Preparing for “Earthquake Katrina” and a Levee Disaster in California

Taxpayers shouldn't be on the hook to subsidize, rebuild homes and farms built in flood danger zones

California lawmakers are considering legislation that would restore incentives for local governments to minimize flood risk in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento) and Assemblywoman Lois Wolk (D-Davis) are among those who have authored bills to reform the levees-as-usual politics that jeopardize the prudent use of state flood control funds.

More than $47 billion in infrastructure sits behind protective levees in the Delta today, according to Lester Snow, director of the California Department of Water Resources. Since a court ruling in 2003, California taxpayers have been liable for damages to that infrastructure if a levee breaks.

The massive taxpayer liability in the Delta is one reason some fiscal conservatives have backed bond funding for levee repair. Another reason is what the water represents to downstream consumers. The Delta’s network of levees keeps this increasingly urbanized area from swimming in water that, for every individual house actually in the Delta, represents drinking water for two and a half dozen Southern California and Bay Area households and irrigation for a couple hundred acres of corn or tomatoes.

The taxpayers who are really getting the worst end of the deal are the households in northern and coastal California who are not reliant on the Delta for water or levees for protection, but who would still pay for flood damage resulting from a failure of the levee system.

And unfortunately, that taxpayer liability is only getting bigger-for every house in the low-lying Delta today, another is planned to be built in the next decade.

California experienced an unusually mild winter this year, banishing the specter of catastrophic flooding that motivated voters to approve nearly $5 billion in bonds for flood control in November 2006. It doesn’t take rainy weather to make a flood in the Delta, though; the most recent major levee break flooded the Jones Tract in 2004 under sunny June skies.

Last November’s bonds were only the first part of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s $35 billion 10-year plan to improve flood control, water supply and other vital services that depend on the Delta.

The governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force, which is supposed to recommend an overarching plan for the Delta by January 2008, is expected to report what politicians in office rarely admit: that maintaining the competing interests in the Delta (housing, farming, water exports, shipping and transportation networks, endangered species protection, commercial fisheries, and recreational uses, to name a few) indefinitely is not possible at any price.

The first of the Proposition 1E bond monies are being used to patch up holes that appeared this month in West Sacramento levees that are only three years old, a fact that does not bode well for the rest of the state’s aging levees. Almost every so-called Delta “island” (actually bowls up to 25 feet below sea level) has flooded in the last century, some three or more times. In the same time period, the many earthquake faults underlying the Delta have been quiet.

In a scenario aptly dubbed “Earthquake Katrina,” the region will more likely than not experience a 6.7 magnitude – or greater – earthquake in the next few decades. The Delta’s levees are not designed to withstand a major flood, much less a major earthquake. A sudden levee failure of that extent would have serious impacts on the Delta ecosystem, already strained under the pressure of urban and agricultural resource demands, in addition to threatening human lives and property and disrupting water supplies and the state economy for months or years.

The Department of Water Resources estimates that levee damage due to an earthquake of this magnitude would require at least 15 months of repairs (realistically, much longer), flood as many as 85,000 acres of agricultural land and 3000 homes, and disrupt water and natural gas deliveries, shipping and transportation, with total costs to California’s economy in the range of $30 to 40 billion in the first five years.

People often respond with amazing generosity in the wake of natural disasters-but that should never obscure the fact that the first and highest priority is for local jurisdictions to limit predictable losses before they happen. To do that, both the risks and the responsibilities for flood control must belong to local policymakers. As long as California taxpayers across the entire state carry the burden of compensating those who live in the Delta for flood damages, local governments will have no incentive to curb the rate of housing development behind risky levees and prospective home buyers will likely have little indication of the real danger they face.

A number of lawmakers have introduced legislation this session in a good-faith effort to begin to address the untenable mismatch between who pays for levees and who benefits from them. Jones’ bill (Assembly Bill (AB) 70) will make local governments jointly liable with the state for property damages caused by levee failure when the localities approve new developments in previously undeveloped land protected by state levees. Weaker legislation authored by Wolk (AB 5) would give priority for state funds to local governments that have completed flood plans indicating adequate protection for areas of new development.

At a minimum, realigning the costs and benefits of flood control at the local level should be part of any legislation passed this year for the use of California’s flood bond monies.