The Swarm

Mix it up with The Bee's editorial board.

October 30, 2008
The case for Heather Fargo -- flood control
RCB LEVY_02.JPGSacramento Mayor Heather Fargo stands with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other members of Congress after touring local levees in 2002. Bee photo by Renee C. Byer.
It's hard to write a passionate defense of Mayor Heather Fargo, partly because she seems so incapable of making one for herself.

Until fairly recently, Sacramento's incumbent mayor couldn't seem to specify her personal accomplishments. She often used the term "we" instead of "I." This odd political defect is the arguably the main reason Fargo could lose Tuesday's election, even though she has some successes to brag about and faces a candidate, Kevin Johnson, who has never held public office and carries around some considerable political baggage.

Fargo's main accomplishment involves the single most serious threat to Sacramento - a devastating flood.

For nearly two decades, Fargo has made flood control one of her priorities, first as a council member, then as mayor. She's served on the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency and is currently its chair. She can rightly boast, as she does on her campaign web site, that she's been "a steadfast advocate for repairing our levees and has made countless trips to Washington, DC to lobby the Congress for additional funding..."

Fargo has a seasoned perspective on flood control. She's been through the fights over the never-built Auburn Dam. As late as 1996, she and the SAFCA board supported the "dry dam" concept. But after Congress twice rejected Auburn Dam in 1990s, she and other SAFCA commissioners determined they had to pursue alternatives. They have, and the result - following years of haggling with U.S. Rep. John Doolittle and others -- is the ongoing work to add a new spillway to Folsom Dam, while upgrading levees along the American and Sacramento Rivers.

In 2007, Fargo took the lead in urging residents to approve a $326 million tax assessment needed to land $2 billion in flood-control bond for the state. Because of that assessment, Sacramento is ahead of other local governments in the Central Valley in upgrading its levees and having them certified for 100-year flood protection.

You can fault Fargo for some of her flood-control stands. As a resident of Natomas, she's long minimized the danger that this area - historically known as "American Lake" -- faces from floods. In a 2004 interview, she told me that "the stigma that North Natomas carries is a little unwarranted."

Yet following Hurricane Katrina, FEMA -- for the second time in two decades -- determined that Natomas' levees may not meet federal standards for 100-year flood protection. Fargo's response was to ask Congress to change the law to exempt Sacramento. To her credit, U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui refused to go along.

Even with those shortcomings, I'd rather have Fargo on the SAFCA board than Kevin Johnson, who, while concerned about flood control, has many other priorities. If Johnson were elected mayor, it could take him years to get up to speed on the flood control issues. Sacramento may not have years to spare.

Some readers of this blog, reading my critical comments about Fargo's debate performances, have assumed I'm anti-Fargo. To set the record straight, I respect her public service and advocacy, particularly on flood control. I just wish she could be a better advocate for herself.

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About The Swarm

The Swarm is written by members of The Sacramento Bee's editorial board. They meet daily and are separate from the newsroom. Views included here are those of individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect those of a majority of the board or the positions expressed in The Bee's editorials.

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