Take a walk along the San Joaquin River levees between the confluence with the Stanislaus River and the Mossdale Crossing.
You can see what ails California when it comes to water policy.
And it’s not what you think. Yes, the low water levels are scary. But it’s not as frightening as what the drought has revealed.
Those sand bars weren’t there 50 years ago.
They are the byproduct of silt laden run-off that came from extensive irrigation on the Westside before new rules governing water use were put in place. The silt was dumped into the San Joaquin River near Vernalis.
Why this matters isn’t obvious, at least not today. Longtime farmers such as Alex Hildebrand, a revered water expert who has since passed away, point to anecdotal evidence that the silt build up since the 1950s raised the bottom of the river channel in some places by as much as seven feet.
There is a consensus among many whose farm land that has been inundated 11 times by floods since 1929 that the silt build-up has substantially exacerbated the situation.
Such was the case during the 1997 floods that damaged 700 structures, forced more than 2,000 people to flee and caused $100 million in damages when 70 square miles between Manteca and Tracy were flooded.
The flooding south of Manteca as well as in the City of Marysville was the main impetus for a $1.97 billion state bond campaign in March 2000. The approved ballot measure provided funding for watershed protection, flood protection and clean and safe drinking water.
It included money to conduct a study to determine if dredging was an effective and less expensive way to improve flood protection between Mossdale and Vernalis.
The study was never done. That’s because the legislature hijacked bond money set aside for the study to cover the payroll at the Department of Water Resources during a period when Sacramento was spending more money than they were collecting. The rationale was that the state needed a fully funded water bureaucracy to develop water policy. And without a water policy, dredging would make no sense.
The state employees paid with the money from the bond measure that was borrowed for that specific purpose are long retired. There is still no comprehensive water policy in California. The silt build-up is still there. The area will still flood again. And the bond money was never repaid as it was promised.
That, in a nutshell, is the real California water policy. It’s nothing but smoke, mirrors, political posturing, as well as hoodwinking and then stealing from the taxpayers. Water storage nor flood protection has expanded but the water bureaucracy has multiplied into new agencies and the army of bureaucrats pushing paper has grown.
Why not just dredge the silt build-up now since the water is low?
If you believe that is possible in California in 2014 then you’ve just arrived in a time travel machine from the 1950s.
To do anything with a waterway whether it is levee protection, levee maintenance regarding killing gophers, building a bridge across a river (ask Cambay Group and the City of Lathrop) or even dredging requires an act of Congress and a decade or so of litigation. And even then you may not get a permit to do the work.
Several years ago, folks in charge of flood control in the Los Angeles Basin wanted to remove silt build-up. They were told it was impossible without going through an exhaustive and expensive time consuming environmental impact report.
The silt build-up they wanted to remove was in the Los Angeles River. That’s right, the river that has been converted into concrete. The rationale was the silt build-up had created a habitat for plants, insects and perhaps even fish so therefore it was part of the environment that had to be protected under California and federal law. Never mind that it is clear – thanks to the concrete – that the build-up was reducing the volume of water the river could handle in a flood.
The drought we are in and the water shortage was predictable. This isn’t the first drought and it won’t be the last. The same goes for floods.
While neither can ever be completely avoided the severity of their impacts can be significantly reduced. Of course, that won’t happen when politicians play to the voters. Everyone is hot and bothered about flooding when it floods but when it’s dry six months later all is forgotten except by those hit by floodwaters. The same for a drought.
It is clear that building most dams, such as the one at Auburn, won’t have a major impact on water supplies during droughts or other times. That’s because the historical record shows there are a minimal amount of years when precipitation is high enough to fill such gigantic reservoirs.
We have added more than 20 million people since the last major flood-related or water storage project was completed in California.
The Twin Tunnels, with a price tag in excess of $60 billion with interest factored in, won’t increase water supplies or storage by one drop. It will allow Los Angeles et al to get a larger share of the north’s water in dry years when the state’s No. 1 priority is protecting fish as demonstrated by Friday’s decision to cut off all water deliveries to cities and farms.
Water recycling, aquifer recharging, more aggressive conservation, and desalinization plants are the answer.
But such solutions are counter to the short-term views of politicians in Sacramento.
That’s why a growing number of our flood and droughts in California are policy driven.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 249-3519.