Monday, December 10, 2007

Feds need to get their act together

It is usually in the aftermath of natural disasters that government rushes in to offer aid…leaving some to wonder why steps weren’t taken to avert the tragedy in the first place. But that would require government to use both common sense and anticipation. What a delight then, to hear Santa Barbara County’s governmental bodies working together to try and actually prevent a major disaster from occuring. And what a disappointment to learn the Feds are dragging their feet with funding, while imposing other absurd and self-serving requirements.

I’m talking about preventing a Katrina-like catastrophe should the levee fail in Santa Maria. There’s 26 miles of compacted sand and rock, referred to as ‘rip rap,’ protecting roughly 66,000 people now living in the flood zone. That means roughly half the city is subject to swimming underwater while the Feds fuss over maps and minions.
For the past five years, County engineers, like Tom Fayram, manager of the Santa Barbara Flood Control and Water Conservation District, have utilized a patchwork of repairs to address the areas where the levee needs the most help.
Receiving only $50,000 of their $100,000 State funding request, they did the best they could with what they had. Such remedial efforts included heavy rock, planting willows, and laying pipe and wire groins (like an overlay of chain link fence) in the two critical areas. But they know their luck is running out.
Every County municipality has a collection of public work projects threatened any time Mother Nature unleashes her fury. To appreciate our little Vandenberg valley to the north, let’s take a walk down history lane and appreciate the ecological and economic importance of the Santa Maria levee…
Back in the 1930’s, farmers were frequently plagued with flooding, though they attempted to control the flow through pumping stations and more recently, using pilot channels. In the years to follow, developers like “Cap” Twitchell and “Brad” Bradbury (after whom Cachuma Dam was renamed) began investigating large water projects.
Santa Maria was first in line for authorization from the infamous Army Corps of Engineers, who agreed to take on the project in 1949. It took until 1956 for the project work to begin, but we’re talking about the Federal government here, so seven years might actually be considered light speed.
Finished in 1963 at the final cost of $12 million, the levee protects Santa Maria’s two billion dollar agricultural legacy, and provides safety for the explosive municipal growth supporting Vandenberg AFB and thousands of basin residents. That is, until recently…
The Santa Maria river is formed by the confluence of the Cuyama and Sisquoc. The river basin is one of the larger coastal drainage basins in California, covering 1888 square miles. Like all of Santa Barbara County, our neighbors to the north are subject to wildly fluctuating winter rainfalls, from 4 to 30 inches, according to the record books.
Those who track precipitation cycles might say we are in the early to mid stages of a drought, so what more logical time to repair a levee? Ah, but there’s that pesky little funding problem. And what would it cost to fix the levee and ensure the safety of the population? Only twenty million dollars, figures Tom Fayram.
There are two solutions; the first would be steel sheet pile, which resemble iron Ruffles potato chips, driven into the edges to create a flood wall. Not very attractive, and very expensive construction using giant pile drivers and steel.
The lower priced alternative is to mix existing river sand with cement to create a hardened shell when it cures, like a chocolate dipped cone. Here’s a relatively inexpensive fix, using readily available materials with proven outcomes, yet who is going to pay for even this bargain solution?
Locally, Santa Marians have agreed to a Flood Zone Benefit Assessment, but the proceeds yield only $200,000 a year - hardly sufficient to address the 6-mile-long problem area. Statewide, funders look to bond issues like Prop 1E and Prop 84. The billions resulting from such voter approved legislation would be more than sufficient; however, while funds might be aimed at the Central Valley, they aren’t specifically directed to urban areas.
That leaves Congress, working in its oversight role of the Army Corps of Engineers, to come to the rescue. That would be the same group that built and maintained the New Orleans levee. Hmmmmm.
It is the job of the Corps to create reports on what is needed, then to pass the report on to Congress, so funding can be provided. That would likely be one of those famous ‘earmarks’ tucked into some behemoth bill on the Hill.
And let’s not forget about FEMA, the new poster child of federal incompetence. FEMA has already spent years studying the accuracy of the map of the levee, and they aren’t done yet. Why would they have to remap the levee if the Corps built the ‘dam’ thing in the first place? FEMA is still trying to determine if Santa Maria is actually in a flood zone, but these snappy little pencil pushers do expect to have a report out around April, 2008.
Please don’t pray for rain any time soon.
Because if FEMA determines that Santa Maria really is in a flood zone, homeowner flood insurance skyrockets from $300 to $1000 a year. AND it would be required for everyone with a federally backed mortgage. AND such insurance would be sold, administered and have claims paid through the National Flood Insurance Program run by none other than…FEMA!
I don’t pretend to have an expedient answer to this debacle, except to say I wish I could take up a collection to pay for the work rather than watching this train wreck of probabilities play out in slow motion.
In the meantime, I defer to the wisdom of the County Supervisors, the Santa Maria council and residents of the area to apply some ‘rip rap’ on their own to the State and Federal government, so that funding arrives in time to avert this disaster. And don’t call Tom Fayram “old man river,” because he and his crew are ready to start pouring miles of protective concrete as soon as it starts raining dollars.

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