Sunday, October 29, 2006

Walters on Levees

The right questions are being asked, but so far, there have been no answers but it always comes back to public leadership and so far the local doesn’t seems very focused on floods, but hope springs eternal.

An excerpt.

Dan Walters: Why were levees not maintained?
By Dan Walters - Bee ColumnistPublished 12:00 am PST Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans was a wake-up call for California, whose capital city of Sacramento faces a similar calamity should its aging and deteriorating river levees be breached by storm surges.

To his credit, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger acknowledged the potential danger, declared a state of emergency, obtained a half-billion-dollar emergency appropriation to repair the most critical spots along the Sacramento River and its tributaries, persuaded federal authorities to speed up work and then won legislative approval of a $4 billion levee repair bond issue.

Rock-filled barges, cranes and other heavy equipment have been working night and day on the 29 most critical sites to complete repairs before the winter rains. Schwarzenegger declared that the deadline would be met, but his water agency also has identified 71 additional sites in critical need of repairs.

As important as the physical work may be, fixing the governance of California's flood control system is just as vital.

The political finger-pointing after the Katrina disaster indicated that a contributing factor was a mishmash of responsibility for levee integrity. Federal, state and local authorities held varying degrees of responsibility -- but no one agreed exactly where the buck should have stopped.

The same lack of clarity is evident in and around Sacramento, where leaders are sanctioning thousands of additional homes behind levees that are inadequate under the best of circumstances. Indeed, local officials and developers lobbied successfully for federal authority to intensively develop the Natomas basin, ringed by levees of dubious integrity.

Sacramento's levees, as state water official Les Harder points out, contain a "dangerous flaw" of confining the Sacramento and other rivers into relatively narrow channels. When the levees were built, the channels were purposely kept narrow to increase the velocity of flows and flush out debris left from hydraulic mining, but fast-moving water also puts great pressure on the levees. "They're set up to erode," says Harder.

A better system would have been setback levees that broaden and thus slow flows, but now that homes and other development have filled up much of the land behind the levees, narrow channels cannot be widened, thereby making sound construction and maintenance even more important.

But who is responsible? The fact that the Sacramento-area levee system contains so many erosion sites indicates that maintenance has been lacking. Reclamation districts that maintain many rural levees are unable to impose appropriate fees because of a legal quirk. There are only vague understandings about what standards should apply and the dividing line between maintenance and reconstruction.