California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s declaration of a state of emergency to deal with that state’s vulnerable levee system has had the desired effect. Even his political opponents are tripping over themselves to say how much they, too, want to fix the problem.
His declaration also got the attention of the Bush administration: Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff pledged to tour the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to see what needs to be done to prevent a disaster.
Of course, the governor’s declaration of the emergency, and his appeals for a federal state of emergency, were political. He made his announcement as he was heading into the state Republican convention, held in San Jose last weekend, where he needed to shore up support for his infrastructure rebuilding proposals.
The governor had taken a helicopter tour of the delta Wednesday with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “We’re one major storm away from a Katrina-type disaster,” he said in San Jose.
The governor’s critics argued that a state of emergency is only appropriately used during an actual emergency, rather than as a way to call attention to a potential emergency. But there’s virtually no disagreement over the governor’s main point: The levee system east of Sacramento, which diverts water away from communities, has not been for years. The Corps of Engineers has identified 24 critical levee sites that could fail during the next flood season.
By declaring a state of emergency, the state would be able to send $100 million from a budget reserve for emergencies to those sites, long before the governor’s bond plan could kick in.
In addition, the governor could waive many of the cumbersome regulatory barriers to quick levee restoration — mainly environmental regulations that can slow infrastructure rebuilding for months or even years.
The state of California’s budget tops $100 billion, yet so much of it is spent on the loudest constituencies rather than on the most important public-works projects. This argues for a privately based levee system, but in the short-term the government needs to repair its crumbling infrastructure.
The governor is right to do whatever he can to highlight the levee problem and get it fixed.