Why do they celebrate when they take our property rights away?

July 05, 2012 | By JONATHAN WILLIAMS

Last Friday I attended a meeting of the Central Valley Flood Protection Board.  The Board unanimously approved a plan that has received both national and local coverage.  The plan will dramatically reshape property rights in California’s Central Valley.

In 2007, Governor Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 5.  The bill expanded the Central Valley Flood Protection Board’s power and required the Department of Water Resources to conduct planning to expand flood protection in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley. DWR researched the plan for two years and released the plan in December 2011.  

The public only had six months to comment and review the 162-page draft.  Although the agency intentionally left the document vague the department included enough provisions to scare supporters of property rights and limited government.

The plan will affect a 250-mile stretch of the valley from north of Chico to North of Fresno.  Here is a sampling of the provisions:

1)    Local agencies will be able to release floodwaters onto “over” 35-40,000 acres
2)    “Over” 10,000 acres of agricultural lands will be converted to habitat restoration.
3)    The Board plans to acquire easements to prevent development on land in other rural areas, which the California Farm Bureau estimates will affect between 160,000 and 230,000 acres.
4)    The plan will restrict growth in rural communities that do not reach the 200 year level of flood protection.
5)    Communities will have to expand levees or bypasses and/or flood-proof homes before approving permits for home renovations.
6)    Communities with more than 10,000 residents will be forced to achieve 200-year flood protection– double the federal standard– in order to approve new developments.
7)    Local governments must alter their general plans to match the state-wide plan by July 1, 2014.  Municipalities will also be required to amend zoning ordinances by July 1, 2015.
8)    The plan will impose a number of measures that place fish and other species ahead of economic interests.
9)    Farmers may face liability for activities near areas set aside for habitat restoration.

The provisions force rural communities to make sacrifices to benefit urban areas.  Governments will be forced to:
1)    Restrict development
2)    Seize property from landowners (and be liable for any resulting litigation)
3)    Lose revenue from agricultural land taken out of production.
4)    Make an estimated $1 Billion contribution to flood control projects. (Although the state has promised some compensation, in an era of increasing budget deficits it is hard to trust this promise).

State officials have estimated that all of these improvements will cost taxpayers $17 billion.  Jeffrey Mount, a geology professor at UC Davis who founded the Center for Watershed Sciences — and is actively involved in conservation efforts — estimates that even this figure may underestimate the cost.

Although I did not attend previous meetings of the Board, I fully expected that these onerous provisions would cause much controversy at the confirmation vote.  Not so.  The meeting started with Department of Water Resources staff presentations.  One board member, Emma Suarez, asked whether the staff had incorporated public comments into their assessments. One staff member noted the size of the reports and joked that she did not expect the members to have read them.

After the staff reports, representatives from Yolo County and the California Farm Bureau spoke during the public comment period.  The Farm Bureau representative was thankful that an expansion of the Feather River Bypass was tabled for later discussion. Both parties expressed hope that public input would be solicited and incorporated in the Board’s future evaluations.

The public comments did not sway the board. Following the public comment period the board members made short speeches congratulating each other and the staff for the historic occasion.   Finally, after a unanimous vote, the Board basked in a round of applause.

Although the Board and environmental activists are excited about these changes, it was an unfortunate day for Californians.  During the next few years the Board will be spending billions of taxpayer dollars.  Government agencies will seize property and restrict development throughout the Valley.  The plan consolidates flood control in a state bureaucracy unaccountable to the citizens.  Although the vote was certainly historic, I refused to clap.