California’s very wet winter has revealed both literal and figurative cracks in the state’s flood management infrastructure. While most flood-related problems this year didn’t reach the level of the Oroville Dam spillway disaster, public concern about California’s aging flood infrastructure is growing—including how to pay for upgrades.
According to the latest PPIC statewide survey, 61% of Californians say that more spending on water and flood management infrastructure is very important for their part of California. Only one in ten say it is not important. When we asked a similar question in October 2006, fewer than half (43%) said such spending was very important. Today, the view is widely held, with about majorities across partisan, racial/ethnic, age, education, and income groups saying so. Across regions of the state, majorities say more spending is very important, ranging from 56% in the San Francisco Bay Area to 65% in the Central Valley.
Governor Brown recently requested the appropriation of $437 million for flood control projects. The majority of the funds ($387 million) come from Proposition 1, the 2014 water bond devoted to investments in the state’s water systems. These funds would finance high-priority infrastructure projects―for instance, maintaining and improving Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta levees. Another $50 million of the governor’s proposal would come from the general fund for ongoing emergency needs and would cover government agency coordination and flood management equipment needs.
But even with this one-time infusion of dollars, the funding gap for flood management activities is large. Our earlier work, Paying for Water in California, estimates it at $800 million to $1 billion annually. This gap varies regionally, with areas located in floodplains needing higher levels of investment in flood-protection infrastructure.
Finding ways to close this gap will require us to rethink not only how we pay for flood infrastructure but also how we manage floods more generally. In fact, using flood management approaches that derive multiple benefits―for instance, to recharge groundwater basins and to restore ecosystems—could help improve the state’s ability to adapt to a changing climate. But just as floods are sporadic, so too is public interest in funding flood infrastructure projects. With the Oroville Dam crisis and San Jose flood still fresh in the minds of many Californians, the timing may be right to start a conversation about creating more stable financing mechanisms that can help us prepare for floods of the future.