After Katrina, Closer Scrutiny of California's Levees

Officials are still investigating why the levee system failed to protect New Orleans from flooding. At the same time, California geologists and engineers are questioning the structural integrity of the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta levees. If they fail, it could threaten the water supply for much of the state. Jason Margolis of member station KQED reports.

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In New Orleans, the levees that were supposed to protect the city did not. Engineers say the problem was a predicted disaster and could at least have been mitigated. The issue is not unique to New Orleans. In California, engineers and geologists are raising the same red flag about the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta levees. For decades, they've warned these levees--which protect much of the state's water supply--are at risk. And as Jason Margolis of member station KQED reports, there's concern that the state is not moving quickly enough to deal with the problem.

JASON MARGOLIS reporting:

The California delta changed dramatically about 150 years ago when early California settlers began transforming marshes into farmlands, hastily building levees often with weak foundations.

Mr. JOHN CAIN (Natural Heritage Institute): It was never done with some great engineered plan; it was just done year after year with casual labor.

MARGOLIS: John Cain is an ecologist with the non-profit group the Natural Heritage Institute.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

MARGOLIS: He walks along a levee road and explains how the delta has become a complex labyrinth of 700 miles of water channels and some 70 small islands. These islands are sparsely populated, but two-thirds of Californians rely on these waters for part of their drinking supply. Over the years, the islands, which are essentially marsh lands, have sunk 15 to 25 feet below sea level due to farming. John Cain.

Mr. CAIN: These delta islands are actually better described as holes surrounded by levees. And if these levees fail, saltwater will rush into these holes, these delta islands, and bring saltwater into the delta, the drinking water supply system for 22 million Californians.

MARGOLIS: A recent study by University of California scientists predicts a two-in-three chance of a catastrophic levee failure in the next 50 years from either a flood or earthquake. Geologist Jeffrey Mount with UC Davis co-authored the study. He says it's nearly impossible to build a fail-safe levee, but there is more that we can do. Still, there's a problem.

Mr. JEFFREY MOUNT (UC Davis): But the costs of doing that are huge. I mean, they're just so immense and that's why we don't do it.

MARGOLIS: In the billions of dollars, in fact. And Mount says progress on the levees is further bogged down in bureaucracy.

Mr. MOUNT: Who's in charge? That's a good question. Who is in charge? Really nobody. And since there is no state policy that governs such a thing and there is no state organization that governs it, so it is ad hoc and chaotic.

MARGOLIS: Currently, local farmers and reclamation districts are responsible for maintaining about 90 percent of the delta levees with some state and federal government assistance. That's the way things have been done here for about a century. Many say the process works because those closest to the levees are the ones watching over them. Still, locals say they're overwhelmed and underfunded, locals like Tom Williams, who runs one of the reclamation districts in the region. It's his job to make sure 16 miles of levees here on his island are in good shape.

Mr. TOM WILLIAMS: The biggest thing you're looking for is wet spots down at the base of the levee, what we call seepage.

MARGOLIS: He drives along the levee wall looking for potential problems. He works with a skeleton crew, he says, on a skeleton budget.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, our total annual budget is approximately $255,000. With that, it is a bare-bones minimum program just to maintain what we have; not to make it any better, but just to keep the rock in place.

MARGOLIS: But there has been some state money invested recently. California voters passed a $3 billion bond three years ago to address a variety of water management projects in the state. Some of this money went to strengthen about 20 percent of Williams' levees. The California Department of Water Resources is also using bond money to begin a two-year study analyzing risks to delta levees and cost-effective ways to tackle the problems. Curt Schmutte oversees the project.

Mr. CURT SCHMUTTE (California Department of Water Resources): I think it's pretty clear now that the level of risk is higher than is acceptable, and the question is: How much do we need to spend in order to reduce that level of risk to something that brings the consequences down to a level that the society and the public are willing to accept?

MARGOLIS: And what is acceptable must ultimately be determined by state lawmakers, Congress and taxpayers who must decide how much risk they can or cannot afford to live with. For NPR News, I'm Jason Margolis in Sacramento.

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