It was a sight to behold.
Gingerly walking across a tarp covered rain-soaked cross levee just south of Woodward Avenue 20 years ago this coming Tuesday wearing high heels, dress and an overcoat was U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. Acting as a gentleman and helping her stay steady was then State Senator Mike Machado.
They were there to survey the damage left by a Pineapple Express storm system that dumped heavy rain on an unusually heavy early season Sierra snowpack that sent massive runoffs downstream eventually punching 11 holes through levees along the Stanislaus and San Joaquin rivers southwest of Manteca.
After being dutifully followed by network crews, Feinstein and Machado couldn’t resist the temptation to do what politicians do when a microphone and camera are put in front of them — they made promises.
They promised to get immediate government help which would have happened without them saying a word given Gov. Pete Wilson had already declared the flood zone a disaster area.
Then Machado went further. He vowed to work toward a permanent solution.
The attention span of the politicians lasted until the water receded and the cameras went to the next news disaster du jour.
Machado months later worked to get $152 million for flood control studies and projects incorporated into the $1.4 billion Proposition 13 water bond that passed in March of 2000.
Machado — at the time — told farmers and others impacted by the flood that he believed the anecdotal evidence that silt build up had significantly compromised the flow capacity of the San Joaquin River merited an official study to determine if dredging would be an effective way to reduce flooding.
Such a study never got funded.
So here we are 20 years later with another Pineapple Express barreling down on California. Fortunately the six-year drought has New Melones Reservoir at 26 percent of capacity instead of the 92 percent it was at 20 years ago. Unless some bonehead move is made by federal or state dam operators most of any premature heavy runoff will be captured in reservoirs.
It’s funny, in a way, to be worried about flooding in the middle of a prolonged drought. But given San Joaquin County is at the epicenter of natural and unnatural movements of water that accounts for 70 percent of all water used in California its par for the course.
So is listening to misleading promises whether they are tied to flood control, the Peripheral Canal, unimpaired water flows, the Twin Tunnels, Delta Protection Zone development rules or whatever part of the kitchen sink Sacramento is tossing this way so political promises to Los Angeles, corporate farmers, and militant environmental perfectionists don’t go down the drain.
Talk to those who have been around awhile and they will tell you the San Joaquin River bottom between Vernalis near the confluence with the Stanislaus River and where the Old River splits off near Mossdale Crossing rose some seven feet since the 1950s.
It was likely fueled by the disastrous Friant Dam water switch that gave us the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge environmental catastrophe as well as sent silt-laden runoff from the West Side into the San Joaquin River south of Manteca.
Historically, up until the 1950s larger boats could make their way up river to Vernalis.
Vernalis — a key reference point for water issues ranging from flow and temperature to flood stage and water quality — is near the site of the once bustling shipping community of San Joaquin City. That’s right — a shipping community. Some 120 years ago barges made their way to 12 miles south of Manteca to help ferry what was then the massive wheat production of the San Joaquin-Stanislaus region to market.
You need good clearance for a barge. They couldn’t make it much pass the Old River today if they can get even that far.
So instead of looking at better and more realistic water management that reflects weather and water conditions in real time as well as dredging the San Joaquin River, we are looking at a $200 million plus fix for the levees by making them wider and higher.
Common sense — which has no place in the colliding worlds of environmental extremism, Los Angeles insatiable thirst, corporate farming’s bottom line, and political expediency — would tell you dredging would increase the river’s capacity and take pressure off the levees. It would also likely be much less expensive.
But why use common sense? This is California where smooth talkers have managed to up end regional economies and destroy water basins for the benefit of Los Angeles and others that prosper because of the unnatural transfer of water from one watershed to another. Those same people then try to deal with their guilt by going back and finishing off the countryside they took water from by backing environmentalists to kill off reasonable flood control projects and fish management practices.
It’s waterboarding, California-style.