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No time to back down

NO ONE DISPUTES Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s authority to fire all six members of the state Reclamation Board and replace them with seven appointees of his own (there was one vacant seat). The board, which oversees flood control in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, is made up of officials who serve sporadically at the pleasure of the governor. The outgoing six learned they had been sacked on Tuesday.

All seven newcomers may be eminently qualified. But the timing of the wholesale change raises questions. It comes just as there is new emphasis on shoring up hundreds of miles of deteriorating levees, especially in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the source of water for 22 million Californians. More critically, the board in recent months had become far more aggressive in questioning the location of new housing and other development in valley farmlands protected by questionable levees.

The board, in other words, was beginning to really do its job.

In one recent action, the board questioned construction of a subdivision along the Feather River near Marysville. That same area was flooded in 1997 when a state-maintained levee failed. The state recently paid $45 million to compensate more than 600 victims of flood damage. Yuba County agreed to reduce the size of the subdivision to 800 homes for now and agreed to waive the state’s liability for future flooding in the area.

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Development has been rapid between Sacramento and Modesto, nearly all of it on onetime flood plains now protected by levees. Until this year, when Schwarzenegger increased levee maintenance funds by $26 million and sought an additional $90 million from the federal government, the state had been continually cutting money for levee repairs. And Schwarzenegger’s boost isn’t enough; adequate upgrading of levees in the delta alone would cost an estimated $1 billion and take years.

The Schwarzenegger administration, to its credit, also sponsored legislation this year to create a Central Valley authority with the power to assess property owners for funds to finance levee repairs. But the bill was voted down in the Legislature.

A spokeswoman for the governor said the new appointees are “representative of the valley and experts in engineering and water issues.” Two are engineers, and four have ties to agriculture. Environmentalists fear that some of them may be too close to the building industry, which supports the governor.

Schwarzenegger has committed himself to reducing the risk of floods “with better planning, new investments and improved flood infrastructure.” If the new board is to live up to that mandate, it will continue the old board’s aggressive questioning of construction in farmland that is poorly protected by aging, deteriorating levees.

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