Tuesday, October 12, 2010


By Patricia McBroom
         In the gathering dusk of a hot evening in August, 2009, a 570-foot New Zealand freighter carrying rice and lumber from Stockton’s Port tried to make a close turn to starboard past Bradford Island in the Delta.  It didn’t work.  The San Joaquin River channel is only 600 feet wide at that point; there’s no room for mistakes. The ship temporarily “lost steering” and plowed bow first into the levee.
            Not to worry.  With the assistance of a nearby tugboat, the freighter backed out and proceeded on to the Bay and ocean – once it had been inspected by the Coast Guard and found to be undamaged.
            No one looked back at the levee or even reported the impact.  Coast Guard entries from that day say that the ship “ran aground.”
The morning after.  (Photo by Mike Warren)
            The next morning, residents on Bradford woke up to find their island in immediate danger of flooding.  The levee was literally falling into the river with cracks opening up before their eyes. A section 150 feet long had been washed out.
            I was on Bradford Island last week to talk to the people who rose to the emergency and saved the island that day.  They are the unsung heroes of the local reclamation district who maintain levees critical to California’s water supply, not to mention those lining an international shipping channel.  It may come as a surprise – certainly it did to me – that levees on a deep water shipping channel are maintained by residents.  And it’s a shock to realize concern is so limited that the Coast Guard didn’t even bother to check out or report the damage.
Bradford is a private island reached by ferry at the end of a levee road only five miles from the urban rim in Contra Costa County.  About 2200 acres in size, it stands close to the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. Fresh water bubbles up through the ground producing lush pasture land that once grew corn.  Now, Karen and Smith Cunningham maintain a cattle ranch there, sharing the island with about 50 other, mostly seasonal, residents.
Karen met me at the ferry and took me on a tour across the ranch, through Johnson grass so high and dense it slapped the pickup like rubber flippers in a car wash.  Our windows were down and in a flash, the cabin of the truck was filled with hundreds of lady bugs. Noticing a cattle fence standing open, Karen went in search of animals that might have wandered off and fallen into one of the many bogs on the island.  We didn’t find any, but we did find her husband Smith Cunningham and fellow resident, Mike Warren.
As Smith Cunningham talked..
Cunningham led the fight last year to save the levee.
“There’s no doubt about it.  This man saved us,” said Warren, gesturing to Smith. “He called people and they came out here immediately.  If we had sat around waiting for the engineers, the water resource people, whatever…..the levee was just going further and further into the water, with new cracks coming fast and furious.  It had gone on all night this way and we didn’t even know it was happening because nobody had the courtesy to tell us.”
....Another freighter passed on its way to Stockton Port
Project director for local Reclamation District 2059, Cunningham reported the damage to the Coast Guard (which still called the incident a “soft landing”).  Then he got to work on emergency repairs.
            “I didn’t wait to go through all the procedures,” said Cunningham.  “I was doing the mumbo-jumbo with politics (procedures) at the same time, but my purpose was to save the levee and you have to have some common sense about that.”
Within hours, contractors with dozens of trucks and bull dozers were working around the clock to stabilize the levee.  It took them three days at a total cost of $800,000, which the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) paid.
“The DWR told me, ‘Well, you did the right thing.  Thank you. You saved us $50 million.’”
Actually, the loss of the island could have cost the public a great deal more.  A flood on Bradford could lead to a shutdown of the State water supply because of the island’s strategic position vis-a-vis water pumps in Tracy. (Bradford is one of eight western Delta islands that, if flooded, could draw salt water toward the pumps.)
Mt. Diablo behind Bradford Island
 This story about Bradford is sadly illustrative of a larger phenomena that affects everyone in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.  California relies on local people to maintain levees that are critical to our water supply, yet those same people are all but invisible to State officials planning a huge – and expensive – project to divert water from upriver near Sacramento.  We will get our first view of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) next month in a preliminary draft release, but several things have been clear about this plan for at least a year.
One, it has little or no input from Delta people or their elected representatives in the five county region – Sacramento, Stockton, Contra Costa County, Yolo and Sonoma.  Thirteen members of Congress and the State Legislature from those counties sent a protest letter last month which said in part “The Delta community has long been told….they will be involved in decision–making about the future of their own communities, even though they have been mostly excluded to date.”
“This most recent exclusion (referring to reports of closed-door meetings of BDCP principals) only serves to frustrate and anger those in the Delta community who are genuinely interested in working constructively with the state and federal agencies…” the letter said.
Another thing that’s clear about this plan is that it aims to divert as much water as possible from upriver of the Delta, through tunnels so big they could suck out 80 percent of the Sacramento River at peak operation, which BDCP defenders say would ONLY be used during periods of high water.
“Trust us,” is a commonly heard refrain.
“Not on your life,” reply 186 Delta owners, including the Cunninghams, who have joined legal action to keep State officials off their property, officials who want to conduct tests for environmental reports.
Meanwhile, a casualty of the focus on a future peripheral canal is levee maintenance.
Local engineers who have maintained the levees for decades say they can bring them up to snuff for a yearly State investment of about $100 million for eight years.
Outside authorities estimate a 2 to 4 billion dollar price tag, with some recommending that a large swath of the south and central Delta be abandoned to the floods without levee upgrades. (These people, of course, want the peripheral canal).
As for the people of California, if they knew what was going on in the water wars, they would be saying loud and clear, “Give the locals a voice. Right or wrong, they should at least be heard. Their input might save the State some money, not to mention a shipping channel or two.”