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If there’s repeat of 1997 flood then criminal charges may be in order

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POSTED December 1, 2009 3:59 a.m.

Warm winter weather in December sandwiched between Sierra snow fall isn’t a good sign.

It was 13 years ago next month when the same conditions conspired to cause $80 million worth of property losses that included 500 homes that were either damaged or destroyed in the rural area between Manteca and Tracy.

There was a heavy snow pack put in place with a series of mid-December winter storms that followed a warm November. Then, the last week of December, things warmed up again. It hadn’t rained in the valley for weeks. When the first levee failed that first week of January, it was in the high 60s under sunny skies although the San Joaquin River was swelled with extremely early Sierra run-off that brought it to 34 feet or almost five feet above flood stage.

If it happens this time, perhaps the San Joaquin County District Attorney would like to go after the California Legislature for criminal negligence.

Voters in the 1998 election approved a $2 billion-plus bond aimed at water development and flood control including close to $1 billion that was supposed to go toward studying and imposing a solution on the Stanislaus River-San Joaquin River levees southwest of Manteca that have failed nine times since 1929.

What happened to the $1 billion? It was “borrowed” by the California Legislature in 2000 to balance a budget deficit. (Does that sound familiar?) It was supposed to be paid back in three years and never was.

Former state Sen. Mike Machado – who once stood as one of only two legislators in Sacramento who had any real working knowledge of California water issues – defended the raid at the time pointing out that the money would meet the payroll at the Department of Water Resources noting that without the department they’d be no flood protection plan.

Not only has the money not been restored to flood protection projects but we do have the Department of Water Resources intact and we have no more flood protection than we did before Jan. 5, 1997 at 1:01 p.m. when the first boil at Sturgeon Bend gave way sending chocolate-colored water cascading through the first of nearly a dozen breaches.

Hardly a soul raised a peep about the thievery let alone hold politicians’ feet to the proverbial fire. The reason is simple. Most people are under the false assumption that the emergency repairs conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers after the 1997 floods enhanced the levees. Federal statutes prohibit the Corps from improving levees beyond the level of protection they were at prior to a flood. The reason is pretty obvious given our capitulation to environmental reviews before we dare go after gophers and other varmints burrowing holes in levees and undermining their integrity.

There is also a misnomer that this is somehow a “local” problem as in “how dare they build and farm in a floodplain.” If we’re going to define where we allow development in this valley, then close to half of it would have to be off limits for development given how Mother Nature dealt with spring run-off before man built levees and dams. Come to think of it, that wouldn’t be a bad idea given Sacramento is in a floodplain. At least that’s one way to stop the never-ending expansion of the state bureaucracy.

Now we have an $11 billion water bond moving forward with nothing of any consequences being done with the last $2 billion in terms of what the voters were promised. Making the $11 billon bond in November 2010 all the more fun is that it isn’t very specific in exactly what will be the end result of what amounts to close to $30 billion by the time the interest is all paid in 30 years.

It would be almost cheaper for us just to subject ourselves to flood and water shortages.

This brings us to the real problem – accountability.

Do you think anyone in Sacramento representing this area remembers the floods of 1997 or any of the 120 who signed off on the budget deal in 1999 remembers the promise to pay back the $1 billion in water bond money swiped to keep the bureaucratic ranks’ intact by covering their payroll?

Between perennial deficit and perennial failure to do anything about water – either when we have too much or not enough – it is becoming clear that term limits aren’t helping California one iota.










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