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Gov. Moves to Fix California Levees

Emergency decree could speed repairs. Some see the urgency as a ploy to boost his bond proposal.

February 25, 2006|Peter Nicholas and Tim Reiterman | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency Friday for the Sacramento Delta levees, an action that could trigger up to $100 million in speedy repairs to the crumbling system.

The announcement introduces a note of urgency to the sweeping infrastructure initiative the governor announced last month and comes as the deadline nears for bringing his public works borrowing plan to the ballot.

Declaring a state of emergency allows the state to suspend environmental protection laws and contracting requirements so that it can quickly begin improving two dozen weakened levees spread over 85 miles of waterways along the Sacramento River and its tributaries.

Earlier in the week, Schwarzenegger took a helicopter tour of the state's levees with members of the state congressional delegation and came back fearful that future storms might trigger Katrina-level damage to vulnerable cities and towns, aides to the governor said. His announcement was partly an outgrowth of that trip, they added.

The emergency was declared as Schwarzenegger was about to give a much-anticipated speech at the state Republican Party convention in San Jose. Schwarzenegger spoke to reporters beforehand. He said he was convinced in recent days that getting money to fix levees through the normal budget process would not work because "the federal government is broke."

"We are not going to get the money as quickly as we deserve because they just don't have it," he said. "This is why we have to make quick moves, because I don't want to be in a situation, as people were in New Orleans, where you talk and talk and talk, then all of a sudden something happens and you wipe out an entire city."

Schwarzenegger said he planned to raise the issue with President Bush during the governor's visit to Washington after the convention. He leaves today for the East Coast.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who joined Schwarzenegger on his flyover earlier in the week, commended the governor's action, saying she believes "it is wise to move expeditiously to take care of the most vulnerable levees."

But other Democrats and environmental groups said Schwarzenegger misused his power to issue an emergency declaration and suggested the timing might be rooted in political considerations.

State Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland), issued a written statement noting that "one of his [Schwarzenegger's] own agencies published a report last February citing this same problem, so it seems we could have acted then without a questionable use of emergency powers."

"He's a great salesman, and he's trying to build momentum for a bond issue," said Gary Patton, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, an environmental advocacy group in Sacramento. He added: "This doesn't meet the definition of an emergency. It's grandstanding. It's a way of making a dramatic public relations statement -- not a way of really governing the state effectively using the laws that exist."

At the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, there seemed little hint of a crisis. A call to the state headquarters at 5:20 p.m. Friday was picked up by an operator at the "Warning Center" who noted that the office had closed 20 minutes earlier. The operator noted that he had received no warnings about any emergencies in the state.

Schwarzenegger wants lawmakers to bring to the June ballot the first phase of his multibillion-dollar proposed public works plan, which includes $2.5 billion for levee improvements.

Lawmakers have until March 10th to put an initiative to pay for the proposals on the June ballot.

Flaws in the state's 6,000-mile network of levees have been well-documented. More than a year ago, the Schwarzenegger administration's Department of Water Resources issued a report stating that most of the valley's development has occurred on land susceptible to flooding and that a major flood could "overwhelm" California's defenses.

Lester Snow, director of the department, invited skeptics who see a political imperative in the governor's action to "sit down with me" and examine the frayed condition of the levees and the vulnerable homes behind them. He said it is "really dramatic how much we've under-invested."

Because of the emergency action, the state can begin repair work without waiting for reviews mandated by the state's environmental protection law, officials said in a briefing Friday. Schwarzenegger's staff said he won't wait for voters to pass his bond to start construction.

"We now have a major bond strategy, a 10-year investment strategy, to deal with flood management," Snow said in a reference to Schwarzenegger's borrowing plan. "However, we can't wait until we have that bond pass and have the Legislature act on that."

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