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Old    jetgofish            11-15-2004, 12:50 PM Reply

Levee trouble revives Peripheral Canal talk

Global warming, billions of dollars and a North-South feud heat the pot

}By Mike Taugher


The growing danger of a Delta levee failure is reviving the highly controversial Peripheral Canal as a way to protect a drinking water source for more than 22 million Californians.

After a rare summer flood dramatically illustrated how a break in one of the region's fragile levees can imperil water supplies throughout the state, a pair of leading scientists say the canal plan, which was bitterly opposed in Contra Costa two decades ago, ought to be considered.

Few policymakers are ready to propose building a peripheral canal -- the catchall term for any structure that takes river water upstream of the Delta and carries it to water users in a way that bypasses the Delta.

It was, after all, one of the most controversial engineering proposals in state history.

"The politics of the Peripheral Canal were so poisonous it was taken off the table," said Jeffrey Mount, a UC Davis geologist and an authority on California rivers and levees. "I've never heard a rational explanation for why."

The problem with relying on the Delta for drinking water is that many of the region's sunken islands sit 10 to 20 feet below the surrounding water. And many of the levees holding back occasionally brackish water were built in the 19th century. Already old and fragile, the earthen berms are now considered even weaker than previously thought, Mount said.

When those levees fail, as they did at Jones Tract this summer, the breach can gulp so much water that seawater can wash into drinking water supplies, a very difficult and expensive problem to fix.

Circumventing the Delta and the levees with a canal could protect drinking water for 22 million Californians, from the South Bay to Southern California.

Mount and his UC Davis colleague, fisheries biologist Peter Moyle, said they are not necessarily proposing that a canal be built, only that a modified version of it be considered.

"It's the obvious solution to the problem," said Moyle. "My concern is that if you get this major collapse of Delta levees, it would cost billions of dollars to fix. And, realizing (the fix) would be on a temporary basis, suddenly the economics of the Peripheral Canal look really good."

It is unclear how much it would cost to build a conduit around the Delta, but the last official estimate before voters defeated the Peripheral Canal in 1982 was $2.5 billion, according to historian Norris Hundley's book, "The Great Thirst."

By comparison, raising the levees to modern safety standards would cost about $1 billion, according to a 1999 study that almost certainly underestimates what the cost would be today.

But that fix would simply enlarge the levees. It would do nothing to shore them up against major earthquakes and little to address the higher sea levels and bigger floods that are expected in a changing climate, said Mount. Fortifying the levees against earthquakes would require replacing substandard Gold Rush-era foundations with engineered structures, an extremely expensive endeavor.

A peripheral canal has other potential benefits, Moyle said. For example, the West Coast's largest estuary could be managed less as a drinking water source and more like a natural estuary with more dynamic flows and changing salt levels that could serve as habitat for native species. It is unclear how well it could be restored, since the Delta has been so dramatically altered over the years.

And any plan to build a canal faces huge political obstacles and re-ignites passions that have been largely dormant, especially in Contra Costa County, where 500,000 people get all their tap water from the Delta.

"It's come up, it's come up, it's come up. But as far as them whipping us on it, I don't see it," said Joseph Campbell, a member of the anti-Peripheral Canal steering committee in 1982 and now president of the Contra Costa Water District. "I hate it."

Rare flood offers warning

June 3 was a reminder of why the levees matter and a close brush with a serious statewide emergency. Under the pressure of an unusually high tide that day, a levee in the southern Delta that was believed to be in good shape crumbled. So much water gushed so fast onto the Jones Tract, eventually flooding 11,000 acres of farmland and displacing migrant workers, that salt water from the Bay began to creep near Delta pumps.

Operators were forced to crank down the massive pumps near Tracy for six days to prevent salt from fouling the water supply. Cut off from their Delta source of water, San Joaquin Valley farmers and Southern California cities had to rely instead on groundwater and Southern California reservoirs -- backup sources inadequate to meet sustained demand.

The summer flood was made more complicated because flooding on one island raises the risk to other nearby levees and islands. The day after the Jones Tract levee broke, for instance, crews rushed to shore up a second levee protecting tens of thousands of acres of additional farmland. Leaks and seeps sprouted on adjacent islands.

One of the gravest fears of water operators -- a cascade of levee failures -- appeared possible.

"As the flooding of Jones Tract demonstrated, there are many known and unknown risks that can reduce our ability to import water from the Delta," Tom Clark, general manager of the Kern County Water Agency, wrote recently to the editor of his local paper.

Clark, who is retiring, endorsed a plan for a scaled-down peripheral canal to augment existing plumbing. That plan has been shelved since 2000, but is due to be reconsidered by state water officials as early as 2007.

