Wednesday, June 09, 2004

 

Patchwork levee system

Patchwork levee system

BREAK HIGHLIGHTS FUNDING GAP, IRREGULAR MAINTENANCE

By Juliana Barbassa

Associated Press


FRESNO - A levee break in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta has endangered one of the state's most important sources of water, reminding Californians that the network of walls that protect them, their crops and their water supply is vulnerable and under-funded.

``There is always a concern that one of the levees is going to let go,'' said Don Strickland of the state Department of Water Resources.

A 500-foot section in the Jones Tract Levee near Stockton broke Thursday morning, flooding miles of low-lying farmland. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the area by air on Saturday, a day after he declared a state of emergency and offered financial assistance. Authorities said it would take at least 45 days to repair the levee and pump out the water.

About 6,000 miles of levees -- a patchwork of walls built as far back as the 1850s -- hold back water in a complicated plumbing system that allows farming below sea level in the delta. The system sends water to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and drinking water to about 22 million users as far south as Los Angeles.

But as essential as the levees are to the state, the vast majority of them -- about 4,300 miles -- are in private hands. Their maintenance depends on the resources of the landowners, and there are no maintenance requirements or other standards they have to meet, said state Sen. Michael Machado, D-Stockton, a water expert who toured the site.

Owners try to maintain the barriers by following guidelines set by the state and the U.S. Corps of Engineers for the 1,700 miles of publicly maintained levees, but their ability to do so is limited by their own resources, and impaired by dwindling state assistance.

``As long as the weather's dry, nobody worries about it,'' Machado said.

In 2000, the California Bay-Delta Program, a state-federal partnership created to resolve the state's water disputes, estimated that governments and water districts would need to spend about $187 million by 2004 to restore levees. Less than a third of that amount, $58 million, has been spent so far.

Federal contributions to the program have been limited to $400,000, and the state's portion diminished from $29 million in 2000-2001 to $3.6 million this year.

The delicate weave of narrow channels in the delta balances fresh water from the San Joaquin and the Sacramento rivers with the salty water that reaches in from the San Francisco Bay. That equilibrium is upset when a levee breaks, endangering not only the farms and homes in the way of the flood, but the quality of the water on which the state depends.

A state water official said he was ``cautiously optimistic'' about maintaining water quality in the case of the Jones Tract levee breech.

``We are confident we can address the potential water quality concerns with minimal effects,'' said Curtis Creel of the Department of Water Resources.

But instances like this -- when a levee breaks during the dry season without added pressure from rainfall -- show how vulnerable the system is, Machado said.

This same tract of land was inundated in 1980, and the last time there was a flood not caused by weather was 1982. But wet weather overwhelmed levees and ravaged the Central Valley in 1986, and in 1997, when six people died and 120,000 were forced to leave their homes.

Water filtration systems

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