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Flood Project Backers Say Pique May Endanger It

Times Staff Writer

Political bitterness spawned by last year’s attempt by Orange County Republicans to sweep Democratic congressmen out of office has resurfaced in Washington and is threatening the proposed $1.3-billion Santa Ana River flood control project, backers of the plan said Thursday.

The project’s supporters said they are worried about the objections raised this week by Rep. George Brown (D-Colton) to inclusion of the flood control project in a bill approved Wednesday by the House Public Works Committee.

Plans to control the Santa Ana River have been bottled up in Congress for years despite warnings that a major flood on the river could cause $14 billion in damage in Orange County alone.

Project supporters say the unanimous support of congressmen whose districts would be affected is vital if the project is to receive funds.

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Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton) said that when he tried to talk Brown out of his opposition to wording in the current plan for dams, levees and flood channels to control the river, Brown “made no reference to a political consideration that may have bothered him.”

Brown Reported Piqued

But Dannemeyer said another congressman had told him Brown was “a little piqued that I spoke at a fund-raising event for his opponent in the last election, Mr. (John Paul) Stark.”

Brown did not link his concerns about the bill to Dannemeyer’s support for his foe last time, but said in a telephone interview that he had been “quite forthright about the way all the Orange County (Republican) congressmen were involved in an attempt to defeat me and Jerry Patterson in the last election.”

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Brown said in past years he “leaned over backwards to be accommodating to Orange County congressmen” and “went against the wishes of my constituents” in Riverside and San Bernardino counties by supporting the flood control project in the face of opposition from environmentalists and some local officials.

But after Patterson lost to Robert K. Dornan, the Republican from Beverly Hills who moved to Buena Park to run against him, and Stark ran a tough race against Brown, “I don’t feel nearly so enthusiastic” about supporting the flood control measure “just to help a bunch of guys who are out to sink me,” Brown said.

“It is not vindictiveness, just a desire to be a little more pragmatic,” he said.

The project was included in the bill approved Wednesday by the House Public Works Committee and sent to the full House of Representatives. The measure authorizes building numerous federal water projects estimated to cost anywhere from $11 billion to $20 billion.

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The bill would end a stalemate that has lasted for nearly a decade on new flood control, navigation and other water projects to be built by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Brown said he supports the overall Santa Ana River flood control project now that the bill authorizing it provides for simultaneous work on all components.

He said he and other representatives of areas outside Orange County were concerned by an earlier version of the bill that he thought allowed widening and deepening of the flood channel in Orange County while leaving projects affecting the river in the other two counties for a later date.

The project calls for increasing the size of the channels, raising Prado Dam near Corona by 30 feet-- which will increase its capacity to contain runoff waters--and building a new dam upstream from Prado Dam.

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Objections to Mentone

The original location for the new dam was Mentone, near Redlands. But after residents contended that the new dam would be vulnerable to earthquakes and could threaten water conservation projects, the Corps of Engineers was directed to come up with alternate sites.

Jim McColl, the Orange County lobbyist in Washington, said the Corps of Engineers’ report is nearly finished.

Brown told the chairman of the House Public Works Committee, where the bill originated, that he wanted the project authorized only after all engineering and design studies were done, which could take several years. Otherwise, he said, Congress would be issuing “a blank check” for the project without knowing its cost.

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But McColl said other area congressmen urged Brown to join them in authorizing the project now and inserting the engineers’ study when it is done.

Rep. Ronald C. Packard (R-Carlsbad), who lobbied Brown to support the bill, said that until all three counties were satisfied with the project, it could not go forward. But he said he warned his colleague that waiting for several years could jeopardize the whole project.

Dannemeyer agreed that “we should go ahead and get authorization now because it is quite likely we will not have another authorization bill for water projects for another five or six or seven years.”

Money Shortage

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Dannemeyer said the demand for the water projects is greater than the supply of money to build them, and a unified congressional delegation was necessary to get near the top of the list.

The Fullerton Republican said political quarreling would “confound our attempts to fight our way to the head of the line” in seeking funds to alleviate “the most profound potential flood threat west of the Mississippi.”

Brown stopped short of formally asking that the Santa Ana River project be deleted from the bill, but said Thursday that he is studying whether authorizing the plan before the engineers’ study is finished is against congressional rules.

McColl said the question was whether Brown “is firing warning shots over the bow, or does he actually want to sink the ship.” And some congressional aides said they interpreted Brown’s actions as a warning to Republicans not to actively support his opponent in next year’s election.

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