SAN FRANCISCO – President Bush issued an unusual directive to let the Army Corps of Engineers speed up repairs on 29 critically weak levees that protect California's agricultural region and the water supply for millions of residents.
The move, prompted by fears inspired by Hurricane Katrina's devastation, accelerates environmental reviews and lets the Corps accept $23 million from the state to begin work in June. But it stops short of the formal federal disaster declaration that the governor had sought.
"This is an emergency situation," James Connaughton, the president's chief environmental adviser, said Friday. He spoke hours before Bush was to meet with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in San Jose to discuss the issue.
Ultimately the administration expects Congress to contribute three times the state's initial outlay for the project, but the reviews and the ensuing budget battles might have taken years without Bush's action, Connaughton said.
"I think we're breaking through that logjam," he said.
State officials say the repairs are needed to prevent flooding in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and ensure water delivery to cities and farms.
Heavy rains this winter and spring have strained the aging levee system, and snow runoff is expected to test them later this year. Officials also fear that they could fail in an earthquake. The federal government has taken a strong interest in the issue, particularly following the catastrophic flooding that swamped New Orleans after Katrina hit last August.
The governor's administration was measured in its praise, reflecting the complex political relationship that Bush and Schwarzenegger have. Though both are Republicans, they haven't always seen eye to eye.
"Today's announcement is a step in the right direction," said Margita Thompson, spokeswoman for the governor. "However, more work needs to be done if we are going to rebuild our levees as quickly as possible."
Lester Snow, Schwarzenegger's director of water resources, said: "We would have preferred an earlier, more aggressive strategy and action on the part of the White House."
Democrats, however, called for a disaster declaration and a quick infusion of federal cash.
"What part of 'emergency' doesn't President Bush understand?" said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez. "California needs federal money to prevent a Katrina-like emergency, and we need it now."
Connaughton said the president does not plan to declare a pre-emptive federal disaster declaration because such declarations have been issued only when a catastrophe, such as a severe hurricane, was imminent.
Still, Connaughton said, the directive announced Friday is one of only a handful that Bush has issued. It speeds up reviews under the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and another environmental-quality assessment — but will not undermine environmental protection, he said.