Dan Walters: Sacramento levee work could be election casualty

dwalters@sacbee.comJanuary 14, 2013 

Elections, it's been said, have consequences, and a yearslong effort by Sacramento to secure federal funds for flood control in the imperiled Natomas basin could be a casualty of last year's voting.

Sacramento area voters ousted Republican Congressman Dan Lungren in favor of Democrat Ami Bera, thus leaving the region without a GOP voice in a House controlled by Republicans.

Lungren, along with Democratic Congresswoman Doris Matsui, had been seeking congressional authorization for a half-billion dollars or more to shore up river levees that protect the low-lying Natomas area and its 60,000 residents from flooding, thus allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to lift a development moratorium.

Sacramento saw major flooding in 1986, but pressed by local interests, Matsui's late husband, Robert, and former Congressman Vic Fazio carried legislation to stave off a Natomas moratorium a quarter-century ago. It allowed construction of thousands of homes, plus shopping centers, schools and a basketball arena, enriching Natomas landowners and developers.

It was later revealed that Doris Matsui was a partner in one Natomas land deal with the region's most prominent developer, Angelo K. Tsakopoulos, who is also a major Democratic contributor and fundraiser. She sold her interest when she ran for her husband's seat in 2005 after his death.

A year later, after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers declared Natomas' levees to be subpar, resulting in the moratorium and forcing homeowners to buy flood insurance.

The Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency, using state and local funds, began a massive project to shore up the levees that has cost about $400 million, but without the federal authorization, FEMA won't lower the flood risk and allow construction to resume.

Developers, many of them Republicans, business groups and local politicians have been pressing for authorization, and Congresswoman Matsui had teamed with Lungren to seek it despite the GOP House leadership's ban on earmarked projects.

However, with Lungren gone, the burden falls on Matsui and other Democrats, including the state's two senators, who hope to get around the earmark ban by including Natomas in a generic package of projects endorsed by the Corps of Engineers. Without Lungren, the authorization could face even tougher sledding in a GOP-controlled House – especially since Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi had made him a top target.

There's a legitimate question of whether the deficit-ridden federal government should borrow even more money to rescue Sacramento from a problem it created by ignoring warnings about flood dangers and developing Natomas.

That qualm aside, the situation is saturated with political irony.

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