Tucked into the water-sharing deal passed by the California legislature last fall was authorization for a new governing body to oversee the state's Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta. This watershed, part of the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas, includes a large network of levees that enables flood control and irrigation for agriculture. The earthen levees have long been neglected and are in dire need of repair. The breech of a single one in 2004 flooded 11,000 acres in minutes (see picture); a larger collapse, which emergency responders brace for every time an inch or more of rain is forecast for the Bay Area, would send saltwater hundreds of miles into the low-lying areas to the east and south-- the richest agricultural land in the world-- threatening thousands of lives and tens of thousands of homes, drying up major cities (pumps could be shut down for months), and paralyzing California's economy.
Experts have been warning of a Katrina-like breech for a decade; since the Jones Tract filled up like a bathtub in '04, $130m have flowed to the Delta from Washington and Sacramento in the desperate hope that the earmarks -- a relative pittance of what is needed -- would suffice to shore up the levees for a spell. But these have been Band-Aids on a severed artery. The real rescue fund comes in the form of a $710 million bond issue that will be put before California's voters in November.
With an El Niño year forecast for this winter, that may be too late. The levees will likely have to hold out through next winter, too -- assuming the measure passes amid what is likely to be an ever-more-gargantuan state deficit next year.
I'll walk the levees with experts like Tom Zuckerman of the Delta Water Agency and John Cain of San Francisco's Natural Heritage Institute. I'll sit through a rainstorm with the nail-biting emergency responders tasked with attempting to sandbag any breech before it causes a domino reaction. From there I'll head to Sacramento to speak with State Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), who pushed the Delta elements of the water deal through the legislature.
This disaster waiting to happen is reminiscent of the situation that preceded Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Warnings from the local newspaper, NGOs and government agencies went unheeded, and the world watched in horror at the result.
It's also a symbol of the problems besetting California's politics and economy. With a two-thirds majority required to pass a budget or tax increase; the legislature sharply split along ideological lines as a result of district gerrymandering; and less than 40% of the state budget each year to the discretion of legislators, the state can barely function outside of boom years. Debilitating effects in the Central Valley stemming from this unsustainable situation may result in a disaster rivaling the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.
Perhaps with more public attention brough to bear on this issue, a disaster can be averted.