Cal­i­for­nia could pay price for bor­der wall

Flood con­trol, wet­lands money may be di­verted

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Tal Kopan and Peter Fim­rite

WASH­ING­TON — The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is con­sid­er­ing di­vert­ing mil­lions of dol­lars from San Fran­cisco Bay shore­line restora­tion and flood con­trol to help build the pres­i­dent’s wall on the south­ern bor­der — part of a big­ger plan un­der con­sid­er­a­tion to move dis­as­ter re­lief money to the pro­ject.

The White House is look­ing at nearly $2.5 bil­lion al­lo­cated for Cal­i­for­nia projects be­ing worked on by the Army Corps of Engi­neers as pos­si­ble sources to fund Pres­i­dent Trump’s wall, ac­cord­ing to a list of tar­geted projects ob­tained by The Chron­i­cle from a source fa­mil­iar with dis­cus­sions. The White House could try to tap the money if Trump de­clares a na­tional emer­gency along the south­ern bor­der to get around Congress’ re­fusal to ap­prove his re­quest for $5.7 bil­lion for wall con­struc­tion.

Other Cal­i­for­nia projects on the list in­clude nearly $1.6 bil­lion for an Amer­i­can River flood

con­trol pro­ject in the Sacra­mento area, $200 mil­lion to raise Fol­som Dam, nearly $260 mil­lion for dam work at Lake Is­abella in Kern County and $13 mil­lion for a Yuba River flood con­trol levee in Marysville.

All told, the ad­min­is­tra­tion is look­ing at nearly $14 bil­lion in Army Corps of Engi­neers funds that were part of a dis­as­ter re­lief ap­pro­pri­a­tion made by Congress last year and have yet to be spent or ob­li­gated. That in­cludes nearly $2.5 bil­lion in hur­ri­cane re­lief for Puerto Rico and bil­lions for hur­ri­canere­lated aid in Texas. NBC News was first to re­port that the ad­min­is­tra­tion was con­sid­er­ing the idea.

The White House didn’t re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Trump has said he will “most likely” de­clare an emer­gency if he and con­gres­sional Democrats can’t agree on wall fund­ing, al­though he said Fri­day he was “not go­ing to do it so fast.” Trump walked away from a bi­par­ti­san deal in De­cem­ber that would have pro­vided $1.6 bil­lion for his wall ef­forts, de­mand­ing $5.7 bil­lion and send­ing the gov­ern­ment into a shut­down.

The im­passe has forced about 800,000 fed­eral work­ers and thou­sands of con­trac­tors ei­ther to go on fur­lough or work with­out pay.

The San Fran­cisco Bay pro­ject is a long-in-the-works ef­fort to build up lev­ees and con­vert 3,000 acres of for­mer salt ponds in the South Bay back into marsh­lands.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment al­lo­cated $177 mil­lion for the pro­ject, but the Cal­i­for­nia State Coastal Con­ser­vancy and the Santa Clara Val­ley Water Dis­trict are ex­pected to re­im­burse the Army Corps for half that amount.

The restora­tion is con­sid­ered a cru­cial part of a re­gion-wide ef­fort to re­store 100,000 acres of for­mer wet­lands around the bay within 50 years. The South San Fran­cisco Bay Shore­line pro­ject would also pro­tect bay com­mu­ni­ties against ex­pected sea level rise.

“What they’re re­ally talk­ing about is killing a flood pro­tec­tion pro­ject in Sil­i­con Val­ley to build a stupid wall,” said Coastal Con­ser­vancy Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Sam Schuchat, who has been work­ing since 2002 on re­search and plan­ning for the pro­ject. “We have real flood risk for the north­ern part of the city of San Jose for which we have a real so­lu­tion, and now they want to snatch it away from us.”

David Lewis, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the en­vi­ron­men­tal group Save the Bay, said he be­lieves it would be il­le­gal for Trump to di­vert money from a pro­ject that Congress man­dated.

“It’s vi­tal to the restora­tion of San Fran­cisco Bay and it’s al­ready been de­layed for many years, so keep­ing it mov­ing is a high pri­or­ity,” Lewis said. “It’s cru­cial for fish and wildlife and en­dan­gered species. Wet­lands re­ally are the front line pro­tec­tion from sea level rise for shore­line com­mu­ni­ties.”

A con­certed ef­fort has been made over the past two decades to re­pair the wet­lands. Much of the 30,000 acres of shore­line flats once owned by salt man­u­fac­tur­ers Les­lie and Cargill have been re­stored. Three thou­sand acres near Alviso are sched­uled to be the next phase of the job.

