Bonds

Massive flooding in California‘s central valley that has wreaked havoc and resurrected the long-dormant Tulare Lake has lawmakers contemplating multi-billion-dollar bond measures to stem further damage.

Assembly Bill 305 — introduced by Assemblymember Carlos Villapudua, D-Stockton —would place a $4.5 billion flood protection bond measure on the Nov. 5, 2024, ballot, while Senate Bill 638 —authored by Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton, and Sen. Roger Niello — R-Fair Oaks, would ask voters to approve $6 billion of bonds to fund climate resiliency and flood protection.

Flooding has submerged roads, farms and homes in the once dry Tulare lakebed between Fresno and Bakersfield. As snow — which fell in record amounts in the Sierra Nevada mountains this winter — begins to melt, water could saturate additional land adding to the billions of dollars in damage already experienced in the area.

“2023 has been one of the wettest years on record after several years of drought,” Villapudua said during an Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee hearing Monday. “Though the water we received has been a blessing, the recent storms caused billions of dollars in damage, and there will likely be more damage once the snow begins to melt.”

The federal government has estimated the state could incur another $6 billion in damages as the hundreds of gallons of water flow down during the spring and summer thaw. In the path of potential devastation lie California State Prison, Corcoran, and the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility, a dual prison complex that holds about 8,000 incarcerated men and employs many local residents.

State officials confirmed Tuesday they have an evacuation plan prepared, if their efforts to prevent flooding are unsuccessful.

“We recognize what is at stake with the levees and the prison — and with the snowpack 320% above average for this part of the Sierras,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said. “We recognize the magnitude of what could be coming our way.”

“We are doing data collection and real-time monitoring, as we navigate the next few months,” he said.

The state was heading into its fourth year of drought, which created a statewide water supply emergency, before it was hit by a series of atmospheric river and bomb cyclone storms saturating the state from December through March.

This year’s storms “showcased decades of underinvestment in the flood management infrastructure across California,” Villapudua said when he introduced the bill in January. “This failure resulted in billions of dollars of property damage and, most tragically, 22 lives lost. We need to make long-term investments today to prevent similar future tragedies across our state.”

Peak flows on the largest rivers that feed the Tulare Basin — including the Kings, Kaweah and Kern — are projected to arrive in May or June as record levels of snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains begin to melt, said David Rizzardo, a hydrology manager at the department, during a media briefing in mid-April. California’s mountains received three times the snow they receive in a normal year this winter.

All three rivers had historically flowed into the once-dormant Tulare Lake, but it eventually disappeared after farmers began to reroute and divert water in the 1800s. The lake has periodically reappeared during extremely wet seasons, most recently in 1997.

“We are now in the next phase of the flood event — planning for snow melt,” Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources, said Tuesday during Newsom’s walking tour. “We are at the Tulare Lake belt, because we know all that snowmelt ends up right here.”

The state will be aiding local officials to “identify ways in which we can divert as much water as” possible “to get it away from the communities that make up the Central Valley,” Nemeth said.

As much as possible, efforts will be made to divert water to areas where it can seep down and replenish aquifers, Nemeth said.

“DWR is here to work with our partners at King, Tulare and Kern counties to provide the resources, so that we do everything we can to put in advance defense measures ahead of the snow melt,” Nemeth said.

While state agencies work with the counties to repair the damage and prepare for more flooding when the snowpack melts, the bills introduced in the Assembly and Senate are aimed at preventing future emergencies.

During the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife committee hearing, Chair Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, D-Walnut Creek, asked Villapudua to work with lawmakers proposing similar bills.

AB305 would allocate funding for DWR for flood control projects in the Central Valley, San Joaquin River Basin and Sacramento. It would also designate money to acquire lands and easements for floodwaters to flow into open spaces to protect homes and infrastructure, and funding to repair and protect dams.

“This act represents needed infrastructure investments to bring us into a modern flood protection era,” Julie Rentner, president of River Partners, said while testifying in favor of Villapudua’s bill.

An estimated $20 billion in flood control protection needs to be developed in the Central Valley over the next 20 years, Rentner said.

“We need to develop a way to protect the hundreds of acres now under Tulare Lake and add essential infrastructure around the state,” she said. “On top of that, we need tens of billions to combat seawall rise as well as repairing the levees that collapsed.”

The state hasn’t passed a flood-focused bond since Proposition 1E was approved in 2006 “and we can’t wait any longer,” Rentner said.

AB305 was approved in committee, with dissent only from Assemblymember Devon Mathis, R-Porterville, who said he would rather see a dedicated funding stream from the general fund, and Laura Davies, R-Irvine, who abstained from voting, but asked that some sort of oversight be added, “because someone has to be held responsible if these projects don’t go anywhere.”

“I am not a fan of bonds,” Mathis said. “By the time it is certified and the project is done … when we look at inflation rates, I think we would get a quarter of what we hope to get. I think we need to look hard at how we fund massive projects.”

“I appreciate the approach, but we need to do something more than borrow from our great grandkids, and hope the projects get done,” Mathis said.

The measure was approved 13-1 and referred to the Committee on Appropriations.

SB638 was approved by a 7-1 vote in the Senate’s Governance and Finance Committee and was referred to the Senate’s Committee on Appropriations where it will be heard May 1.

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