No disaster is entirely natural in our re-engineered state and Central Valley. Owing to our hubris, we humans have a direct hand in them all.
We have built cities on earthquake faults, balanced mansions on hillsides that burn in one season and slide into the ocean in the next, and moor boats in marinas where tsunamis are known to strike.
Having dammed almost all major rivers in California and many tributaries and creeks, we have constructed entire cities in what a century or 150 years ago was swamp, and made islands of rocks piled on peat.
And then the bill comes due.
The most immediate bill is for the shattered concrete spillway and eroded emergency spillway at Oroville Dam. Reconstruction will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s a debt that must be shouldered by us all.
Direct beneficiaries of the 3.5 million acre-feet of water stored in Lake Oroville will surely pay much of the cost. Altogether, 27 public water agencies serving 26 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland depend on Lake Oroville.
They include the huge Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Kern County farmers, and 3 million people living in Alameda and Santa Clara counties. But they should not bear the entire burden.
All California taxpayers benefit from the dam and the flood control it provides. In December, when Californians were most worried about the drought, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León introduced Senate Bill 5, proposing a statewide vote on a $3 billion bond for water projects and parks.
Parks always are in need and must not be forgotten. But with climate change upon us, we might be destined to toggle between searing drought and raging atmospheric rivers.
De León’s staff is amending the bill to include hundreds of millions of dollars for flood control. Local reclamation districts should be called upon to turn to property owners to come up with matching funding.
The nation has a stake in California’s plumbing, too, and the Trump administration opened the way for federal disaster aid last week, appropriately so.
To underscore the urgency of Gov. Jerry Brown’s request for disaster assistance, Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican whose district includes Oroville, sent a letter to the president signed by 10 other California congressional Republicans including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
In California, the aqueducts, like the freeways, make clear that red and blue California are one. McCarthy’s conservative Kern County district relies on Feather River water, as does the Democratic-dominated Silicon Valley.
The Department of Water Resources has estimated as much as $52 billion is needed to shore up levees and dams. There’s another $57 billion in deferred maintenance for roads, the focus of much legislative debate. Billions more are needed for school and university construction and maintenance, another form of infrastructure.
They are impossibly large numbers. But this state and its historic ambitions are impossibly large, too. If we are to maintain the lives we have, literally, built for ourselves here, we must ante up, all of us.