Wednesday, July 20, 2016
[Contra Costa County] Grand jury: Contra Costa levees require more care
There's more work to be done to improve the condition of Contra Costa County's Delta levees, according to a recent civil grand jury report.
To make the county's 139.48 miles of levees safer, the report recommended increasing community education and fostering resource-sharing and collaboration among the numerous agencies responsible for their care.
The levees are of vital importance in terms of both safety and economics, the report said. Some experts, however, think the state has already taken steps to make them safer.
"The improvements over the past two decades have been substantial, and have greatly reduced the risk of breach and flooding," said Erik Vink, the executive director of the Delta Protection Commission, a state agency that oversees Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
No Delta levee has failed since 2004, when experts believe burrowing rodents caused a breach to the Jones Tract near Contra Costa County, costing the state an estimated $30 million in cleanup. In 2009, a cargo ship collided with a levee in Bradford Island, requiring $800,000 in repairs to prevent a breach.
Vink said response capabilities are improving.
"Presumably, you wouldn't have a whole fleet of cargo ships ramming Delta levees at the same time," Vink said. "It's not like we've got an armada of earth-moving equipment and rocks and material, but the state is doing a better job of creating stockpiles of those materials."
Of the nearly 140 levee miles, 12.7 are considered urban. That could explain the finding that just 18.9 miles are up to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's certification, an urban standard that Dominick Gulli, the engineer who designed the levees in Contra Costa County's Orwood Tract, said was difficult to obtain and doesn't speak to a levee's integrity.
Despite the disparity in standards, experts said agricultural levees are as important as urban ones.
"We jokingly say, 'Get ready to start drinking salt coffee,' " said Robert Bea, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of civil engineering who has previously investigated Delta levees' safety, noting that any breach could affect drinking water quality.
Bea cited power, telecommunications, railroads and highways as other resources that could go offline following a breach.
"It would take years to fix the problem so that you could re-establish those services," Bea said. "The consequences of the breach of those so-called agricultural levees, in some cases, outweigh the breaching of the urban levees."
Vink said agencies are poised to make further improvements to urban and agricultural levees alike. In 2014, Proposition 1 authorized $7.12 billion in statewide bond issuances to fund water infrastructure.
The districts overseeing the levees receive funding from state programs along with property taxes. Total revenues for the 12 districts that submitted figures in 2013-14 ranged from $5,000 to $3,378,175.
"The funding is there," Vink said. "The resources and the infrastructure are there to continue to make these improvements."
The report also brought up bureaucracy issues, highlighting the difficulty of collaborating among 13 reclamation districts and one municipal improvement district responsible for levee maintenance.
Bea called the situation a "bureaucratic mess," saying "everyone and no one" is in charge of the state of the levees.
The report acknowledged the obstacles, recommending that districts create a shared website and standardize inspection procedures.
The report requires responses from 19 agencies, including the boards of trustees for each of the reclamation districts, the Oakley City Council and the county Board of Supervisors. It can be viewed at www.cc-courts.org/GJ_Reports_2015-16.
July 9, 2016
East Bay Times
By Lew Facher