By a Landslide

Sonoma County to front cost of water gauges in hope FEMA will reimburse

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors was scheduled to vote Tuesday to spend up to $400,000 to install rain and stream gauges throughout the county, a move undertaken out of a growing concern over landslides on eroded hilltops and mountains scorched in October’s wildfires.

The fear, says Supervisor James Gore, is “melting mountains” around the region. County officials are rightly concerned, he says, over the possibility that the regional drinking water supply might be compromised in the event of massive rain-driven landslides.

Extensive mudslides have the potential to impact drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people in the North Bay, says Gore, if muddy water clogs the county’s filtration system.

On Tuesday, the supervisors authorized the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) to execute a year-long contract with an as-yet-undetermined consultant under a program called the Burn Area Watershed Protection: Flood Warning Monitoring Network.
The consultant will work with SCWA to install 11 stream gauges and 11 rain gauges, and associated tech, “as part of a post-fire early warning and monitoring system, to protect the public and property during storm events.” The agency already has a handful of the gauges spread around the region. New gauges would be installed along Mark West Creek and elsewhere around the county. A Cal Fire post-mortem of the Nuns and Tubbs zones found a “higher potential for landslides, debris flows, and flash floods that could be a risk to public safety and property.”

That was one of several contracts on the agenda last Tuesday designed to stave off the threat of a water-borne disaster in the county. Supervisors also approved an additional no-bid, no environmental-review contracts totaling $900,000 for emergency tree removal and cliff stabilization, sewer repairs “to prevent any hazardous waste from entering the watershed” and to provide utility hookups to meet the imminent arrival of FEMA trailers for the dispossessed.

The North Bay has received up to six inches this rainy season, according to National Weather Service data cited by the county.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, who lost her Oakmont home to the inferno, noted early in the meeting Tuesday that despite the recent rain, there’s an absence of new green growth on Hood Mountain. “I am very worried about Mt. Hood.”

The emergency expenditure highlights a dynamic in which FEMA determines whether a local expenditure that was reimbursed ought to have been reimbursed. That process can play out for years after a disaster has been all but remediated. Supervisor Shirlee Zane noted on Tuesday that the SCWA will put in the request with FEMA to see if the water gauge expenditure is reimbursable. That remains to be seen.

The resolution passed Tuesday highlighted an “ongoing emergency need to abate and stabilize dangerous conditions resulting from the Sonoma Complex Fires” as it extended the county’s suspension of competitive bidding requirements for emergency-related contracts and exempted contracts from California Environmental Quality Act review.

The streamlined contract approval is in place because the county remains under an emergency disaster declaration made by the federal government and the state Office of Emergency Services soon after the fires broke out on Oct. 8. The emergency declaration makes it possible to expedite contracts without the typical procurement process, which can last months. The county passed resolutions on Tuesday that highlighted the rain-season urgency as it gave a green light to the relevant county agencies (i.e., General Services) to engage in the no-bid contracts.

FEMA disaster-recovery programs for which reimbursement is available fall under two general categories: the Personal Assistance Program, which assists individuals who suffered losses; and the Hazard Mitigation Program, designed to reimburse funds to localities after a disaster when money has been laid out locally to protect infrastructure that was not damaged by the disaster itself but which could be impacted by its aftermath. The SCWA says it will apply for reimbursement of the rain gauges through the Personal Assistance FEMA pipeline.

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The county would of course like FEMA to pay for everything related to disaster recovery, but Gore warns of the prospect of a FEMA “clawback” of funds.

FEMA audits its financial response to a disaster to determine if there were monies that should not have been devoted to localities for post-disaster work. Often the issue is a lack of understanding on the part of local officials over what’s reimbursable and what isn’t. A 2016 report from the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (FEMA is an agency
of the DHS) determined that out of $1.55 billion that FEMA spent on disasters in 2015, nearly
$457 million was subject to a FEMA clawback.

The report noted that FEMA didn’t necessarily claw back the questionable reimbursements if they ran afoul of federal contracting requirements (i.e., minority set-asides), but was more inclined to claw back money that was errantly spent on infrastructure upgrades that aren’t covered under the FEMA rules.

With nearly 5,100 fewer homes in the county and around a thousand businesses destroyed in the county, the ripple effects from the fires have already taken root and include the looming potential for upwards of $30 million in lost property tax revenues in the region, which could translate into a three-way, $10 million deficit for schools, local budgets and the county budget, says Gore.

The disaster trickle-down has already manifested into additional workload for two positions that provide critical auditing and accountability services to the county. One is county auditor-controller Erick Roeser, who, reports Gore, is “having to move people from the auditor’s office to help FEMA.” That means he’s spending less time on day-to-day county auditing services. Roeser and the other in-house auditor, County Clerk-Recorder-Assessor Bill Rousseau are the county equivalent, Gore says, of an internal Office of the Inspector General who audit county policies and spending.

With millions of dollars in grant money and other disaster assistance pouring into the county (the county recently made available, for instance, some $900,000 for post-fire mental-health services), Gore says he’s been in conversations with both officials to make sure they’re keeping tabs on the glut of disaster-related money.

“The one thing we need right now,” says Gore, “is to track the money coming into the county.” One question he’s been asking the county auditors gets at their role as in-house fiscal watchdogs: “How are you guys going to track the money coming in and out of this place?”

The accruing costs and attendant pressure on key county staff is all the more reason, Gore says, for the county to find ways to get FEMA to pay for as much of the recovery as possible—and to make sure that the county is sufficiently staffed to effectively work FEMA’s Public Assistance and Hazard Mitigation programs. But according to the SCWA, there’s no guarantee that FEMA will pick up the tab for those emergency rain or stream gauges, or other disaster-related projects.

The water agency is footing the initial bill for the $400,000 contract and might wind up eating the cost should FEMA decide the money is not reimbursable. “The Water Agency intends to apply for reimbursement of this expense under [FEMA’s] Public Assistance funds,” according to water-agency documents that were a part of the Tuesday meeting, “although there is no guarantee of full or partial reimbursement.”

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