California Seeks Federal Money for Levee System

A view of the Sacramento River and Sacramento's Pocket neighborhood i i

hide captionA view of the Sacramento River and Sacramento's Pocket neighborhood as seen from the levee that divides them. Flood control experts say this neighborhood would look like the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans if this levee fails.

Tamara Keith for NPR
A view of the Sacramento River and Sacramento's Pocket neighborhood

A view of the Sacramento River and Sacramento's Pocket neighborhood as seen from the levee that divides them. Flood control experts say this neighborhood would look like the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans if this levee fails.

Tamara Keith for NPR

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has highlighted the dismal state of the California levee system. He's declared a state of emergency and is asking for millions of dollars to repair the system. Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff will visit and inspect the levees on Friday as he weighs Schwarzenegger's request for more federal dollars. Tamara Keith of member station KPCC reports.

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Schwarzenegger's failed infrastructure plan included funding for flood control and improvements on levees. It was only a small portion, about $5 billion of the massive bond proposal. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that fixing California's aging levee system is the state's most urgent need.

Tamara Keith of member station KPCC reports from Sacramento.

TAMARA KEITH: Les Harder has been working for the state of California on flood control issues for 30 years. He's deputy director of public safety for the state's Department of Water Resources, and he is the resident expert on levees. He stands on a levee at the south end of the City of Sacramento. On one side is the massive Sacramento River. On the other, a neighborhood of colorful wood frame homes, known as the Pocket.

LES HARDER: You see these homes and you see the homes, the roofs are about the level where we're standing. This is an area of deep potential flooding. It would look just like the Lower Ninth Ward in East New Orleans.

KEITH: It's raining, as it often is in Sacramento this time of year. The rain is bitter cold. Still, the river is no where near flood state. But what flood control experts worry about is a warm winter storm known as a pineapple express. Those storms melt snow in the mountains and could overwhelm the state's rivers and fragile levees.

This neighborhood has a one in four chance of flooding over the 30 year life of a home mortgage.

HARDER: We have less than half the level of protection that New Orleans did. Sacramento has a much higher chance of getting flooding, everything else being the same. New Orleans just was unluckier.

KEITH: With homes of avoiding a Katrina-like disaster in California, late last month Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for California's levee system. It's an unusual step to declare an emergency before disaster strike. But it frees up $100 million in state funds immediately. The release of this money allows some critical fixes to be made before the next flood season. And with an eye to the long term, Schwarzenegger says he's still hoping the legislature will put a bond package before voters later this year to fund as much as $6 billion dollars in levee improvements.

SCHWARZENEGGER: This is not just a $100 million dollar fix for our levees, but it is billions of dollars that have to be spent on really rebuilding our levees to make the people feel safe and to create that kind of safety.

KEITH: But it may be a false sense of safety, says UC Davis Geology Professor Jeffrey Mount. Mount says spending billions to repair levees is important, but not a perfect fix.

JEFFREY MOUNT: You're fixing a system which is broken and can't be fixed, meaning the levees are under-designed. You do not have a flood control system here, with the current levees operating at their very, very best, which can protect urban development.

KEITH: Urban development that is happening in the shadow of levees all over the Sacramento region, including this brand new home development on the western bank of the Sacramento River.

MOUNT: This neighborhood we're standing in here right now, I can throw a rock from the levee and hit a house; they're that close to the levees. That concentrates the damages.

KEITH: Governor Schwarzenegger will continue making his case for funding for levee repairs to the state legislature. In the meantime, this morning he's pitching California's needs to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. The two are taking a helicopter tour of the region, for Schwarzenegger hopes to show Secretary Chertoff what's at stake.

For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith in Sacramento.

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