California’s bayou

Sacramento and New Orleans are 2,000 miles apart. But when the Crescent City
was submerged in what the media insisted on calling “toxic gumbo” following
Hurricane Katrina, it brought overdue attention to the neglected levees of
California’s Delta.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that estimates for the amount of money
needed to completely fix the Delta levees could range up to $1.5 trillion,
according to Ron Ott, deputy director of the California Bay-Delta Authority.

Ott came up with that shocking figure by comparing the Delta system to
Holland; that country is in the midst of investing $2.5 trillion in repairs
and upgrades to the system of dykes and levees that keeps much of its land
out of the Atlantic. The Delta levee system is about 60 percent the size of
Holland’s–and $1.5 trillion is about 40 times larger than the entire
infrastructure-bond package voters will decide on this fall.

Not doing anything about the Delta isn’t an option. The Delta levees protect
an estimated 450,000 acres of farmland–not to mention the majority of the
state’s drinking water.

“It’s the only place in the world where 23 million people drink out of an
estuary,” Ott said. “Most people would say you were nuts if you did that.”

Luckily, a lot of good can be done for far less–that is, once one gets
through all the red tape, said Gilbert Labrie, vice president of DCC
Engineering, which does work for many of California’s flood-control
districts. After submitting a proposal to the Army Corps of Engineers to fix
one badly damaged site that carries Endangered Species Act designation, his
company spent months waiting for a reply.

Then Katrina happened, and someone made phone call to Rep. Richard Pombo,
the Tracy Republican whose district sits in the lower Delta. Pombo “rattled
some cages” to get the project unstuck, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger acted
even faster, adding the site to the list of 29 “critical” zones he wants the
state to fix.

“Now the state is going to do it for us,” Labrie said.

The Delta’s levees are built to withstand a 300-year flood–just like New
Orleans’ levees were. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was
much-maligned in the wake of Katrina, has most of the Delta’s levees rated
as safe, Labrie said. But they also haven’t inspected most of them in years.

Federal money should be on the way as well. Congress has authorized $90
million to fix 23 sites, said Lynn O’Leary, Delta project manager for the
Corps. However, she warns the money is not yet a sure thing: “Authorized is
not appropriated.”

Then there is the whole matter of liability. In 1986, a levee broke in Yuba
County. Though the original levees had been built by farmers, the levees had
been adopted into the State Plan of Flood Control. Responsibility was later
turned over to a local agency, but then the levees broke and landowners sued
the state. The case took two decades and made it all the way to the U.S.
Supreme Court, but the homeowners finally settled for $464 million–money
California will be paying off for years.

“The state has been very shy about signing on for flood-control projects
[since then],” said Dave Mraz, acting chief of the Delta-Suisun Marsh Office
for the California Department of Water Resources.

Liability is a growing issue, literally, as the Delta sits in what is the
rapidly expanding Northern Central Valley. Last year, the Great Valley
Center, which studies agriculture and population issues, said the number of
people living in the area could double by 2040.

Another group that is growing is the researchers who say it would be a
terrible idea to allow such growth. Among these is Jeff Mount, a geology
professor at UC Davis. Mount has argued that the Delta is under a major
threat because of a combination of earthquakes, sinking islands and global

After all, the Delta is connected to the Pacific Ocean via San Francisco
Bay. It only came into being 7,000 years ago, as glacial melting at the end
of the last ice age raised sea levels. Even conservative climate watchers
are expecting a one- to three-foot rise by the end of the century; some
claims there will be a 13 foot rise by 2100. This could not only sink the
levees and inundate its intricate network of islands, it also could flood
the Delta with salt water, forcing an already parched state to search for
new sources, or build expensive desalinization plants.

Can the Delta be saved?

“That depends on your time-frame,” Mraz said. “If you’re looking at the next
50 years, I think we can and must preserve the Delta.

“However, over the next 1,000 years, yes, we’re going to lose it.”

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