Sunday, January 29, 2006

When the Levee Breaks

Californians should not have needed the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans to force us to pay attention to things in our own state. We had the flooding of the Jones Tract in 2004 that cost California nearly $100 Million in property damage, repair costs and lost income. In 1997, we had flooding in the San Joaquin Valley that damaged or destroyed 30,000 homes and 2,000 businesses.

Why, then do I still read, as I did in a Visalia Times-Delta editorial this week, that “Tulare County's levee system is a disaster waiting to happen, and no one is taking the lead in addressing it.” The facts that the Times-Delta brings to light would be frightening at any time, but given the examples that we have, border on the criminally irresponsible.

Most of California's vast levee systems are maintained by local, underfunded Levee Protections Districts. As the Times-Delta noted, the last steward of one district retired this month at the age of 80 and there is no one taking his place.

Do not think that these are minor issues confronting a small city in a rural county. The health of the water in the Sacrament – San Joaquin River system is arguably the single most important issue that we have. This water supply supports not only the largest food growing region in the United States, it supplies the drinking water for 20 million people. The loss of reliable, drinkable water from the Delta would have a devastating effect on California's economy and the quality of life of its citizens. In testimony before the House Committee on Resources, California Secretary for Resources, Mike Chrisman referred to a “ticking time bomb for flood management in California”

The response of our governments, Federal, State and local have been predictable. No politician ever found a reason to do sound planning when you have the opportunity to demonstrate that you are doing something about the problem by calling for a major project. That is exactly what Governor Schwarzenegger is doing with his planned infrastructure bond issue. This calls for $68 Billion to be spent on roads, new school construction, water development and levee repair.

There are other solutions to the Delta's problems that do not require big projects. It does not make sense to put new housing in flood plains, yet that is exactly what is happening in the Central Valley. Since the floods on 1997, 30,800 new homes have been built in flood prone areas of San Joaquin County. When the State Reclamation Board decided that they would examine all new proposals for building in the flood plain, Schwarzenegger fired the entire board and replaced it with political appointees. It seems better to spend a lot of money on levees than to refrain from building in a flood plain.

You can not expect much from the Democrats. The current favorite to face Schwarzenegger in the general election this year, Phil Angelides is a developer himself whose company participated in the development of suburbs along Laguna Creek in Sacramento County flood plain areas. This from a company that some have the audacity to call environmentally responsible.

Responses from the Federal Government have also been lacking. In September, 2005, Governor Schwarzenegger sent a letter to Senator Feinstein and Representative Pombo that identifies 12 priority projects where federal funding was required to avoid a New Orleans style disaster. Feinstein and Pombo took a lot of credit for doing very little. When this year's Energy and Water bills passed through Congress and were signed into law, the Delta agencies, especially Feinstein's favorite CalFed Project received $750,000 to study the problem.

The land is the delta is sinking. Increased development and over pumping of underground water increases the rate of subsidence. The rate of subsidence on some Delta tracts is as high as 18 inches in ten years. We also know that the ocean level is rising, slightly, due to the melting of the polar ice caps, but still it is enough to increase the erosion effects of waves on the levees.

The are solutions available that do not required building Netherlands style dikes around then entire area. It does not take a genius to understand that it is not a good idea to build more housing on flood prone land. It does take political will to go against the rich developers who contribute so much to our politicians: Angelo Tsakopoulos made Phil Angelides. Tsakopoulos and Angelides are major contributors to Democratic officials, including Feinstein. Alexander Spanos and Fritz Grupe, both major Stockton area developers with plans for delta tracts, are major supporters of Pombo.

As long as our politicians are funded by developers with a vested interest in developing the cheapest flood prone lands and then having the tax payers pick up the tab to protect them, we are not going to have sensible solutions to the problems of safe and sustainable water supplies. As long as we are willing to settle for studies when low cost planning solutions are easily implemented, we will end up paying, again and again.

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