Personnel profile: Rob Vining

Rob Vining is vice president at HNTB Corp. who has been working on levee systems in California and elsewhere. We caught up with him recently to talk about the Delta and water issues.

What are you working on lately?
We are currently under contract with both the Los Angeles and San Francisco districts, and the Metropolitan Water District for Bay Delta issues. We’ve been innovating some tools and technologies that have been applied by the state of Louisiana in the flood-fight effort that’s underway on the Mississippi right now. We’re working with Phil Isenberg and the Bay Delta Stewardship Council, commenting on the latest drafts of the Delta Plan. We are the designer currently on a project up in Seattle, a transportation tunnel 62 feet in diameter, right under downtown Seattle.  

You ever been on the underground tour of Seattle?
I have to do the one here. I have been on the one in Seattle. I grew up in the state of Washington. It (Sacramento/Northern California) has a lot  of similarities to Seattle – you’ve got the rock, the fill down at the bay. That tunnel is innovating a lot of technology and approaches that both the California Dept. of Water Resources and the Metropolitan Water District are very interested in learning from.

At the ACWA conference this week there was a panel which the deputy secretary of resources, Jerry Merrill, facilitated with Mark Cohen, the DWR director, and Phil Isenberg and Mike Machado. He’s representing the Delta interests. This is not so much an engineering challenge as getting the coalition the support to move forward on this project – how to balance the environmental needs in the Delta with the long-term water supply dependability issues.

Talk a little bit about the risk in Sacramento versus other places.
Through Sacramento, the older homes, Victorian homes, have the stairs that go up to the first floor. That wasn’t because it’s just a nice way to build homes. [If you flood] you rebuild and keep going on. But the Pocket area or Natomas don’t have homes like that. They’re all on slab, right on the ground. It’s cheap. And they [the builders] are going to be gone before anything happens. Frankly, it’s the local land control that lets that happen. Really, lack of control.

In the current political environment, that would be considered very intrusive by a lot of people.
We as a country do a pretty decent job of responding to disasters, but we do a very lousy job of preparing to minimize the impact of those disasters. Flooding is still by far the greatest loss of life and property damage that happens on an annual basis in this country, rather than hurricanes, tornados and earthquakes combined. The building standards have been modified in California particularly to minimize seismic risk. That’s been found necessary and acceptable.

The flood situation, there are laws that have been in place, particularly the Stafford Act (1988), you can rebuild one time, but it hasn’t been enforced very well. You can’t just keep rebuilding time after time. We’ve approached the flood standard issue more through an insurance process rather than building standards. If you go back to New Orleans, homes that are being rebuilt have to be above the 100-year storm surge line. You have homes that are being rebuilt that are literally 15 feet off the ground now.

In Natomas, the flood risk wasn’t adequately appreciated when the developments were occurring. Experience has been that local communities have a hard time enforcing building codes. It’s gotta occur at either the state or federal level. Typically that’s been done on the flood side on the ability to get insurance or not, and the rates you pay. The logic is that the insurance would be so high people would move out of an area or build homes more conducive to being flooded. In my mind, the jury’s still out on whether that logic really is working.
With all the flooding on the Mississippi, you’re starting to hear talk of moving rivers more back to their natural state and having floodplains, farm fields or parks instead of buildings. You have that in Sacramento on a very small scale.

That to me is the opportunity and the need. Managing flood risk in this country in a more comprehensive manner than building a dam or higher levees. The flood that’s coming down the Mississippi right now, depending on where you are, is the flood of record or one of the top three. It is a massive event.

To me, what’s really the story out of that is the flood protection system this country built on the lower Mississippi is fundamentally one working with the natural environment. There weren’t big reservoirs. They have backwater areas intended to flood, floodways like the Yolo bypass, designed in weak spots in levees that could be blown out of flood agricultural areas. For the population centers, this is a curiosity, but it’s really not the devastating event that it would have been before.

The Sacramento system is similar to the Mississippi in many regards. The lower area of Sacramento gets below sea level, you have this rich agricultural land. On the west side of Sacramento, there’s really no area to store water. There’s land below sea level. Rivers carry sediment and build their own levees. It’s naturally levied off. We come in and accentuate those levels, build them higher. In the natural cycle, there’s regular events where the river will overflow these areas and flood back in and deposit a whole lot of rich soil, which makes the areas now so productive. Before development occurred in the Sacramento area, the Delta was for months out of the year a lake. It was only when our predecessors came in and realized how rich the soil was and they had all these hungry miners that wanted to eat, so they started levying off the river.

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