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By a Landslide

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

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WHEN IT RAINS, IT POURS To address the threat of mudslides on fire-scorched mountains in Sonoma County, the board of supervisors approved a network of early warning rain and stream gauges.
  • WHEN IT RAINS, IT POURS To address the threat of mudslides on fire-scorched mountains in Sonoma County, the board of supervisors approved a network of early warning rain and stream gauges.

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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