An epic construction project aimed at protecting the Natomas basin from flooding remains on life support, in danger of coming to a complete halt in July.
The Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency has fortified some 18 miles of levee with more than 5 million cubic yards of dirt, at a cost of $380 million in state and local funds. But many more miles of levee need upgrades for Natomas to achieve federal certification – a crucial step in reducing risks, decreasing insurance costs and ending a building moratorium in the basin.
What's needed now is congressional authorization of the Natomas project so the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can get going on its share of the levee work and avoid a construction shutdown.
A few months ago, partisan divides and foot-dragging left us with little hope of a breakthrough. But in recent weeks, local elected leaders have held productive meetings with House members, including House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Those attending the meetings say Boehner, Cantor and their staffs were fully engaged and aware of the consequences if Natomas were left unprotected.
At risk is an interstate freeway, an international airport and, of course, roughly 100,000 people. And don't get us started on the impact of the Federal Flood Insurance Program if Natomas were ever flooded. Billions of dollars of property are at stake, one of many reasons Congress is starting to realize it must act.
Yet will it? U.S. Reps. Doris Matsui and Dan Lungren, a Democrat and Republican who represent Natomas, are pushing hard for a resolution. But if one is crafted, it needs to work within the confines of the House ban on "earmarks" – a catch-all term for attempts to funnel money through the appropriation process to specific local projects.
There may be ways to fund the Natomas project and still respect the language and intent of the earmarks ban. For instance, Congress could approve an amendment that would make clear that flood control projects that have undergone the highest level of review – a "chief's report" from the Corps of Engineers – would be eligible for authorization and funding.
Natomas would fall into this category, as would two others in Iowa and Kansas, and a big flood control project in Minnesota is close to obtaining a chief's report.
Time is running out in this Congress to pass such an amendment, but there still is a chance it could get attached to a must-pass transportation bill. Alternately, it could be amended to a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) bill, although the latter's passage this year is more remote.
Congress is not the only player in this drama. President Barack Obama has cast himself as a creator of public works jobs; he has also attempted to win political points by casting himself as an all-out foe of earmarks. He needs to reconcile these two positions. One way he could do this is by proposing his own version of WRDA, with a strong emphasis on supporting job-creating public safety projects.
The clock is ticking. Neither this region nor the federal government can afford the costs of leaving Natomas exposed, as it is now. By authorizing the Natomas project, Congress and the president could send a clear message: "We all need to stay dry together."