Construction crews dredge the river bed near Oroville Dam's crippled spillway Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, in Oroville, Calif. California water authorities stopped the flow of water down the spillway, Monday, allowing workers to begin clearing out massive debris that's blocking a hydroelectric plant from operating. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Official: Calif. faces $50B price tag for flood control

March 01, 2017 - 5:43 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — California faces an estimated $50 billion price tag for roads, dams and other infrastructure threatened by floods such as the one that severely damaged Oroville Dam last month, the state's natural resources secretary said Wednesday.

Nearly 200,000 people living near the country's tallest dam were evacuated three weeks ago amid fears of a catastrophic flood after heavy rains tore away a chunk of concrete from the main spillway, leaving it severely damaged.

Swollen rivers, troubled levees and crumbling roads are causing havoc statewide as California copes with what is likely its wettest year ever, California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said. Severe winter storms have brought torrential rain and significant snow after five years of drought.

Damage to California's highways is estimated at nearly $600 million. More than 14,000 people in San Jose were forced to evacuate last month and floods shut down a portion of a major freeway.

In the Yosemite Valley, only one of three main routes into the national park's major attraction is open because of damage or fear the roads could give out from cracks and seeping water, rangers said. On central California's rain-soaked coast, a bridge in Big Sur has crumbled beyond repair, blocking passage on the north-south Highway 1 through the tourist destination for up to a year.

Gov. Jerry Brown has redirected $50 million for emergency flood response and asked state lawmakers to speed up $387 million in spending from a 2014 voter-approved water bond. Laird called the proposals "an important start," but said they fall far short of the amount needed to address flood projects statewide. Fixing Oroville Dam alone could cost up to $200 million.

Laird told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that he has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies to expand inspection and review of all federally-owned dams in California, with particular attention paid to secondary structures such as spillways.

He also has asked the Corps to update federal operating manuals for key California reservoirs and is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars authorized under a new water-projects law for rehabilitation of "high hazard dams" in the state.

Dam improvements are part of a $10 billion law approved by Congress late last year to authorize water projects across the country, including more than two dozen projects in California.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said nearly half of California's 1,400 dams are designated as "high hazard potential" by state officials.

The state has invested about $11 billion in flood control management over the past decade, Harris said, yet more action is needed to protect nearly 7 million people and $580 billion worth of assets — buildings, farmland, and crops — that are at risk.

The committee also heard from officials in Wyoming and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where recent floods caused millions of dollars in damage.

The panel's chairman, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said winter "ice jams" on partially frozen rivers, combined with rapid snowmelt, cause frequent floods that harm small towns from Wyoming to the Dakotas and upstate New York.

President Donald Trump has made improving the nation's infrastructure a priority, and Barrasso said he was optimistic Congress would approve funding to modernize dams and levees across the country.

"Infrastructure is critical to our nation's prosperity," Barrasso said. "It's a driver of our nation's economy and it impacts every community."

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