There is a cycle to the conversation about infrastructure and how to pay for it. And it goes like this in California:
A few politicians say that infrastructure – roads, bridges, tunnels, railways, dams and more – are the lifeblood of economic prosperity.
Editorial boards point out that Gov. Pat Brown and the Legislature of his era helped make California an economic power by investing in the massive California State Water Project and highways, and by making the University of California system the best in the world.
People mostly nod “yes” and move on to the hot-button issues of the day. They do so because infrastructure isn’t sexy and it is expensive. It requires political and financial discipline to build and maintain all these things that help make an economy hum.
Then disaster strikes. A bridge collapses and people die. A train barreling along poorly maintained tracks derails. Or deep erosion opens on the Oroville Dam emergency spillway, and 188,000 downstream residents along the Feather River must be evacuated.
Suddenly infrastructure is sexy.
Last week Gov. Jerry Brown urged that lawmakers spend $437 million for flood control. It is a modest request, though not nearly enough, as he readily acknowledged by displaying charts showing that upgrading California’s water infrastructure, including 1,500 dams and thousands of miles of levees, would cost $50 billion.
If we are to live and prosper, we will need to pay for it. How to pay for it is less clear. But Californians can readily see what’s in store if we fail to find solutions.
Brown has appealed to President Donald Trump for infrastructure funding. Money from Washington would be nice. But Californians will need to take steps on their own.
A Legislative Analyst Office report last month shows that $1.7 billion remains unspent from a $4 billion flood control bond approved in 2006. The LAO attributed the delay to the lengthy permitting process and complications of allocating funding among state, local and federal sources.
In other words, red tape is getting in the way of the public good. That needs to end, and it starts with smart reform of the California Environmental Quality Act.
Brown and the Legislature should also revisit Proposition 218, the 1996 initiative that restricts local government’s ability to raise taxes to pay for public works. Brown is fully aware of the constraints imposed by Proposition 218, saying in 2015 that it is an “obstacle to thoughtful, sustainable water conservation pricing and necessary flood and stormwater system improvements.”
Without a doubt, many existing levees and dams need to be shored up, and the state should greatly increase storage by expanding and building reservoirs and recharging aquifers.
But if, as the experts say, we are in for continued extreme weather as our climate changes, California must look beyond simply reinforcing levees and dams to battle nature. One environmentally sound solution is right in front of us.
Motorists driving over the Yolo Causeway now see what looks like a huge lake. The Yolo Bypass is one of the most elegant flood-control measures in California. It’s prime farmland during the summer and fall, and lush feeding grounds year-round for birds that migrate over the Pacific Flyway.
It’s also a vital flood-control basin for water that otherwise would top Sacramento River levees. It ought to be replicated in other flood zones, though that might mean buying some low-lying land from property owners.
The crisis isn’t over. Even if we get no more major storms this year, rivers will remain swollen with runoff for months and levees can fail on warm spring days.
The storms of 2017 offer Brown and legislators a grand opportunity to return to what helped build California in the first place: infrastructure.