Tuesday, August 10, 2010


By Patricia McBroom    

        Vitally needed strengthening of levees in the California delta has been stalled for over a year – in spite of the fact that bonds have been sold and projects approved.  The California Department of Finance has yet to release $120 million for upgrades on about 20 islands of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
These projects were approved in 2008 and 2009, and money should have been available by now, according to water officials as well as local engineers working on the levees.
“The bonds were sold by October of 09.  This is a long time for them to hold back the funding,” said Mike Miramazaheri, manager of the delta levees program at the State Department of Water Resources (DWR). He said cash flow on delta levee projects has fallen behind by about two years since 2007.
As a consequence, many levees in the delta that have been widely described as “vulnerable” remain that way despite the clear intention of California voters to shore them up.
Meanwhile, delta farmers and local reclamation districts that maintain the levees are standing by with their portion of matching funds.
MBK engineer, Gilbert Cosio:  "We're ready to go!"
“We’re ready to go.  Just give us the money!” said Gilbert Cosio Jr., of MBK Engineers, which maintains roughly 35 percent of the levees in the delta. Cosio said reclamation districts used to do the work on a promise, trusting that the State's portion would come through, but they’ve been burned by delays in recent years and now “nothing is going on.”
Les Harder, senior advisor with the architecture-engineering company, HDR, said the money "is vitally needed. The people of California voted for this and the delta needs it.  It’s very unfortunate the funds have not been made available,” said Harder, a former deputy director for public safety at DWR. 
            As a 27-year veteran of MBK,  Cosio is intimately familiar with the levees and knows their potential for breaching in critical areas.  One such area is Bouldin Island, right smack in the middle of the delta (see map; island with "head" crossed by 12). A constant stream of traffic crosses Bouldin on Highway 12 which connects Interstate 80 with 5, and the Bay Area with the San Joaquin Valley.
One of the largest islands in the delta – 6,000 acres – and one of the lowest – 20 feet below sea level – Bouldin is a flood waiting to happen. Each year, it has a one to five percent chance of flooding. If its levees broke, Highway 12 would disappear under 20 feet of water.  The huge bowl of land would fill up like a bathtub and salty water would be pulled inland from the bay, creating a substantial risk that salt could contaminate the Contra Costa County water system, as well as the State Water Project in Tracy.
About $8 million of the $120 million that has been delayed would go toward reinforcing Bouldin’s levees.
On a recent day in August, Cosio drove around the island, pointing out how the levees need to be reinforced.  To begin, they are too low;  high winds and high tides can send water crashing on the top, as it did in 2006.
Bouldin's levees are too low
Cosio wants to raise the top by one to two feet, and structurally reinforce the base by adding a wide shoulder called a toe berm on the landward side.  This wide shelf means that instead of a steep slope rising from the fields, the levee slope would descend more gradually to a berm wide enough for a roadway, with fields 150 feet away.
Such improvements greatly reduce the risk that high water on the other side of the levee can push it over, said Cosio. He added that the materials they are using, plus the greater width and strength, improve chances that in an earthquake, the levee would deform but not break.
These improvements are not aimed at making a levee earthquake resistant and there is no guarantee they will, said Cosio. But he said their aim has been to “figure out what it will take to allow the levee to deform but not breach, and still have enough structural integrity so that engineers can come back and fix it.”
         How much would it take to bring all the islands up to adequate flood protection standards? 
         Cosio estimated $800 million – roughly $100 million per year, close to the amount voters have already approved in two propositions, 1E and 84. That total is about half of what State engineers would estimate; MBK work costs an average of $1 million per mile, compared to the State’s $2 to 4 million per mile, he said.
        “Local engineers can do it cheaper and more efficiently. We know where the problem areas are. We just go do work. Outside agencies (like the U.S. Corps of Engineers) have to study the problem, do an economic analysis, then put out the contract to people who usually pad the bid,” he said.
Ostensibly due to California's disastrous financial condition, the delay is souring a public dialogue already rife with rumors and whispers about ultimate intentions:  beliefs that state agencies are neglecting the delta to increase pressure for a peripheral canal, as water users toward the south would like.
Whatever the truth of such rumors, one thing is clear: If the money isn’t released soon, it may disappear, either because the life of the bonds has run out or because State officials develop new plans for the future of the delta. This year, with new laws in effect, California has moved substantially away from local governance toward centralized control over water decisions. How much of the delta levee system will be maintained and to what degree depends on decisions that will be made in the next 18 months.
Such centralized control has obvious benefits in making quick decisions, in a field with multiple players.  But it also has serious drawbacks – drawbacks that were identified last year by the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics, Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University.
Ostrom won the prize for her research on how humans evolve governance of the commons, including water and other common pool resources.
 She discovered that user-managed systems worked better in most cases than state-managed, centralized systems because the users bargained with each other and formed cooperative relationships, even when they were prone to fight over water.
 In Nepal, for instance, irrigation systems managed by farmers produced more crops and irrigated more land than systems maintained by the state. When farmers at the head of the river needed users at the end to maintain the system, they engaged in some hard bargaining over payments and allocations that resulted in solid relationships. By contrast, the state-run systems removed any need for the upstream and downstream users to recognize their mutual dependencies and they reverted to “a state of nature,” with increased conflict and lower productivity, Ostrom found.
This advantage of the commons or “users” governance remained even when the state was able to build bigger, better waterworks.
“Interventions designed by outsiders that ignore….reciprocal relationships among farmers may cause more harm than good,” she wrote about her work in Nepal, which has 1.6 million irrigated acres, compared to California’s 9 million.
California’s water problems are surely more complicated than Nepal’s, but it’s not too hard to see the relevance of Ostrom’s work:  Cooperative governance by users takes time, but so do the interminable lawsuits being filed on all sides by stakeholders in California’s water wars.