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Schwarzenegger Fires Flood Control Panel

Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday fired all six members of the state Reclamation Board, an agency that oversees flood control along California’s two biggest rivers and had recently become more aggressive about slowing development on flood plains.

The Republican governor replaced the members -- who serve indefinite terms at the governor’s pleasure -- with seven of his own appointees, most with ties to agriculture and the engineering profession. One board seat had been vacant since spring.

Five of the fired members had been appointed by Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, and one had first been appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, then reappointed by Davis.

Fired board member Jeffrey F. Mount, chairman of the UC Davis geology department, said he was given no explanation for his dismissal. It was not completely unexpected, he said.

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“It’s perfectly reasonable for a governor to want to have his own people who represent his policies on flood control,” Mount said. He added, “All I know is, we made a lot of people unhappy.”

When Hurricane Katrina breached levees and flooded New Orleans a month ago, the board voted to review all urban development plans proposed for Central Valley flood plains -- a power it has long held but only occasionally used.

Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Julie Soderlund said the appointments had been in the works for “quite some time to ensure the most qualified individuals were chosen.”

“The appointees are representative of the valley and experts in engineering and water issues,” she said.

In a prepared statement earlier Tuesday, the governor made no mention of the former board members but praised their replacements.

“California faces significant flood challenges,” Schwarzenegger said. “To protect our communities, economy and keep Californians safe we need a comprehensive and ongoing effort to reduce these risks with better planning, new investments and improved flood infrastructure.” He added that “each one of these individuals shares my commitment to ensuring these lifesaving efforts are not ignored or postponed.”

State law gives the Reclamation Board substantial power to review development in the extensive flood plains along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and their tributaries. The board can make recommendations that local governments cannot ignore without legal findings that justify their plans. Until the last few years, that power was rarely used.

The board had recently begun to challenge local governments’ development plans. Along the Feather River south of Marysville, for example, the board balked at Yuba County’s plans to build subdivisions in an area that had been flooded by a 1997 break in a levee the state was responsible for.

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The state recently agreed to pay more than 600 victims $45 million as a result of that flood.

The Reclamation Board eventually reached an agreement with Yuba County to limit construction to 800 homes in the area this year. The county also agreed to waive the state’s liability for future flood damages in the area, known as Arboga.

Mount and other members of the fired board have argued for tougher restrictions on home building near levees. Many stretches of Central Valley levees were built decades ago to protect farmland; they are now aging and weakening at the same time they are being expected to protect thousands of new homes.

In an interview several months ago, Mount said, “We need regional land use planning so we don’t continue to build behind these agricultural levees.”

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Also, he said, a mechanism is needed to pay for strengthening existing levees, and flood insurance should be mandatory.

“Everything I’m saying, of course,” Mount said, “will be violently resisted by the building industry.”

Outgoing board members said Tuesday they had heard rumors that Schwarzenegger was contemplating changes and understood that he has a right to make his own appointments. But they were surprised that he removed an experienced board when the state faces important decisions about the safety of its levees.

“It is not a good time for a change,” said fired member Anthony J. Cusenza, a retired dentist from Modesto. “There is so much going on right now with these issues.”

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One of the biggest challenges for the new board, he said, is reviewing flood plain development. “We were pretty tough on developers,” he said. “We are not in the land use [business.] Our concern was levees. The heat we were getting was -- we were adamant about not putting people in harm’s way.”

Outgoing board President Betsy A. Marchand, a former Yolo County supervisor, said the timing of the board’s replacement “does surprise me because this board was very active.... I guess I was thinking that perhaps they were going to let us continue with our program of bringing these issues to the forefront.”

Former Sacramento city manager and board member William H. Edgar said the board was also very concerned about home building where levees had not been upgraded. He said it would be difficult for the new board to catch up and address such issues now, “but we wish them well.”

In the recently ended Legislative session, the Schwarzenegger administration sponsored a bill that would have created a new Central Valley authority to assess property owners for better flood control. The bill was amended to require simply a study of levee strength and repair priorities, but it still failed, in part for lack of GOP support.

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Schwarzenegger’s budget this year boosted levee maintenance by $26 million, reversing cuts made in the last several years. This month, he called on California’s congressional delegation to seek more than $90 million to pay for strengthening Central Valley levees.

But the governor also has strong ties to the building industry. A Times analysis of Schwarzenegger’s donors shows that at least 23% of the $75 million he has raised since 2002 has come from businesses or individuals involved in residential or industrial construction, development and real estate.

The California Building Industry Assn., which represents home builders, and its members are among his biggest donors. The trade group has given the governor’s campaigns $180,000.

The others terminated Tuesday are retired Stockton school administrator Floyd H. Weaver and former Tehama County supervisor Burton Bundy.

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The new members are Cheryl Bly-Chester, owner of a Roseville engineering firm; Rose Burroughs, owner of a livestock company in Denair; Benjamin Carter, a Colusa farmer; Maureen Doherty, a Maxwell rancher; Francis “Butch” Hodgkins, former executive director of the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency; Emma Suarez, a Folsom attorney for the California Farm Bureau Federation; and Teri Rie, a Contra Costa County civil engineer.

Times staff writers Tim Reiterman and Dan Morain contributed to this report.


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