February 28, 2017 - From the February, 2017 issue

Gov. Brown Prioritizes California’s Water and Transportation Infrastructure Spending

In the aftermath of the Oroville Dam emergency, Gov. Jerry Brown announced that he wants to accelerate state spending to reduce flood risks and invest in critical infrastructure projects. In addition to asking the federal government to expedite federal environmental reviews on several projects, including repairs to the dam’s spillway, the Governor is seeking increased funding from the federal government to improve dam safety. In the following TPR excerpt of Governor Brown’s Feb 24th press conference, he outlines California’s $187 billion in unmet infrastructure needs and his plans to use a variety of sources to fund projects. The 2014 Water Bond, Proposition 84 funds, and a still-to-be-determined transportation legislative package will start to make dents in California’s crumbling roads and water storage projects. 

Governor Jerry Brown

"Fundamentally, we need to make sure our dams are in order, we need adequate roads, and I believe we need an adequate rail system. These projects, like the Delta WaterFix, are big and long-term. They challenge the status quo of quick wins." - Governor Jerry Brown

Governor Jerry Brown: In response to the recent storms, there are a number of things we face and a number of things we must do. We have dams eroding, roads crumbling, and an aging infrastructure that cannot support us anymore. We are maxed out. What is required is to take immediate actions, which we are doing, and then invest billions of dollars over the long term. We used to call this public works, and there is a lot of public work to be done in California.

The needs of infrastructure are great. We have about $187 billion in unmet infrastructure needs. $50 billion in flood management, $59 billion in deferred highway maintenance, and $78 billion in local streets and roads. If you add the pension liabilities, you can add another $200 or $300 billion. There is real work to be done. The basic core of what government is about is providing adequate infrastructure.

My four-point plan to bolster dam safety and flood protection is to first invest $437 million in near-term flood control and emergency response actions. This will support California’s ongoing emergency flood response by redirecting $50 million from the General Fund, and requesting a $387 million Proposition 1 appropriation from the legislature as soon as possible. This is on top of the $634 million in Prop 1E and Prop 84 bonds funds that will be spent on flood control in the next two fiscal years.

Since 2011, the state has invested $3.1 billion – primarily from state general obligation bonds and the General Fund – to improve the safety of flood control systems, including maintaining and constructing levees. Under Proposition 1, $2.7 billion is being invested in water storage projects – the single largest investment in new dams and reservoirs in decades.

Secondly, I am proposing legislation to require emergency action plans and flood inundation maps for all dams. Starting with the most hazardous, where there are people or property downstream, we need to better manage these critical arteries of infrastructure.  Many dams, such as Oroville, have such plans, but state law does not currently require them. In fact, approximately 30 percent of dams designated as “high-hazard” currently do not have emergency action plans. Low-risk, smaller dams may request waivers as appropriate. Under current law, inundation maps are only filed when a dam in licensed and only consider complete dam failure. The legislation will require inundation maps for all dams to be updated to incorporate new information, including population changes, enhanced mapping technology, and climate impacts. It will require maps to consider multiple scenarios beyond complete dam failure, such as the spillway failure we saw at Oroville.

Under the new requirements, all dam owners under the California Division of Safety of Dams inspection jurisdiction must update their emergency action plans and inundations maps at least every 10 years.

Third, we must enhance our existing dam inspection program. To strengthen this program, I am directing the California Natural Resources Agency to conduct more detailed evaluations of dam appurtenance structures, such as spillways, to include geological assessment and hydrological modeling. This review should be done before the next flood season.

Lastly, I am seeking prompt regulatory relief and action, as well as increased funding from the federal government to improve dam safety. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for developing the reservoir regulation procedures (also known as rule curves) and operational manuals that dictate many aspects of dam management. These are currently outdated, as evidenced by the fact Oroville Dam’s rule curve is 15 years old.

I am requesting that the federal government adopt the state’s new, detailed evaluations of dam appurtenance structures at federal dams, and update these rule curves. The federal government should appropriate funding for the newly created federal program to rehabilitate high-hazard dams.

We also have to deal with transportation, and we have set a deadline to get our transportation funding plan out of the legislature by April 6. It is a tall order, but we are going to do it.

Question: Does the recent actions in Washington by the Trump administration, and California’s open resistance to those executive actions, leave you worried about California’s ability to receive federal funding? 

Governor Brown: In response to the actions in Washington, you have stated a fact that there are many policies that the majority of Californians, myself included, do not agree with. However, we are inextricably linked to the federal government. California is 12% of the entire country, and we are closely linked to the actions and decisions that the President and Congress make. We have to walk a very thoughtful line regarding seeking the funding and help that we need, and also calling out the policies that we object to. 

I have sent the President a letter regarding the emergency declaration, and he responded. Based on the needs of the hour, I will move forward to get the discrete tasks done for the benefit of Californians.

Question: How did we get here, with such large unfunded infrastructure maintenance?

