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Levee upgrades need to go forward first

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POSTED September 5, 2009 2:52 a.m.
California as a civilized state is a fluke.

Within its boundaries arguably contain the most varied and awe-inspiring repertoire of nature on earth - pristine sandy beaches, rugged primitive coastlines, high desert, soaring mountains, redwoods, bristlecone pines, Death Valley, volcanoes, Yosemite Valley, the Great Central Valley and more.

How Mother Nature’s splendor was shaped and distributed in California could never have supported 38 million residents or boast the most productive farmland the world has ever known. A lot of it has to do with our climate. In the Midwest , East and South where rain year round is common. We live in a Mediterranean climate that is arid much of the time. There are certain segments of the state in winter where hellacious snow storms over the centuries helped form glaciers that still exist in higher elevations.

It took man tinkering with Mother Nature to mold California into what it is today with massive coastal cities dominating arid coastal plains to fertile farmland where the normal cycle once was devastating floods in winter and drought conditions in summer.

That tinkering led to the creation of massive dams, 1,000 miles of earthen levees in the Delta, and the 715 miles that comprise the California Aqueduct.

The most critical component of California’s vast effort to redistribute water can be found just a few miles east of Manteca in the man-made maze of levees known as the Delta. More than 70 percent of the state’s fresh water passes through the Delta either on its way south with the help of man to provide precious life to cities and farms alike or it flows out into the San Francisco Bay.

Our leaders-who-art-in Sacramento – the equivalent of political hell – are working feverishly on a $12 billion bond proposal to increase storage through creating more underground aquifers and building more dams to finding a way to bypass the Delta.

The creation of a conveyance vessel for water through the Delta is the third rail of California politics. No matter what solution you come up with or name it you’re committing political suicide. Everything from a canal to a tunnel has been proposed. Any solution or combination thereof that you pick will draw what is best called a “musical chairs of opposition.”  Environmental groups will team with farmers to support or fight back a specific solution but change it a bit and all of a sudden they’re mortal enemies. Toss urban users into the mix along with sports fishing groups and you’ve got the ingredients for a no-win situation.

This is why instead of trying to solve everything in one fell swoop which is impossible to do, the state needs to start with one critical component that most can agree on – upgrade the existing levees.

Study-after-study talks about how frail they are plus points out their extremely vulnerability in an earthquake. A collapse at the right location could lead to a domino effect that would take years for the state to repair. That, in turn, would devastate cities, agriculture, and the environment.

Levee enhancement must be the first project on the table. It also must be done separately to make sure that it gets done.

Those who back a Delta conveyance as the first move risk the wrath of environmentalists and Delta farmers who correctly point out that is leaving them out of the benefits of a multi-billion dollar solution.

Failure of levees is the only scenario in which everyone loses which means if they are enhanced everyone wins.

It does promote the status quo in a way that is not a bad thing. There are still other solutions for water from more aggressive conservation and growing methods such as the pressurized system the South San Joaquin Irrigation District is pursuing southwest of Manteca to desalinization.

The ultimate price of increasing more reservoirs and a conveyance canal through the Delta could make desalination pencil out economically.

It is another reason why levee strengthening should be viewed as the most critical component of assuring future water supplies. If you subtract the Delta from the picture, it impacts two thirds of all Californians plus hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland.

Instead of going for everything and risk losing not just the vote but also everything we have in place today if the levees fail, California leaders need to push levee enhancement first.

Then while they duke it out over other solutions we can at least be assured what we have won’t be lost.
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