Thanks to all who supported this project, I've handed in a second draft which is now being edited.
Originally the story was assigned at 1200-2400 words (about 1.5-2.5 pages of magazine, typically). It was to be about, as you read in the pitch, the hazards to the water supply for millions of Californians due to the decrepit state of the levees in the Delta. I went out and reported that story, and in the course of doing so I learned that the issues there are really much broader than just the levees-- hence the delay.
So late this year or early next, expect to see a much longer story--6000 words or so--that attempts to describe levee safety; California water history; environmental concerns in the Delta; and political intransigence.
I'll no doubt need to update it slightly before press, but unless the levee-destroying earthquake hits by then (knock on wood) it'll still be very newsworthy.
Thanks again for the support & patience. I promise it will all be worth it in the end.
Posted by Paul Tullis on 08/19/10
The California Geologic Survey today released this map of earthquake faults in the state; the Delta is one of the areas laced with them. (Use the link rather than the illustration here; the map gets better the more you zoom in.) Red areas are hot zones; blue and violet, less so--but not immune. One thing I heard a lot of from Delta residents is that they are not that concerned about earthquakes in the region; I think they ought to take a close look at this map, which shows an active fault splitting Bethel Island, and going right past one of the Delta's largest residential developments, Discovery Bay.
I handed in the story last week and expect to see it published in mid-to-late June.Posted by Paul Tullis on 04/27/10
I've spent the last 2 days meeting with stakeholders and policymakers involved in Delta issues. Monday morning I sat down with Dante Nomellini, an attorney with the Central Delta Water Agency, in his office in Stockton. Actually it was more of a map room: the way most lawyers' offices are filled with case books, the room where I met Mr. Nomellini is packed with maps and schematics of the Delta and its tracts and levees. Mr. Nomellini has spent decades working on Delta issues, litigating for and organizing reclamation districts. (These are groups of landowners whose predecessors, by virtue of the Arkansas Act of 1850, bought land in the Delta from the state, with the understanding that the proceeds from the sales would be used to improve the land, i.e. by building levees.) The reclamation districts are, in turn, organized into water agencies. There used to be one big Delta water agency, but they couldn't agree, so the North split off and cut its own deal with the state whereby it pays the state for some of the water it uses (that portion which is deemed to be over and above what would come to it naturally, without the state's intervening infrastructure e.g. dams), which the state then uses to mitigate against the damage done by the agency having taken the water, i.e. habitat restoration.
I never said this wasn't complicated--and I'm sparing you the acronyms!
This morning I drove around the Delta, mostly along Highway 160, which straddles an earthen levee. What's remarkable about this tour is that the water, on one side of the road, is higher than the land, on the other side. So if the levee fails, the land is flooded.
Then I met with the lawyer who organized the North Delta Water Agency and cut its deal with the state, George Basye. (George is a big fan of jazz pianist Art Tatum.) Later I spoke with State Senator Joe Simitian, who authored SB7X1, the bill that eliminated a number of governing bodies overseeing aspects of the Delta and replaced them with the Delta Stewardship Council, a group of seven experts--one of whom must come from the Delta--who will recommend what to do about the unsustainable condition of the Delta. Basically, it's an environmental disaster now and a natural disaster waiting to happen. Although Nomellini quarrels with this assessment: he thinks the whole narrative that the levees are going to collapse is a myth perpetrated by interests outside the Delta so they can take its water. He says SB7X1 is a Trojan horse for a peripheral canal.
This requires some backing up: The Delta is in a way a giant water tank. Water that is stored in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the winter as snowmelt comes down the American, Sacramento, Feather, and San Joauqin Rivers in spring and is dumped into the Delta. From there it's pumped into concrete canals to farmers in the Delta and elsewhere who use it for irrigation in the dry summer months, and to 2/3 of California households, to the east and south. The result for the Delta is that it becomes less salty than it was originally, and hence less hospitable to native species (that's the enivronmental disaster--the annual salmon run has dropped by 98%).
The proposed alternative is a canal that would take the water from the rivers around the Delta to the pumps. Then the seawater from the west--the Delta ends in bays adjascent to San Francisco Bay--can come in to the Delta, making it more hospitable to its native species. But locals think the peripheral canal would just send more water away from the Delta's farmers than would be fair.
Tomorrow I'll meet with engineers who recommend how to maintain the levees; these guys think that the status quo is a-ok and that they can keep the levees going even if there's a catclysmic event, such as an earthquake. I'm going to ask them if they'd house their families behind one.Posted by Paul Tullis on 03/17/10
Thankfully, the levees survived the rainstorms of late January, which dumped 3.37 inches of precipitation on the area--more than an inch above historical averages for the month.
But that doesn't mean the threat is over; far from it. Scientists say there's a "very high certainty" of levee failure if the area experiences anything over a magnitude 6.5 earthquake, and the US Geological Survey says there's a 93% chance of a 6.7 or greater hitting at any moment in the next 27 years.
Even an overzealous beaver or squirrel could do the job, which is what investigators say took out the Jones Tract in 2004.
So while the Delta is hardly out of the rain--the wet season in California lasts into April--even then, the levees will hardly be out of the woods.Posted by Paul Tullis on 02/02/10