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Napa River flood project fundingebbs and rises, delaying completion
The Napa River at the northern edge of the oxbow in downtown Napa, where flood control work is projected to take place along in the coming years. The project was originally projected to be completed in 2007, but now it appears it will not be done until at least 2011. Lianne Milton / Register

If everything had gone as planned, the Napa River flood control project would now be in its final year of construction. But things have not gone as planned.

In fact, local and federal officials engage every year in a bureaucratic dance, one that local officials are tiring of as the years drag on. Constant cutbacks and federal and state reluctance to fully fund the project is having devastating effects. As deadlines get pushed back, the years of flood-prone worry increase.

One bright spot in flood control funding is the local sales tax contribution. The funds provided by 1998's Measure A are running well ahead of original estimates, and if they weren't the project would be even further behind. As things stand, the projected date for completion of the project is 2011, and — primarily because of budget uncertainty — it may be as late as 2014.

A review of the annual federal lobbying efforts by flood control officials shows a similar pattern each year. The Napa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District makes a request of the administration based on what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers believes it can accomplish in a given fiscal year. The administration comes back with a proposed amount in its first edition of the budget, generally far less than the original request.

At that point, local officials and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, intensify their lobbying in Washington, D.C. Prodding and cajoling occurs in the halls of Congress and at the Army Corps of Engineers, congressional conferences take place, and finally a new figure emerges somewhere between the original request and the administration's first cut at the budget.

Except for 2001, when the federal funding target was relatively small, the amount received has never approached the amount requested.

In fiscal year 2001, the Napa project sought and received $4 million. From there, it was downhill. From 2002 through 2006, just over half the requests came through. Of the $95 million in requests, $56 million came to Napa.

State of California

in arrears

The state also plays a significant role providing "subvention" funds, which are a match of federal money, though not dollar for dollar.

Since 2000, the flood control district has asked Sacramento for $92.6 million and received $31.8 million. Napa project officials are leaning on the state for $51 million in back payments.

Separately, the state has denied $7.6 million in claims. Flood project spokesman Barry Martin said that denial is being appealed.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has put the $51 million in his pending public works bond proposals, which means it could trickle in between 2007 and 2011 or even later. Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, has said she will push the governor to place the funds in the state budget, so it will not depend on the success of a proposed bond measure for Napa to secure the money.

The Napa project also envisions receiving another $37 million in future claims from the state.

A steady funding source

Napa County voters approved a half-cent sales tax in 1998. With those revenues exceeding expectations, the local contribution to the project has been more than $60 million. Only $44 million had been anticipated in the first six years.

In the first year of collection, the tax came in $1 million ahead of projections and has remained well above estimates ever since, including the most recent reporting year of 2003-04, when it was more than $4 million above the forecast.

Low funding levels, slow construction progress

As time passes, inflation, higher construction costs and especially higher real estate costs have escalated the total project cost from its original $155 million to the current $288 million.

In order to complete the project, flood officials have been acquiring properties or parts of properties along the Napa River in order to build flood walls and flood terraces.

Until now, construction of flood control features has mostly taken place south of downtown. In the coming years, work is slated for the area around downtown, the oxbow and Napa Creek.

At slightly more than half done, the project probably had some beneficial effect in the recent flooding, though Martin likened the situation to a house getting a new roof that's only half on. Some parts will see some protection, but the bottom line is that it still gets plenty wet.

Local officials will be in Washington, D.C. again in March and this time will be seeking $31 million, the most requested yet in a single year. That would allow the project to catch up with the construction capabilities of the Army Corps of Engineers. After that, it is estimated it would take $25 million a year to complete the flood control project by 2011.

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