Politicos ask for $100.4 million to help rebuild Whittier Narrows Dam before a breach endangers 23 cities
Frustrated by continual delays in refurbishing the Whittier Narrows Dam, U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano summoned the commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to her office in Washington D.C. last week.
Her tete-a-tete with Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite produced the same refrain the agency has been telling the 1 million people threatened by flooding if the eroding dam were to fail: The $500 million project will be completed in 2025 — at the soonest.
Not satisfied, Napolitano, D-El Monte, who is 82, said she’s been working on getting the Army Corps to hasten the project for the last 12 years and wondered if she’d be alive by the time it gets finished.
So she sweetened the pot.
On Tuesday, Napolitano, D-El Monte and U.S. Rep. Linda Sánchez, D-Norwalk asked a House Appropriations subcommittee to funnel $100.4 million into the Army Corps’ construction and dam safety correction budget for fiscal year 2020, citing the Whittier Narrows Dam in Pico Rivera as a leading contender for at least part of that funding.
The two members of Congress sent a letter to U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Resources. It was also signed by reps. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena; Gilbert Cisneros Jr. D-Fullerton and Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach.
The letter said the repair of the 62-year-old dam is urgent, “due to recently identified flood risk concerns and the large population of downstream residents. The human and economic impact of possible dam failure due to potential seepage and hydrologic issues is unacceptable.”
However, money may not be the issue. The Army Corps is close but finalization of the environmental documents is two months away. And even though the dam is one of 13 “high risks” dams in the country, it is the only one for which a final design has not yet been approved.
“He was adamant that they will finish,” Napolitano said during a phone interview Tuesday, sounding not completely convinced, because the project has not begun. Even if all the environmental reviews are completed as planned, construction would not start until 2021, she said.
“It isn’t something that we can ignore anymore. We don’t know what Mother Nature can do. We could get a 100-year flood,” she said.
Indeed, the Army Corps’ recently reclassified the dam to “very high urgency” because if something does go drastically wrong during a major storm, the water would spill downstream into homes at a rate of three Olympic-sized swimming pools every second, the project manager told an audience during a meeting in January in Alhambra.
If a storm were to bring the reservoir to capacity, water would overflow the concrete spillway, sending 276,000 cubic feet per second of water downstream, overflowing the banks of the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo rivers and affecting the communities of:
- Bell Gardens
- Hawaiian Gardens
- La Palma
- Long Beach
- Pico Rivera
- Santa Fe Springs
- Seal Beach
- South Gate