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California Alfalfa & Forage Association

Last month's CAFA column included information on the Mojave River flooding that occurred in a channel that wasn't properly maintained due to environmental restrictions. About the time that the column was written, a meeting in San Francisco that included state water officials and scientists all but acknowledged that the prudent thing to do is stay on high ground. In this case, the subject was the state's aging levee systems and the venue was the Bay Planning Coalition's 18th annual conference.

It should come as no surprise that California's levee systems are in dire need of repair. It's something that CAFA stressed last year when it opposed a state assembly bill that, had it passed, would have expanded the State Reclamation Board's authority to include ecosystem restoration in flood control plans.

An article in the San Francisco Chronicle reporting on the recent Bay Planning Coalition's conference was an eye-opener. It noted that the levee break at the Lower Jones Tract near Stockton in June of 2004 devastated 12,000 acres of farmland and ran up a tab of $90 million in damages and cleanup costs. That disaster should have been a red flag that spurred a major effort to avoid further devastating levee breaks. But, this is California and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what the excuse is for foot dragging. It's money, or more accurately, the lack of money.

Two years ago the Army Corps of Engineers identified 185 eroded sites that needed to be repaired along the Sacramento River. Since the 1,100 miles of levees protect delta agriculture and a major share of the state's water supply, it should make immediate repairs a high priority. But improving the aging system to withstand potential disasters has a price tag of around $1 billion and neither the state nor the federal government will pony up the money needed.

Disaster foregone conclusion?

Is another Jones Tract disaster a foregone conclusion? This quote in the Chronicle article from Steve Verigin of the California Department of Water Resources provided an answer. “What if the levee breaks? That's not the question, but when will the levee break. We all know there will be a next break.”

When brownouts and rolling blackouts put the final nail in Gray Davis' coffin, California was being called a “third world country.” A major collapse in the levee system will bring another third world country comparison, based on what the consequences will be when there's a significant break. According to the Chronicle's report, officials said, “farms, homes and crops near the delta would be flooded, and roads, gas pipelines and rail lines would be destroyed. Water quality would suffer, and the delivery of water to the Central Valley and Southern California could be delayed for weeks or months.”

When the Lower Jones Tract was flooded, the feds kicked in enough money to cover 75 percent of emergency repairs and damage. Let's hope there's money left over because it's clear what the mindset is: “Disasters happen, so why worry.”

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