“This is a crit­i­cal miss­ing link for flood pro­tec­tion,” Schuchat said. “This is 3,000 acres of wet­lands restora­tion that we can’t re­store un­til the levee gets built.”

Rep. John Gara­mendi, DWal­nut Grove (Sacra­mento County), whose dis­trict in­cludes the Amer­i­can and Yuba river projects, said it was un­clear how se­ri­ously the ad­min­is­tra­tion was look­ing at di­vert­ing the money. He noted that Trump has chilly re­la­tions with the state’s Demo­cratic lead­ers, and spec­u­lated that might in­flu­ence what the White House does.

He pointed out that the dam pro­ject at Lake Is­abella, for ex­am­ple, is in the dis­trict rep­re­sented by House Repub­li­can leader Kevin McCarthy of Bak­ers­field.

“If they per­sist and de­cide this is where they’re go­ing to go to get the money, they will go pro­ject by pro­ject and they’ll look at Lake Is­abella and go, ‘Kevin McCarthy? Not a good idea,’ Gara­mendi pre­dicted.

“They’ll go to Sacra­mento: ‘Gavin New­som? Screw him.’ There will be that kind of thing go­ing on, pick­ing and choos­ing based on the pol­i­tics of that par­tic­u­lar pro­ject,” Gara­mendi said.

New­som, Cal­i­for­nia’s new gov­er­nor, called the idea of di­vert­ing dis­as­ter money “un­con­scionable” in a tweet.

Ear­lier this week, Trump re­newed his threat to cut off wildfire dis­as­ter aid to Cal­i­for­nia “un­less they get their act to­gether” on un­spec­i­fied for­est management prac­tices.

Any move to de­clare an emer­gency for the south­ern bor­der would face push­back from Democrats, ei­ther in the form of a le­gal chal­lenge, con­gres­sional ac­tion or both.

But it’s not just Democrats who are con­cerned about di­vert­ing dis­as­ter-re­lated fund­ing. Trump could face bi­par­ti­san ob­sta­cles if he were to pur­sue the idea.

The top Repub­li­can on the House’s tax-writ­ing com­mit­tee, Texas Rep. Kevin Brady, rep­re­sents a Hous­ton dis­trict that was dev­as­tated by Hur­ri­cane Har­vey in 2017. He told re­porters Fri­day that he does not be­lieve the White House will fol­low through.

“I feel con­fi­dent that dis­as­ter re­lief dol­lars will not be tapped,” Brady said, cit­ing his con­ver­sa­tions with the White House. “They’re as­sess­ing through­out the breadth of gov­ern­ment what are the un­ob­li­gated funds and what can be tapped in the short term. But be­yond that, I think it’s an as­sess­ment.”

The con­sid­er­a­tion alone, though, set off Cal­i­for­nia law­mak­ers.

“Just the fact this would be un­der con­sid­er­a­tion is se­ri­ously con­cern­ing,” said Rep. Jared Huff­man, D-San Rafael, who chairs a key water sub­com­mit­tee in the House.

“What­ever he chooses to do, we’re go­ing to take him to court,” Huff­man said. “This is po­lit­i­cal the­ater. He knows he’s not go­ing to get his stupid wall ... so we’re go­ing to have to play out this Kabuki for a few more rounds.”

Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Rich­vale (Butte County), said he was “con­cerned” as well about the Army Corps money sug­ges­tion.

“Let’s be very, very care­ful be­fore we do some­thing that pro­nounced on fund­ing for Puerto Rico — let’s do a bet­ter as­sess­ment of that,” LaMalfa said. “And when we’re talk­ing about some of the other in­fra­struc­ture that would af­fect Cal­i­for­nia’s flood con­trol sys­tems there, again, I’ve got a lot of con­cern about that, be­cause (while) all of the ar­eas I’m hear­ing about aren’t ac­tu­ally my own dis­trict, it’s all kind of a part of a matrix of sys­tems.”

He added that al­though House GOP leader McCarthy is “strad­dling a thin line” in what he can say about Trump pub­licly, the GOP leader’s re­la­tion­ship with the pres­i­dent will “be very, very help­ful.”

Michael Ma­cor / The Chron­i­cle 2017

Bayfront Park in Menlo Park is part of the South Bay salt pond restora­tion pro­ject. Fund­ing for the work may be im­per­iled.

John Blanchard / The Chron­i­cle

Source: South­bayshore­

Michael Ma­cor / The Chron­i­cle 2018

Un­der a fed­eral gov­ern­ment pro­ject, the lev­ees at right even­tu­ally will be breached, al­low­ing San Fran­cisco Bay wa­ters to flow into the marsh­lands at Ravenswood Ponds near Menlo Park.

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