Clark did not respond to a request for comment.

Water-grab fears

In Northern California, there is concern that any new infrastructure with the potential to move more water south will eventually do just that, and in Southern California there is reluctance to stoke those fears.

The largest urban water agency in the state, for example, has studiously backed away from any discussion of a new canal.

"You're going to have to drag my agency kicking and screaming, because we're so afraid of what it's going to do to North-South relations," said Tim Quinn, vice president of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Anglers worry about the negative effect on fisheries, while environmentalists are concerned that Delta ecosystems would be further damaged.

There are other concerns, as well.

Without the South's reliance on the Delta for drinking water, statewide support could dwindle for maintaining the levees that protect a half-million Contra Costa residents' water supply, which would probably continue to come from the south Delta.

Delta farms, which predate the projects that move water to Southern California, would face the same problem.

Bad odds for Delta

Over the last year, Mount's research has shown the pressure on levees growing as the islands continue to sink and the sea level rises. Without corrective action, the pressure will continue to build.

Moreover, a major earthquake might lead to abrupt, multiple levee failures that are likely to overwhelm any emergency response efforts.

Mount calculated a two-in-three chance that sometime in the next 50 years Delta levees will fail and lead to significant flooding.

His work has not been formally reviewed by other scientists, but it is generating interest in scientific and water policy circles and comes at a time when California is increasing, or at least cementing, its reliance on the Delta.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, for example, is in the process of renewing more than 100 25-year contracts for nearly 2 trillion gallons a year from the Delta system. The proposed contracts are very similar to the contracts they will replace and do little or nothing to reduce the state's reliance on the Delta.

At the same time, the California Department of Water Resources is expected in the next several months to move ahead with a plan to ramp up its pumping capacity by 27 percent to increase the reliability of water supplies.

Canal repackaged

The original Peripheral Canal was envisioned as part of the State Water Project, the massive plumbing system that includes a dam in Oroville, pumps at Tracy and an aqueduct that carries water 444 miles to Riverside County.

As originally designed, the canal would have diverted water from the Sacramento River just south of the state capital into a new channel large enough to carry the entire river in the dry fall months.

The water would have traveled in an arc around the east side of the Delta, arriving at pumping stations at Tracy cleaner than water that travels through the Delta. At various points along the way, water would be released from the canal into rivers feeding the Delta to address environmental concerns.

After the state Legislature and then-Gov. Jerry Brown approved the canal in 1980, incensed opponents put a referendum on the ballot.

Former Contra Costa County Supervisor Sunne McPeak was a co-chairwoman for the opposition group. McPeak, now a Cabinet secretary in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration, did not respond to requests to her office for an interview.

Delta farmers, environmentalists and Northern California residents strongly opposed the canal, and the referendum killed the proposal in 1982.

But the idea did not go away.

In the early '90s, conditions in the Delta were reaching a crisis. Fisheries were collapsing because of overpumping. Federal regulators were threatening to curtail water deliveries south of the Delta unless something was done. A broad-based effort called CalFed was begun to fix the Delta.

One proposed solution -- with the new, less threatening name "isolated conveyance facility" -- would be to build a pipe smaller than the old proposed canal.

The final CalFed decision in 2000 gave the pipe strong consideration. But the "conveyance" was ultimately "rejected as infeasible due to social and technical considerations, based in large part due to the contentiousness" it would foster.

But CalFed added that a new canal proposal could not be ruled out entirely, and might be reconsidered as early as 2007. In the meantime, CalFed would maintain and upgrade levees, improve water quality and restore ecosystems and increase Delta pumping capacity. If that doesn't improve fisheries, water quality and water supply reliability, the "conveyance" will come back into play.

"After that first stage, we're going to have to evaluate: ... Is the through-Delta system the right way to go?" said Patrick Wright, who leads CalFed as executive director of the California Bay-Delta Authority.

Wright added a cautionary note.

"I think people need some time to digest this material (from Mount) before they start leaping to conclusions about plumbing."

Canal alternatives

Dealing with the Delta's instability does not necessarily mean that a new water delivery system must be built. Maybe there's a third way.

"I think it's sad that the only thing people want to talk about is a peripheral canal," said John Cain, a restoration ecologist at the Natural Heritage Institute. "We don't think about Delta fragility or the seismicity of the Delta because of the P-word."

Cain suggested that new levees could be built to divide islands up like pie slices. That way, if there is a flood, only a portion of the land would be flooded.

Another idea is to start rebuilding the islands to higher elevations by planting tules or using rice straw bales. Unfortunately, filling the islands with dirt or rock will not work, because that material is heavy enough to crush the peat and cause further sinking.

