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Cuts Imperil Dam Checks

New state budget trims the program's funds but gives inspectors no way to raise fees as an alternative. About 1,200 structures are affected.

August 22, 2003|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — After the St. Francis Dam collapsed 40 miles north of Los Angeles in 1928, killing more than 400 people in one of the worst disasters in state history, California hired its first full-time dam inspectors. Now, they may become the latest victims of the state's scramble to cut costs.

The Legislature eliminated money for the state dam safety program in the budget it passed last month and gave inspectors no way to raise fees to make up the difference. If lawmakers fail to reverse course before the legislative session ends Sept. 12, annual scrutiny of 1,200 non-federal dams will halt, officials said.

"We're between a rock and a hard place," said Dave Gutierrez, acting chief of the California Dam Safety Program.

So far there is no bill to provide money to the agency. But lawmakers said they will get to it in the next couple of weeks.

"The plan still is to take up the fee bills this month and pass them over to the Senate," said Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who was closely involved in budget negotiations in late July.

Those fee hikes could cost water agencies and private dam owners hundreds of thousands of additional dollars a year, and water agencies have begun lobbying the Legislature against making them bear the substantial expense.

For example, the proposed dam safety fee increase would drive up annual inspection costs for the Turlock Irrigation District from $19,000 to $453,000, according to a coalition of water agencies. The Yuba County Water Agency's fees would increase from $15,248 to $231,041. The higher fees presumably would be passed on to water agency customers.

At least once a year, the state's dam inspection program visits 1,200 public and private dams that are more than 25 feet tall. Inspectors also investigate the structural soundness of dams along earthquake faults and after floods. The inspectors do not visit dams owned by federal agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

In 2000, state inspectors ordered San Francisco to lower the reservoir behind an unstable dam that endangers 100,000 people. An earthquake fault runs within a quarter of a mile of the dam.

With 60 employees, the dam safety program spends almost $8 million a year. The program raises $1.8 million a year from a flat $200 inspection fee on dam owners, Gutierrez said, plus an additional fee of $24 per foot of dam height. Those fees get deposited in the general fund, the main pool of tax revenue that the state uses for its operations.

Last month, lawmakers wrestling with a $38-billion budget shortfall stripped all state funding for inspectors. In early versions of a budget bill, they directed the Department of Water Resources to make up the difference with additional fees on dam owners.

But that language was deleted in the final days of budget negotiations, leaving the Department of Water Resources with no authority to raise fees to pay for inspectors.

The agency is not alone in budget limbo. The recently enacted budget also assumes that the Department of Fish and Game's $257-million-a-year budget includes $4.2 million in fees, but gives no authority to raise hunting and fishing fees.

Lobbyists for the state departments said they hope that the Legislature passes another bill containing the fees before lawmakers disband until January.

Gutierrez said the new dam inspection fees would be based on the amount of impounded water behind a dam because the hazard of failure increases with water volume.

Such a bill could be passed without Republican support because unlike tax increases, which require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, fee hikes require only a majority vote.

On Tuesday, a coalition of water agencies sent a letter to lawmakers arguing that all Californians should share the cost of the dam inspectors.

"Water storage for drinking water, environmental uses and flood control purposes are a benefit to all Californians and a fair portion of General Fund monies should be utilized to provide this critical public health and safety service," wrote the water agencies.

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