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Skyrocketing costs linked to environmental laws

From time to time legislative action that will impact agriculture — favorably or unfavorably — is called to the attention of CAFA's board of directors. The latest examples, Assembly bill AB 1665 and Assembly Constitutional Amendment ACA 13 should be of concern for anyone who lives within a levee system in the Central Valley.

Agriculture has had its share of flooding disasters and AB 1665 and ACA 13 are designed to address a flood control infrastructure the California Department of Water Resources calls a “ticking time bomb.” But the two measures introduced earlier this year and now in committee have several troubling aspects. The effort to initiate a new plan would soak property owners to help pay for a flood control protection program with an estimated price tag of $2 billion.

AB 1665 would replace the Reclamation Board with the Central Valley Flood Control Board. The Reclamation Board works with the Army Corps of Engineers to control flooding along the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and tributaries. Its jurisdiction encompasses the entire Central Valley, including the Tulare and Buena Vista basins.

The new board that's being proposed would establish a state imposed assessment district and a state insurance fund to compensate property owners for flood damage. Anyone living in a levee system would be assessed the cost of operation, maintenance and possibly the cost of constructing levees. There are other troubling aspects of AB 1665, but things don't get any better with ACA 13.

It would exempt flood control districts from Proposition 218's two-thirds voting requirement before fees or assessments can be raised. It excludes local agencies from “property owner and voter approval requirements” for flood control, and storm water and surface water drainage projects.

The momentum for the major changes can be linked to the Paterno decision that held the state liable for the Linda Levee break near Marysville in 1986. But at least one state legislator puts things in perspective by pointing out why the $2 billion price tag for the flood control protection program is so high.

State Senator Bob Dutton, 31st Senate District, wrote an insightful article for the California Tax Payers Association newsletter in July. In the article Dutton wrote that, “before we propose new taxes and gut taxpayer protection…a thorough regulatory and financial review of the existing program is overdue.”

He cited a Department of Water Resources report that puts the cost of levee repair at $5,000 per linear foot, up from $300 in the 1980s. Environmental laws enforced by multiple state and federal agencies are the main reason for the $4,700 increase in levee repair costs, Dutton says. He gave some eye-opening examples of environmental policies that delay or shut down flood control projects.

Earlier this year the Mojave River flood caused $80 million in damages. The problem was eight years worth of vegetative growth in the flood channel, which couldn't be cleared due to “regulatory impediments.” Another example: A $3 million to $4 million levee repair job that ballooned to $10 million in Yuba County. The project was burdened by environmental policies and levee work was delayed for six years. Tragically, it broke five months before work began, taking the lives of three people.

Hopefully, there are other legislators like Dutton who can begin to straighten out a system that is clearly out of whack. It's time to wake up and put the blame where it belongs.

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