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If the levees break

By moderating Sacramento delta development, lawmakers could save everyone money in a flood.

June 06, 2007

THE BUILDERS thronging permit counters in cities and counties around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta seldom leave disappointed. Local officials are only too happy to encourage sprawling development that will boost property tax revenues, even though much of the construction on low ground may be doomed by delta floodwaters. In the past, only crops were ruined when California's levee system failed. Today, a break in the aging levees would severely damage or even sweep away new subdivisions and retail centers. The cost from damage lawsuits would be in the billions of dollars.

But local governments have every incentive to continue handing out building permits like Halloween candy. They know that when the flood comes, the cost will be borne not by them but by the entire state. Los Angeles residents will be on the hook at least as much as residents of the flood-prone counties whose officials helped cause the problem in the first place.

Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento) wants local governments to think twice before permitting development in floodplains. His Assembly Bill 70 would assure that cities and counties whose decisions lead to property damage claims pay at least some of the liability costs directly. That's good policy and deserves support.

It is noteworthy that this bill, which would protect Southern Californians at the expense of Central Valley decision-makers, comes from a former Sacramento City Council member. Jones saw firsthand how easy it is for cities in vulnerable areas to be tempted to shift the cost of their bad choices to others. He won few friends at home when he carried an even tougher bill last year. That attempt failed because of hard lobbying by the building industry, but to Jones' credit he is trying again.

Lawmakers statewide -- and especially those in Southern California, far from the levees -- ought to stand up to the builders this time. California needs more housing, but there are plenty of places to build that aren't subject to flooding from broken levees. Or, for that matter, prone to wildfires, mudslides and other disasters more familiar to residents here. And if those places don't happen to be the places where developers have already invested millions in speculative land buying, well, that's the way it goes.

Doing the bidding of developers may earn elected officials bigger campaign contributions than would doing what's best for the public, but the public pays the liability bills -- and will be carefully noting which of their legislators vote against this measure. So will we.

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