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California water projects could be tapped to pay for Trump's border wall

Folsom Dam releases water from Folsom Lake into the American River, in Folsom, Calif., on Jan. 11, 2017.

GARY CORONADO/LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

By SARAH D. WIRE | Los Angeles Times | Published: January 11, 2019

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Officials have given President Donald Trump a plan to divert funds designated for Army Corps of Engineers projects in California and Puerto Rico to help pay for a wall along the southern border, a leading member of Congress said Thursday.

On his way to the Texas border Thursday, Trump was presented with 13 Army Corps of Engineers projects for which Congress has allocated money, but which have not yet been put under contract, according to Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.).

Those funds potentially could be tapped for building a border barrier if Trump declares a national emergency, which he said Thursday he is strongly inclined to do.

Members of Congress in both parties have said that would be an abuse of executive power, but many also have noted that a declaration would seem to make moot the issue at the center of the government-funding impasse that's shuttered many federal agencies for three weeks – Trump's demand for $5.7 billion to build a 234-mile stretch of wall.

Once the president got his money elsewhere, Congress could pass and he could sign legislation funding the quarter of the federal government for which spending hasn't been approved for the remainder of this fiscal year, through Sept. 30.

Yet White House officials on Friday could not say whether Trump would do so. On Saturday, the shutdown will be in its 22nd day, making it the longest ever.

Administration officials on Thursday confirmed that they were looking at a range of government accounts that Trump potentially could tap into, but would not comment specifically on which projects were being eyed.

Garamendi, however, who serves on the House committee that oversees water projects, said he had been told that a series of specific California projects were targeted, some of which are in his congressional district north and west of Sacramento. He would not say who provided the information.

"Word came to us" that Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers "accompanied the president to Texas to specifically discuss projects that could be reprogrammed to provide $5 billion for Trump's wall," Garamendi said. "I know that these projects were identified. I do know that these projects were presented to him."

"I am very comfortable in saying these were the projects that were discussed to be presented to the president," he said.

Trump has been considering an emergency declaration as a way around the current standoff in which a large part of the federal government has been closed for three weeks in a fight over how much – if any – money Trump should get for his long-promised wall at the southern border.

Trump says a wall is needed to solve what he calls a "crisis" at the border. Democrats say it would be costly and ineffective. Negotiations to resolve the shutdown broke down earlier this week.

Some administration officials believe existing laws would give Trump authority to move funds from other projects to the border wall if he declares an emergency. Doing that would allow him to sign the bills needed to reopen government agencies while still saying that he is seeking to build the wall.

Democrats have said they will challenge any such move in court. Whether Trump will take that step remains uncertain; several of his advisors and Republican members of Congress have cautioned against it, fearing that he would lose in court or that the attempt to use emergency powers would set a precedent that a future Democratic president could use to bypass Congress.

Several of the projects Garamendi said were identified have been in the works for years if not decades, and some are in their final stages.

The projects include raising the height of Folsom Dam on the American River in Northern California, protecting Lake Isabella in Kern County from leaking as a result of earthquakes, enlarging the Tule River and Lake Success in the Central Valley and building shoreline protections in South San Francisco.

Together the California projects total $2.46 billion. The projects identified in Puerto Rico total $2.5 billion, Garamendi said.

"Each of these flood-control projects are specifically designed to save the lives of millions of Americans," Garamendi said. "If it's not done this year, or next year, will it make a difference? Maybe not, or maybe it will make all the difference."

Californians in Congress from both parties said Thursday they'd oppose taking the funds from the state projects.

"It's a declaration of war on Californians if he were to do that," said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.).

Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) said he was concerned about taking money from projects in Puerto Rico, which was recently hit by a disastrous hurricane, or from flood control in California, and that any move needs careful consideration.

"Let's do a cease-fire on this stuff – have everyone turn off their Twitter for seven days," LaMalfa said.

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Times staff writer Noah Bierman contributed to this report.
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