Governor Brown: This is how the world works. The immediate needs of politics always take precedence over the long-term. Fundamentally, we need to make sure our dams are in order, we need adequate roads, and I believe we need an adequate rail system. These projects, like the Delta WaterFix, are big and long-term. They challenge the status quo of quick wins. Big projects are feared today, because they take time and cause problems.

If Oroville Dam were proposed today, there would be major backlash and years of environmental review. I am pushing against the embedded resistance to make sure we prioritize these investments. We cannot have a great state or a great country if we do not invest in ourselves. 

People should have a serious level of concern, although they not need be afraid. Just like with the pension liability, this is a storm cloud that is not going away. We can get at it and address it. However, if you go over to the legislature, they have their own priorities that are also important. It is all about balancing priorities. 

We need to make substantial investments. For example, our transportation funding plan is going to raise fees and give local jurisdictions the ability to raise more funding. If we are going to have a civilized society, we have to pay for it. Government is not people’s favorite item, and people are skeptical. But we have to build confidence now. We need to fix our leaky roof before it costs us significantly more.

Enhancing quality of life, the need for renewable energy, and protecting the environment are critical. California has led on these issues. Today, with more unmet needs, I have to take a more expansive view on investing in infrastructure.


At the age of 78 (almost 79), I see the world very differently than I did 40 years ago as Governor. Now, I hope to provide a solid foundation for future generations to continue the California dream. 

Question: How did the Department of Water Management utilize new technology and information to the Oroville Dam emergency?

Governor Brown: There is always a tension between the generalists and the subject-matter experts. These experts were great in terms of understanding the geological impacts and limitations of the emergency spillway. These were incredibly difficult decisions, and they communicated both the science and the policy effectively. No one is perfect, but we all have to play the cards that we are dealt.

The reason that we did not spend the money a decade ago on rearming the spillway is the same reason we were not spending money on infrastructure two weeks ago. There are so many priorities: affordable housing, childcare, education, immigrants’ rights, and climate change. In a government as big as this, we will never be able to be perfect on everything.

Question: Do we need another bond to pay for some of these infrastructure investments? 

Governor Brown: Sometimes a bond can be good, but in general we need to be doing more pay-as-you-go. Politically, we are in a world where it is a popular opinion to curb all spending of government. But we still need these public works. I am in favor for paying for these improvements as we go. When my father was Governor, we built highways and water projects, and we paid for all of it as we went. There were no bonds. We have to belly up to the bar and start spending money. Will the people reject that? In many cases, they probably will. But we have to keep at it to win a constituency for building a great California in the decades to come. 

Question: How did the Oroville congressman’s letter to President Trump impact your actions?

Governor Brown: Politics is a reaction to striking events. The question is not to release emergency funds, but rather to raise taxes to create more revenue for long-term investments in infrastructure. How do we have money is reserve in in the long run? I believe the Congress is going to be very challenged to make these types of wise investments because of the anti-spending rhetoric we are seeing.

It is always easier to borrow. A bond is ultimately a deferred tax. We need to balance placing the burden on future generations, and potentially look at using more of our existing private capital to get to work for the public good.

Question: What is the plan to find money for water infrastructure? 

Governor Brown: How we get to the $450 billion is still in process. I want to create the context today that these investments are part of the larger picture of a California that has 40 million people. There must be a healthy public expenditure based on taxes. Somehow, we need to bring these urgent needs to the public.

For 300,000 years, people lived in California very lightly. They had little impact on the environment. Our civilization has only worked for a little while, and now we need to make huge investments to make ourselves more sustainable and more resilient. 

We have to lower our impact and find a more elegant way to live in our reality.

If you live in a flood plain, you should be concerned. It is just a reality. We intend to do our best to protect these people through emboldening all of the state and federal rules. What strikes me most about our landscape in California is how engineered it is. Beyond the majestic coasts and mountains, we have engineered massive dams, water movers, spillways, channels, power plants, roads, highways, etc. It is a very sophisticated task to keep everything going right. It will be a continuing challenge.

We have more improved modeling than ever before, so we are giving our experts a better checklist. As the climate changes, large parts of California are going to dry out. The impacts are going to be difficult to manage. We will still have resistance from the Republicans in Washington to admitting there is a problem, but it is coming.

Climate changes are coming faster than we thought. Every degree that the temperature raises, the moisture level is impacted and the amount of snowpack is decreased dramatically. Therefore, we are looking at more storms, more flooding, and less snow storage. 

It’s been a nice ride for the last 150 years, but now we are going to have to step and see what we are made out of. The question is whether 40 million people can live in the geographic area of California as the climate changes, and how these 40 million will invest in their state?  

The risks are almost unlimited. It is always easier to say that we will get to it tomorrow. One of the reasons our housing is so expensive is because we have so many protective rules. The state building code is massively larger than it was 10 or 20 years ago. We are getting incredibly risk-adverse, but we have to find a balance to encourage action in times that call for it. 


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.