Housing Boom in Below-Sea-Level Calif. Delta

The California Delta, an expanse of land in the San Joaquin Valley that sits mostly below sea level, is experiencing a housing boom. Developers are repairing old levees and building new ones — even though the area's geographic similarity to New Orleans has sparked new concerns about flooding, and criticism of the ongoing construction. Jason Margolis of member station KQED reports.

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This may sound familiar--lots of homes on delta land below sea level, with aging levee walls holding back the water. It is not New Orleans, though. It's a massive building project going on right now in the country's other great delta, the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta. From member station KQED, Jason Margolis reports.

JASON MARGOLIS reporting:

The Sacramento delta is where two of California's great river systems meet. Fresh water from the northern reaches of the state combine with cool waters from the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. The waters pour into the delta, forming a labyrinth of a thousand miles of canals and some 70 small islands. For more than a century, these soggy soils have been sparsely populated farmlands. But those days appear to be numbered.

(Soundbite of heavy truck)

MARGOLIS: Just outside the small town of Oakley, 50 miles northeast of San Francisco, it's one massive construction site. Trucks and crews scurry around, laying streets and sewer systems.

Mr. DON HOFER(ph) (Shea Homes): You know, I think a major part of the draw to a project like this is the delta lifestyle and the ability to be in very close proximity to recreational amenities...

MARGOLIS: Don Hofer works for Shea Homes, which is building 1,300 tract homes, four and five bedrooms in size. Hofer drives his truck along the top of a new levee wall, 15 feet high, that encircles the entire community. The thick dirt wall is a backup levee, 150 feet inland from the old levee and the water.

Mr. HOFER: A project with a redundant levee system will provide an island of refuge if the outer levee system were to be breached for some reason.

MARGOLIS: Many community leaders are welcoming developers to their area because they are paying for the new levees. Right now, most of the original 1,000 miles of levee walls in the delta are old and dilapidated, shoddily constructed a century ago by farmers and Chinese immigrant laborers. While surveying the new communities in his car, Oakley Vice Mayor Brad Nix says the development is a win-win for the city, making this area safer than most other parts of the delta.

Vice Mayor BRAD NIX (Oakley, California): And, of course, we can put on a condition that in order to get the development, they developer must improve, for example, these levees that we're looking at. Clearly that needs to be done. But the county doesn't have the money, the state doesn't have the money, the feds aren't going to do it. In order for it to happen, we have to step in and help make that happen.

MARGOLIS: But critics are saying why build new communities in an area with similar vulnerabilities to New Orleans?

Mr. DAVID REID (Greenbelt Alliance): Because it's crazy, to be perfectly frank.

MARGOLIS: David Reid works with the non-profit group Greenbelt Alliance. He points to a study by University of California scientists that predicts a two in three chance of a catastrophic levee failure in the next 50 years, from flood or earthquake.

Mr. REID: When the next earthquake comes, and there's no doubt in anyone's mind that it will, we'll have 3,500 houses surrounded by water on top of explosive natural gas. This is, frankly, a recipe for disaster.

MARGOLIS: UC Davis geologist Jeff Mount agrees. He says sometimes it doesn't matter how high or how strong you build a levee.

Mr. JEFF MOUNT (University of California at Davis): The geologist in me will always remind you that nature bats last, and we will make these large structures, these tremendous structures, and we will build them and we'll tell everybody that everything's going to be just fine, that this can hold back anything nature can throw at us and then we get surprised. So we build cities next to rivers and we put up levees and we tell everybody it's a flood control project, when that's, as Mark Twain would say, a damnable lie.

MARGOLIS: By early next year, this corner of the delta is slated to have close to 5,000 new homes ready for people to move in. And there are several more construction projects waiting in the wings in other parts of the delta.

For NPR News, I'm Jason Margolis.

ADAMS: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY, from NPR News.

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