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2065: Sediment builds up in SJ River while state inaction helps cue up major flooding
airport reading
Department of Water of Resources employees take water depth readings of the San Joaquin River from the Airport Way bridge several years ago.

If we can take snippets of science in a rapidly evolving situation at face value during an evolving threat to public health and safety and suspend all sorts of rules that protect fish from single use plastic bags to suspending the right to peaceful assembly as we have during the COVID-19 pandemic why can’t we do the same when it comes to climate change?

The science offered up by the state Department of Water Resources contends water flow will triple in the San Joaquin River over the next 45 years due to climate change.

This has led to an upending of plans moving forward to spend $180 million for 200-year flood protection — a reference to the chances of a certain size of flooding event happening in a given year as opposed to frequency — for most of Lathrop as well as parts of Manteca and Stockton.

The new flow numbers the state wants used will require going back to the drawing board and likely spending closer to a half billion dollars.

Senate Bill 5 that mandates 200-year flood protection was devised in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when the Mississippi River laid waste to New Orleans due to insufficient levee flood protection.

If climate change is indeed a major threat to public health and safety then why does the state keep insisting that local jurisdictions pursue mandated solutions after putting cities and counties in proverbial strait jackets?

The modeling of the Department of Water Resources that underscores the fears that have been whipped up by climate change is a challenge on par with COVID-19. As such we need to pull the plug on any behavior that doesn’t stem the threat climate change imposes including successful environmental challenges to dredging the San Joaquin River after it passes Vernalis.

You will find Vernalis about 10 miles south of Manteca where the Stanislaus River joins up with the San Joaquin River. Driving across the Airport Way bridge looking south toward Vernalis you can see evidence of a major impediment to the San Joaquin River being able to handle increasing levels of water flow due to climate change or any other reason. It is sediment build up that could easily be dredged to deepen and increase the river’s ability to carry larger water flows.

Memorial Day weekend when water flows had kicked up due to late spring releases, dozens of people walked across the submerged part of the sand bar to the sediment island created almost in the center of the channel.

Crossing to the exposed sand bar from the rural Tracy side of the river is suicidal given not just the cold water but the swiftness of the river.

Proposition 13 — the 2000 water bond measure approved by voters — included funding to study sediment build-up much to the objection of some environmentalists as well as cubicle jockeys at the Department of Water Resources.

The provision to fund a dredging study was the result of a hard-fought effort by then State Senator Mike Machado to get it included in the bond measure. The study, and a lot of other work voters were promised that would happen if they passed the bond, never happened.

That’s because then Gov. Gray Davis — with the concurrence of the California Legislature — “borrowed” $1 billion in Prop. 13 bond money to plug a hole in the state budget. The money, of course, was never paid back so projects including the dredging study could be done.

By the way, Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to rip a page from Gray Davis’ playbook and once again “borrow” money from special funds such as bonds to plug Titanic-sizes holes he blasted in the state budget over multiple years with his COVID-19 response. Newsom, just like Davis, promises the state will pay back what it “borrows.”

The issue of silt build up being a potential major contributing factor to flooding on the Lower San Joaquin River Vernalis to a point west of Mossdale — the critical area for the needed 200-year flood protection — has been brought up in the years by various government papers.

Longtime farmers have always said that there has been at least six feet of sediment build up since the 1960s when the Central Valley Water Project re-plumbed the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley.

There is arguably tons of anecdotal evidence the farmers are right that can be seen in drought years measured against the early 1960s. You can see the evidence between Vernalis and Mossdale.  The study was either supposed to be able to dispel that anecdotal evidence or confirm its existence.

The reason environmental groups fought its inclusion in the water bond project and shed no tears when Gray Davis essentially killed the study is their working contention that anything in place that is part of a habitat is part of the environment even if it was the result of misdirected decisions by man. In this case “man” is actually the State of California acting in concert with the United States government.

If the Department of Water Resources is so sure of modeling that San Joaquin River flow could triple by 2065 then why doesn’t it justify a COVID-19-style approach?

Not only should the Lower San Joaquin River should be dredged but it should happen without a time consuming environmental impact report.

The same holds true for efforts to create a bypass of the problematic Mossdale bend where much of the flooding concerns for Lathrop, Manteca, and Stockton can be found. The application to widen Paradise Cut to create a bypass south of Manteca to connect with the Old River east of Lathrop has languished in the federal environmental review process for 15 years. When it was submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers, it was supposed to be an 18-month process.

Dredging the river would also take pressure off the highly vulnerable levees along the Stanislaus and San Joaquin rivers that have failed 11 times in 93 years. The threat those levees pose to Lathrop and Manteca is why the dry of cross levee south of Woodward Avenue is so critical to the 200-year flood protection plan for 50,000 existing residents, their homes, public infrastructure including the 120 Bypass and Interstate 5, businesses, schools, and more.

Unlike COVID-19 that did not exist as a threat 10 months ago, the state and federal bureaucracy has been acutely aware of the ticking time bomb better known as the San Joaquin River. Yet a definite solution such as dredging that could reduce death and other carnage has been ignored and buried by the state bureaucracy in complicity with the environmental perfection movement.