Inching closer to final approval from the U.S. Congress, the St. Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial Act has been rolled into a lands package, S. 47, introduced in the Senate on Tuesday by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
The original bill, HR 2156 was introduced in the House of Representatives in April 2017 by then-Rep. Steve Knight, R-Palmdale. It would establish the 353-acre St. Francis Dam Disaster National Monument to commemorate the more than 400 people killed after the dam collapsed on March 12, 1928, and encompass the site of the St. Francis Dam National Memorial in San Francisquito Canyon.
HR 2156 passed the House on July 31, 2017. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, then introduced a companion bill in the U.S. Senate, S. 1926, which was co-signed by her colleague Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California.
In October 2018, the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources adopted S. 1926/HR 2156 by unanimous consent.
However, joint staff amendments by the committee reduced the site’s acreage from the originally proposed 440 acres to 353 acres to exempt a small piece of property on which mineral rights are privately owned and to preserve maintenance access for public utility personnel.
The legislation then headed to the desk of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. But it stalled there because the Senate Majority Leader did not bring the bill to a floor vote before the 115th Congressional session ended.
With the 116th Congress now in session, the effort to win final approval continues with Murkowski’s introduction of S. 47, the Natural Resources Management Act in the Senate.
The St. Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial Act is now Sec. 1111 of her bill, which has five Senate co-sponsors.
On Wednesday, Murkowski’s bill was read a second time and placed on the Senate Legislative Calendar under General Orders, Calendar No. 7, but no specific date has been set.
“Now (the Natural Resources Management Act) needs to go back to the House of Representatives before anything else can happen,” said Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel, president of the Community Hiking Club, one of the nonprofit proponents of the legislation. She and Alan Pollack, president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, worked to draft the proposed bill.
“Once the House passes it, the bill will come back to the Senate for a floor vote,” she said.
“I spoke last week with our new Congresswoman, Katie Hill, and she is aware of (the legislation), as are her Legislative Director and District Director,” Erskine-Hellrigel said. “Hill’s offices are being set up as we speak, so there may be a little delay, but I anticipate the introduction will take place in the House in short order.”
Erskine-Hellrigel believes once that happens, “We’ll be on our way, and things will move forward in the Senate. Sen. Murkowski has the incentive to get the lands package out because there are many lands bills in there that affect Alaska. So, we’re keeping our fingers crossed that after all this, the president will sign it.”
The St. Francis Dam failure was the second-deadliest disaster in California history and the nation’s worst civil engineering failure of the 20th Century. The ensuing flood killed an estimated 411 people along the Santa Clara River floodplain as the water rushed to the ocean, causing millions of dollars in damage to the communities in the SCV as well as downriver in Rancho Camulos, Piru, Fillmore, Bardsdale, Santa Paula, Saticoy and Montalvo.
William Mulholland, head of the Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works and Water Supply, now known as the LADWP, oversaw construction of the dam. He resigned as a result of its failure.
Erskine-Hellrigel noted the effort to get a St. Francis Dam bill passed is now in its sixth year.
“Such a headache this has been for such a non-controversial bill with no appropriations attached,” she said. “And we cannot move ahead with fundraising (to build the monument and a vistor’s center) until it’s passed.”