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Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Levees

Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Levees

With the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta crucial to California’s overall water supply, roughly 1,115 miles of levees protect farms, cities, schools and people.

Since the 19th century, levees—from the French word ‘lever’, or ‘to raise’— have been erected to protect “reclaimed” marshland, popularly referred to as Delta islands. The levees were built to prevent flooding and allow cultivation of the rich soil while protecting public infrastructure such as highways and pipelines.

Farmers first thought levees 4 feet high and 12 feet at the base would protect Delta lands from tides and river overflow, but that proved inadequate for Delta peat soils.

Progressively higher levees were built to keep the surrounding waters out, the lands were pumped dry and the marsh was transformed into productive island farms, mostly below sea level.

Today, some islands are 25 feet or more below sea level and beneath the water level in the surrounding channels. Climate change also portends more drastic rises in water levels, adding even more pressure on critical levees.

Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Levees Overview

Delta levees are classified as project or non-project levees. Project levees are part of the Federal Flood Control Project and are built to higher standards that comply with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers guidelines.

Delta levees are distinguished from river levees in that they are constantly holding back water, making them more comparable to dams. Unlike dams, however, Delta levees were not constructed with strict engineering standards to withstand the constant pressure of water from the daily cycle of tides, wind and boat wakes.

Once complete, the levees are maintained by local agencies and periodically inspected by the Corps. Non-project levees, comprising 65 percent of Delta levees, are those constructed and maintained by island landowners or local reclamation districts. These levees are generally built to an agricultural standard and are typically less stable than project levees. The levees, which hold back large amounts of water, act almost as dams and similarly are constantly under pressure.

On many Delta islands, the levee foundations are composed of the same peat soil formed by the marsh’s original vegetation. This organic soil is rich in nutrients, but it oxidizes (vaporizes quickly), resulting in as much as 1.5 inches of soil loss per year. Oxidation, combined with compaction and settling, is known as subsidence—a critical problem because the process puts additional stress on levees.

When levees fail, water rushes into the lower-than-sea level islands, pulling in salt water from San Francisco Bay and reducing water quality. Reduced water quality resulting from large amounts of salt water drawn into the Delta could shut down the export pumps that supply fresh water to agriculture and cities outside the Delta.

Since 1980, 27 Delta islands have been partially or completely flooded, including a 2004 levee break at Upper Jones Tract that cost about $90 million to repair. As with all working structures, the Delta levees are continually deteriorating and must be regularly maintained, something that costs millions of dollars annually.

In some cases, allowing some Delta islands such as Little Holland Tract and Liberty Island to flood can be helpful as a release valve for excess water. Similarly, farmland set aside for deliberate flooding is also being explored. These flooded spaces can also provide ecosystem benefits.

Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Levees Protection

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta’s vulnerability to natural disaster has been highlighted by scientific analyses calculating the probability of levee failure from floods or earthquakes.

Hurricane Katrina, for instance, demonstrated the level of destruction that could be unleashed by a series of breached levees. Although levee vulnerability in California’s Delta is not easy to quantify, it is estimated that multiple levee breaches are very likely in the event of a large earthquake. Similarly, California’s capital, Sacramento, is one of the most at-risk cities for a major flood in the United States.

In response to concerns about the health of the levee system, the state significantly increased the budget for levee maintenance and repairs in 2006.

Following significant floods in 1986, California’s legislature enacted the Delta Flood Control Protection Act to improve funding for levee maintenance and repair. The flood protection act provided $12 million a year for 10 years for levee improvements, and developed  flood control plans for eight western Delta islands and the communities of Thornton and Walnut Grove.

Since then, the flood control protection plan has been extended and has significantly improved levee maintenance, repair, and emergency response in the Delta.

Additionally, two bond measures passed in November 2006 allocated more funds for flood control in the Delta.

Delta Levees and the Future

According to controversial findings from the Delta Risk Management Strategy (commonly known as DRMS), Delta islands may flood more than 200 times in the next century, and there is a chance of as many as 30 levees crumbling simultaneously, Such levee failure would also result in an economic loss of $35 billion, says the DRMS. However, in the Delta people disagree with these forecasts.

Experts also say there is a better than 60 percent chance that an earthquake or major flooding in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will cause multiple levees to fail simultaneously in the next 50 years, especially in the western and central Delta.

If such an event occurs, repairs would take years, if it at all, given the cost and the fact that there is only one contractor in California currently doing such work. Widespread flooding could force a long-term shutdown of the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project  pumps that supply much of California with water. Delta levees also protect an extensive network of public utilities (pipelines, highways, rail lines), preserve extensive farmland and facilitate significant recreational opportunities.

Yet, one thing that everyone involved with the issue can agree upon is that the fixes are costly.

Estimates are at least $1 billion, although it has been pointed out that strengthening levees is not the same as reinforcing them against a major earthquake. Seismic upgrades would add additional millions of dollars in costs.

Meanwhile, only about a third of the Delta levees (385 miles) are part of a federal flood management project of the Sacramento and San Joaquin River systems and, as a result, are eligible for rehabilitation by the Corps.

The vast majority of the levees – more than 730 miles and all of the Suisun Marsh levees – are local levees. These local levees were constructed and maintained during the past 130 years by local reclamation districts. In general, the levee work has been financed by the landowners within the levees. In the last 30 years or so, the state of California has provided supplemental financing for levee maintenance and emergency response.

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