"I don't see the Peripheral Canal as a solution to this problem," Cain added. "I see the Peripheral Canal being a walking-away from this problem."

Still, Wright, Cain, the UC Davis scientists and others say it would be a good idea to begin coming up with a plan for dealing with the levees now, instead of waiting for the calamity that Mount has forecast.

"We think it makes sense to start this dialogue now, rather than waiting for the Delta to deteriorate," said Jonas Minton, a former deputy director at the California Department of Water Resources and now a water analyst for the Planning and Conservation League.

"We think it's the sort of issue where Californians should not stick their heads in the peat," he said.
Old     (dakid)      Join Date: Feb 2001       11-15-2004, 12:56 PM Reply   
is there a condensed version?
Old    whitechocolate            11-15-2004, 1:11 PM Reply   
I am amazed in the low tec way they fix the levee when and if it breaks. It took them so long to even start to fix the levee, All the dammage seemd to be done before they got started on fixing it. I didnt see how or know how it was fixed but a friend told me they just started dropping large rocks in front of the break and filled in the gap. I would hope that they had some sort of barge on stand by that they could quickly fix this type of thing if and when it happens next time. I got tired of hearing everyone saying how this lake or that lake was low because they had to let extra water out to save the delta.
Old    jetgofish            11-15-2004, 1:42 PM Reply   
Joe - No condensed version!

Grant - What your friends told you is correct. Living on 10 minutes away we would often stop and watch the levee repair while we took a break from riding. Unfortunately the current that was created once the levee broke was tramendous. In front of the broken area the depth prior to the levee break was about 20 feet, after the levee break and even today the depth ranges from 50 to 75 feet. There are no barges on stand by to quickly jump on areas that break. Even if there were the barges would have to hold off on dumping rocks into the broken area until the current slowed or the rocks would just be washed away. We all have to remember that the levee system was built in the early 19th century by Chinese migrant farm workers. During that time the orginal levees were composed mostly of built up mud walls or excess dirt from farm fields. Over the years the grey rock or "rip rap" is only dumped to reinforce the levee system. Though the Delta levees are weakend and in serious need of rehabilitation, the Canal is by no means a fix to the Delta nor is there any real "quick fix". Though the method which Cal Fed used to fix the broken levee to many of us might seem antiquated it is by far the best and only method at this time. Today when you pass by the break it's clearly visable by the new "rip rap" that is built up. There was a mixture of rock and dirt that rebuilt the broken area. This canal that is being reproposed will do nothing but turn the Delta into a weak shallow marshy wetland!!!

Further investigation showed that only a few of the lakes were used to flush salt water back during the levee break one major contributor was Shasta. Lake levels this year were low due to a lack of water concentration in last years snow pack as well as lack of rain! Lets hope this year turn into the El Nino every one has predicted. Hogan at last glance was 20% of capacity!

(Message edited by jetgofish on November 15, 2004)
Old    whitechocolate            11-15-2004, 2:31 PM Reply   
Im no Engineer. But If your were to park a large barge with the rock if front of the crack would it bend the barge or sink it. It seems like you could stop alot of the water flow. Sort of plug the hole type of thing and then off load the rock right there. It just seems like low priorty, Like we all know any one of the levee's could break at any time but no one seems to have any plan becides this to repair this,

Why dont you stop driving your wakeboard boats back and forth that trow a huge wake against the levee and stop the break down of the fragile levee system. LOL LOL
Old    jetgofish            11-15-2004, 2:39 PM Reply   
Grant - They can bitch about the wakeboard boats all they want, but the had better start pointing the finger at the large yachts that travel up and down the Delta. Most are large enough to cruise to Hawaii at a mere 65 to 90 feet in length if not bigger. We've all seen them plowing down the Delta with wakes large enough to surf off of!!!

Your bardge question, typically these barges have a shallow hull to them which allows them to travel through the Delta easier, most of the barges when loaded have a depth of maybe 9 feet. I see your point in trying to place the barge in front of the break, but things have proven that it actually doesn't work that way! Typically spift water finds an alternate path, which would be around the barge or under the barge! I'm no Engineer either, but that's the pyshics of things!

Maybe we should point the finger at all the wake surfers?! j/k
Old     (scott_a)      Join Date: Dec 2002       11-15-2004, 3:23 PM Reply   
I BLAME TUBERS AND THEIR S-TURNS! they MUST be to blame, right?

oh hell, i dunno. this situation sucks though. from now on every time i feel an earthquake im gonna cringe thinking about the fact that a levee might break. dammit...
Old     (rodmcinnis)      Join Date: Sep 2002       11-15-2004, 4:19 PM Reply   
If you attemted to sink a barge in front of the break you would likely cause more problems.

