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Before the levees break

April 05, 2006

IMAGES OF THE LINGERING devastation in New Orleans should be enough to persuade anyone not to bet the safety of their house or business on aging levees.

But Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento) doesn't want to rely on voluntary efforts in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river valleys. His bill, AB 1898, would require all property owners in those watersheds to buy federal flood insurance if they faced at least a 1-in-200-years chance of flooding. That mandate goes far beyond the current requirement, which applies only to those who obtain a mortgage or home-equity loan in areas with at least a 1-in-100-year risk.

The 1,600 miles of levees in the Central Valley are aging and vulnerable, and the low-lying area they protect -- from Sacramento to the Bay Delta -- floods with alarming frequency. Just Tuesday, levees broke in Merced and south of Sacramento, flooding a trailer park and fields.

It's not clear how many homes and businesses in the area are insured, but Jones offers a disturbing snapshot of North Natomas, a booming Sacramento district ringed by rivers. According to Jones, only 16% of the properties there have flood insurance.

The point isn't simply to protect property owners against their own shortsightedness. It's to protect taxpayers who'll probably have to bail them out when the floods inevitably come. The insurance requirement not only would create a pool of federal money for repairs but would prod developers to raise buildings above ground level and choose safer plots.

More important, the bill asks property owners to shoulder some of the cost and risk of living in an area that state and federal taxpayers are being asked to spend billions to protect. On Monday, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee added $22.3 million for California levee projects to an emergency funding bill. Meanwhile, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who declared a state of emergency Feb. 24 over the levees, has called for at least $2.5 billion for upgrades.

The levees do more than protect property owners' investments; they help safeguard critical supplies of drinking water for the whole state. And they have enabled a boom in developments such as North Natomas, where houses have been built on top of what used to be flood-prone farms and wetlands.

Jones' measure has drawn fire from mortgage lenders and insurance companies. The Assembly Insurance Committee, which is scheduled to vote on the measure today, should reject the opponents' self-interested arguments and support the bill.

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