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Dry levee is southwest Mantecas last defense
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It was a surreal scene.

The sun was shining and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky during the first  week of January 1997 as over four dozen California Conservation Corps workers were feverishly  laying down plastic weighted by sand bags on the dry cross-levee paralleling Woodward Avenue as water inched up ever so higher on the south side.

A half mile away, Caltrans crews were “plugging” the McKinley Avenue underpass of the Highway 120 Bypass with a wall of 10 feet of dirt to create an emergency back-up levee.

In the middle of it all, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein wearing business attire and heels gingerly walked the levee on an inspection tour with state leaders to see firsthand the impact warm rains and temperatures that hastened a rapid late December snow melt in the Sierra was having on valley levees.

Fourteen years have passed since the 11th major levee break since 1927 on the San Joaquin and Stanislaus rivers threatened rural Manteca, part of the city as well as Lathrop. The 1997 break flooded 60 square miles between Manteca and Tracy and left parts of Wetherbee Lake homes under water for months. Voters approved over $1 billion for flood protection work in the area – Proposition 13 in 2000 – but all of the money was “borrowed” to help the state bail proverbial water three deficits ago.

Save for emergency repairs made by the Army Corps of Engineers immediately after the flood and a potential breach four springs ago that simply restored the levees to their pre-flood conditions, nothing has been put in place to enhance levee durability on the Manteca side of the San Joaquin River near the confluence of Stanislaus and San Joaquin rivers where state crews are currently making emergency repairs in a bid to protect the levee against anticipated heavy spring run-off.

Work has been completed, though, on upgrades being paid for by special property tax assessments along the San Joaquin designed to protect southwest Manteca, Lathrop, and Weston Ranch.

Nothing, though, is being done on the Stanislaus River. If a levee fails there it can trigger a domino effect on dry levees between that river and Manteca.

The Trails of Manteca – a 1,471-lot neighborhood planned on 471 acres near Wetherbee Lake and south of Woodward Avenue – will enhance the dry levee that made state emergency officials nervous back in 1997.

Strengthening by widening and possibly raising the dry levee is a condition the city required to move the large residnetial project forward. Such work is not subject to the same intense state and federal scrutiny as river levees and can be accomplished in a relatively short period of time.

But that may not be enough to protect existing homes built in southwest Manteca along Airport Way since 1997. State leaders did a model in 1997 that indicated if the cross levee failed at the high water mark several inches of water would have been flowing through a number of Manteca homes in the area.

Extending the dry levee toward Airport Way and eventually to a point roughly midway between Union Road and Main Street has been proposed by city officials. The gap in such a levee across Airport Way could be plugged with dirt and tarp just as the McKinley Avenue underpass was in 1997 in the event of a flood.

The state also will require Manteca to take development that may occur further south near where the expressway for McKinley Avenue is envisioned out of the 200-year flood plain by building a cross levee further south.

The city will conduct a workshop in the coming weeks on the possibility of such a levee.