrastructure spending is needed over the longer term.

The heavy winter storms in California have stressed the state's aging flood-control systems, ranging from significant erosion damage to spillways at Oroville Dam to flooding in major cities such as San Jose. Brown estimated "nearly $50 billion" of needs still remain in the state's flood management infrastructure.

"What's required is to take some immediate action, which we're doing," Brown said during a press conference announcing his four-point plan, which is designed "to bolster dam safety and flood protection."

As part of near-term flood control and emergency response actions, Brown asked the state legislature to immediately approve $387 million from the state's Proposition One money, or water bond funds, authorized by voters in 2014. He also requested the state redirect $50 million from its general fund to address the challenges.

Brown also reached out to the federal government for assistance on the regulation and funding of dams and flood control projects in the state. As part of the effort, Brown sent a letter Friday to President Donald Trump seeking an "expedited environmental review" of 10 "high-priority projects," including the urgent repairs at Oroville Dam.

The governor wants the feds to "expand inspection and review of all federally-owned dams." Moreover, Brown wants assistance to update the federal operating manuals for key California reservoirs and asked Washington to help share the burden of spending money on flood control projects.

Shasta Dam — the largest reservoir in the state — is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Brown also ordered emergency action plans and flood inundation maps be available for all dams in the state.

Many of the state's dams are more than 40 years old and have not updated emergency plans on a regular basis.

In the case of Northern California's Oroville Dam, the emergency action plan is updated annually, according to Ted Thomas, a spokesman for the California Department of Water Resources. However, he said the state isn't authorized to release it since the document is considered "classified" and what's known as "confidential energy infrastructure information."

Oroville Dam, completed in the late 1960s, suffered significant erosion damage to its primary and emergency spillways earlier this month. Fears of a catastrophic failure to the emergency spillway, which was activated for the first time on Feb. 11, ultimately led to the mandatory evacuation of more than 100,000 residents downstream.

Earlier this week, the governor visited Oroville Dam — the nation's tallest earthen dam — and spoke to experts about progress to fix the erosion. Work continued Friday to place rock, aggregate and cement slurry into areas of the emergency spillway affected by erosion.

The 2016 National Inventory of Dams shows there are nearly 300 "high-hazard potential dams" in California without an emergency action plan. In percentage terms, that translates into about 35 percent of state's high-risk dams without such plans; nationally that figure is about 20 percent.

Pete Pierce, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the definition of dams at "high-hazard potential" applies to those "where failure or misoperation will probably cause loss of human life."

Meantime, the governor indicated that the recent storms have not just damaged the state's flood control system but also impacted California's transportation infrastructure, including local streets, highways as well as bridges.

Indeed, torrential rains this month resulted in a sinkhole swallowing two cars in the L.A. area and the collapse of a portion of a major freeway in Southern California. There also were significant cracks discovered along bridges in Northern California from the storms, including a section of a bridge along a busy highway in Big Sur.

According to Brown, emergency declarations he previously signed have enabled the state to begin spending money on transportation-related repairs. He said more than $595 million is expected to be spent in repairs to the state's roads and bridges due to the flooding, erosion, sinkholes and debris problems.

Even so, the governor said more money is needed for the state's transportation infrastructure challenges. He said there's about $59 billion alone in deferred maintenance on highways as well as another $78 billion on local streets and roads.