Jerry Brown Sees The Forest But Keeps Missing The Trees

When Jerry Brown came out with his $100 billion wish list of key projects on February 7 in response to Trump’s call for a $1 trillion investment in national infrastructure, his bullet train came before any flood control projects. Of the five flood control projects listed, none had to do with the Oroville Dam. 

Oroville is the highest dam in the state, but its main spillway is damaged and its “emergency spillway” is nothing but a gigantic dirt pile that could collapse in heavy rains, inundating up to 180,000 people. That was narrowly avoided in the latest round of rains, but it could still happen. And that would be inexcusable.

More than a decade ago, environmental groups warned that the dam’s big dirt pile needed a concrete coat, but state and federal regulators didn’t pay them any mind. Nor did Brown include money for fixing up existing dams when he pushed through his $7.5 billion water bond. That bond explicitly covered only new water storage projects and not existing ones.

Now, Brown announced he wants to spend  $450 million on flood control after all—which is a literal drop in the bucket. The state needs to spend billions over three decades to do flood control justice. All roads lead back to climate change. Easily half of California’s 1,300 dams need fixing, lots are silted up, old, and seismically unsafe. On top of that, dams like Oroville were not constructed to handle fast-running rainwater. They were built to handle slow snow-melts. Climate change has changed all that.

We need to scrap plans for new dams, fix up our most critical dams, and manage flooding differently where possible by allowing water to flow and soak into flood plains instead of damming it up. Farmers and cities can access that water by pumping it out of basins. But Governor Brown is focused on the forest--on climate summits, on bullet trains, on highways clogged with electric cars--without noticing the trees.

As our report, How Green Is Jerry Brown?, found, his record is murky at best on dealing with unfolding environmental catastrophes. His firing at the behest of Occidental Petroleum of oil and gas regulators who tried to make drilling safer led to the poisoning of protected aquifers with thousands of drilling wastewater injections. Now his regulators are banking on the Trump Administration's EPA to grant them exemptions to keep right on going when we might need to drink that water.

His New York state counterpart Andrew Cuomo banned fracking with a stroke of a pen. Instead, Brown nurtured it. 

His regulators’ rush to reopen the unnecessary Aliso Canyon natural gas reserve that suffered the biggest methane leak in US history—without knowing what caused it---threatens residents still suffering nosebleeds, rashes, and nausea all over again. Brown has supported the building of a flotilla of fossil fuel power plants that California doesn't need for major investor-owned utilities like Sempra, just like his regulators support reopening Aliso, which is nothing but a piggybank for utilities to buy gas low and sell high. 

He's got a conflict of interest--his sister Kathleen has been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to sit on the board of Sempra, whose Southern California Gas company owns Aliso. She’s also invested in a company planning  luxury housing right next to Aliso. But Brown should have no conflict when it comes to protecting the public in a daily basis from oil and gas pollution, and from the toxic emissions coming from metal processors and refineries.

Brown made a surprise trip to Oroville on February 22, getting an aerial view of the damaged dam and meeting with local officials. But he didn’t visit any evacuees who were commanded to flee earlier in the month with just the clothes on their backs, just like he never set foot in east Los Angeles after its lead poisoning by battery recycler Exide.

It’s time for Brown to marry his interest in slowing climate change with an interest in the welfare of the people that he governs on a daily basis. That’s where the rubber really meets the road.

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