The levee break started with a small trickle of water seeping through or up from underneath the levee. This trickle washed away the dirt and the trickle grew larger, then into a stream, and then into a torrent that could carry away hugh bolders.

Unless the barge was exactly the right size and exactly the right shape then all you would do by placeing it in front of the breach would be to force the water to flow around it, ripping apart even more of the levee.

The only way to fix it is to wait until the water level equalizes and the current reduces to the point that the boulders don't get washed away as you drop them into the hole.

As for wakeboard boats being blamed for the levee damage, well, yeah, we will be. And to some degree it is true. I don't believe that the last levee break was due to wake damage, but the more wakes crashing against the rip rap the more maintenance needs to be done. It is one reason that the farmers never like the boaters. I can imagin that from their point of view wakeboard boats are the worst because we intentionally make our wakes as big as possible.

There has been debates raging for many years between the farmers and the boaters. I am sure it is never going to change.
Old     (deltawake)      Join Date: Sep 2004       11-15-2004, 8:07 PM Reply   

The fundamental problem is that the farmland is 10 to 20 feet below the water levels in the Delta. The process of farming drops the level of the land a few inches per year. So if things continue as they are, the potential for catastrophic failure increases every year. If the peripheral canal is built, bye-bye Delta as we know it. The state needs to be proactive and start raising the levels of the islands using the methods outlined in the article. If nothing is done, we will eventually get a peripjeral canal by default, because it will become cost prohibitive to continue fixing the levees. It is encouraging to see a lot of barge traffic recently, in the south Delta area, shoring up some of the levees with fresh rip-rap. This is a band-aid, but until a more permanent plan is enacted, it would seem to be far cheaper to maintain what we have than to have to continue to fix the catastrophic failures a la Jones Tract.

As an aside, this problem may create an interesting alliance between Bass fishermen and recreational boaters. (Wakeboarders) Those guys give me the dirtiest looks,as we go by, espscially this time of year. I think they figure us wakeboarders should hang it up at the end of Summer.
Old    jetgofish            11-16-2004, 9:59 AM Reply   
Peter - Your comments on Bassfisherman hit home. I've kept this a HUGE secret to ALL of my fellow wakeboarders until now. I grew up in a perdominate Bass fishing family, dated a bassfisherman for the better part of six years and even today my family still bass fishes! The odd thing about this is my brother has two boats, one a bass boat and two a wakeboard boat. Now when talking to my ex, he HATES wakeboarders because the can't stand the wakes and the music. Which is probably why most of them give us a bad look. We get an even harder look this time of year because YES they think WE should hang things up this time of year (since this is mainly when the tournaments are going, they peak in spring). I do believe that we can build a colition so to speak and fight what this canal can do to the Delta, but it's not just boaters who are at risk. Every one who lives in Contra Costa Country receives all of their drinking water from the South Delta! I live in Discovery Bay and having grown up on the Delta I feel that we should all fight for it instead of taking advantage of it.

Rod - I agree with you 100%, we need to build up the farm lands and shore up the levees. Agreed that rip rap may be a band aid, but when you are working with a water system that is as old as the Delta we must do what we can.

I wanted every one to read the article because as you stated if they build the canal it will ruin the Delta as we know it!

Another intresting talk: Recently I read and heard that Cal*Fed is discussing removing the center burm in Victioria's to increase water flow to the River's End pumps.... How will that effect the Delta? Imagine what that will do to every ones favorite Delta boarding spot!
Old     (rodmcinnis)      Join Date: Sep 2002       11-16-2004, 12:06 PM Reply   
No matter how much water they pump out of the delta it isn't going to change the water level, just the water quality. For wakeboarding purposes it might actually improve things if the brackish water backed up from the bay and killed all the weeds that threaten to choke out all my favorite riding spots.

There are LOTs of much more powerful lobbys that want to stop the peripheral canal. This isn't a boating issue, there will still be water there, its at sea level! The environmental crowd oppose the canal because it cuts the flow of fresh water through the delta, which can hurt the migration of fish and other wild life. The farmers REALLY oppose it because if the brackish water backs up to their pumps they use for irrigating their crops then they lose out big. Most northern California's oppose it in principle because they are tired of sending all of their water to LA.

Old    jetgofish            11-16-2004, 12:11 PM Reply   
My point exactly - I'm tired of sending my water to L.A. too... always a big political debate. I could add so much more to your recent posting. One of my main studies was the Delta and the impact the Delta Mendota Canal has on the ecosystem and water shed.


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