Califonia Bountiful

Failing levees a 'heartbeat' away in California?

Nov./Dec. 2005 California Country magazine

Hurricane catastrophes serve as a grim reminder of the vulnerability of California's own deteriorating levee systems and the potential threat to public safety.


As millions of Gulf states' residents continue to recover from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the catastrophes serve as a grim reminder of the vulnerability of California's own deteriorating levee systems and the potential threat to public safety.

"This kind of flooding can happen in a heartbeat in California and I think we really aren't ready for it," said Brenda Jahns Southwick, managing counsel of California Farm Bureau Federation's Natural Resources and Environmental Division. "The one thing you can say about New Orleans is they tried to minimize the damage because they saw it coming and we are not prepared to do anything like that."

The warning signs are here. California Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow reported that flood-related damages have cost the state's property owners and taxpayers billions of dollars over the last two decades.

"The 1997 floods forced more than 120,000 people from their homes and damaged or destroyed 30,000 homes and 2,000 businesses. A single levee break in the delta last year cost nearly $100 million for emergency response, damage to private property, lost crops, levee repair and pumping costs," Snow said. "So now more than ever, bold legislative action is needed to tackle the major flooding challenges facing the state and provide long-term stable funding for these improvements."

The DWR report, "Flood Warnings: Responding to California's Flood Crisis," indicates that California's flood control system is deteriorating and, in some places, washing away. This has implications throughout the state.

"Unless California implements a strategic plan, the next major flood could easily overwhelm the state's deteriorating 50-year-old flood protection system and have catastrophic consequences for our people, property and environment," the report states.

A number of factors, according to the DWR, have put public safety and the state's financial stability at risk for even greater calamity in the future, such as escalating development in floodplains, deferred maintenance, the reduction of funding for flood prevention and management programs, and court decisions that have resulted in greater state flood damage liability.

"The bottom line is that California's growing population is pushing new development into many areas that are susceptible to flooding. And at a time when flood control maintenance and improvement efforts should be increased, investments have been reduced in many levels of government," said Sue Sims, DWR spokeswoman. "Together, these factors have created a ticking time-bomb for flood management in California."

Southwick, an expert in California water issues, is able to provide a personal perspective on what Hurricane Katrina means to the region in Louisiana where she grew up, as well as tell how this speaks volumes about the levee system in California.

"I was born in New Orleans and brought up in Baton Rouge, La., both of which were hit by Katrina. But New Orleans is my heart, the city of my birth," Southwick said. "New Orleans is a huge part of American history, part of our common heritage, certainly. That was the original objective of Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase, to get his hands on New Orleans because of the strategic port and it being such a prosperous town. It is unique, and has a very solid culture dating back centuries. It is the cradle of jazz and lots of cultural milestones were reached in New Orleans in terms of music and history, so this is very difficult. It is kind of like watching a train wreck, you know you don't want to see it, but you can't help it."

New Orleans sits below sea level and had 350 miles of hurricane levees built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. At least two levees that were protecting New Orleans failed when struck by Category 4 Hurricane Katrina's 145-mile-per-hour winds. Floodwaters quickly inundated the city, and water in some places was more than 20 feet deep.

Hurricane Katrina, Southwick said, should serve as a wake-up call to California government officials to re-examine levee integrity in California; however, these projects have become so costly, they are given low-priority status.

California's most recent flooding occurred last June, after a levee break in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta caused millions of dollars worth of damage, including a $15 million loss to crops, and flooded 12,000 acres of San Joaquin County farmland west of Stockton.

Also of concern was the movement of salty seawater from the San Francisco Bay into the freshwater body of the delta, where a massive system of canals moves drinking water to 22 million Californians.

Alex Hildebrand, a South Delta farmer in Manteca and recognized delta expert, confirms that assuring adequate flood protection in California is essential to public safety.

"We have a lot of people who would be flooded to considerable depths if the levees failed during a major flood event. But it is not something you can fix without spending a lot of money and I don't know what chance there is of getting the public and the Legislature to put up that kind of money," Hildebrand said. "If we have a levee break during a storm event such as we had in 1997, we could have something of a smaller scale flooding, but very similar to what they had in Louisiana. Once the levee breaks, it is pretty hard to fix."

In Northern California, Yuba County experienced flooding in 1986 when nearly 10,700 acres were inundated and 3,000 homes and 150 businesses were flooded, causing $95 million in damages. More flooding hit the region in 1997 after a levee broke on the Feather River. As a result, 100,000 people were evacuated and 16,000 acres were left under water.

"Certainly one of the greatest vulnerabilities for Northern California has to do with the condition of the levees," Sims said. "In a lot of cases, we really don't have the protection that we need behind these levees. Some of them don't meet the highest standards. People on the other sides of levees sometimes don't have the insurance or the protection that they need so it is a major concern of ours and one that we've been trying to get the Legislature's attention on."

In January, Southern California farmers and others living along the Mojave River were hit with intense rainfall that ultimately flooded communities and farmland and destroyed homes.

"Just this last year, people in Southern California dealt with an amazing show of nature's fury in terms of the amount of water that they got, so it should be fairly fresh in their minds just how powerful and how devastating excessive amounts of rainfall can be," Sims said.

Farmers along the Mojave River say the flood was caused by a combination of debris and vegetation that had choked the river channel and improper water releases. Several years prior, local farmers had asked the San Bernardino County Flood Control District to remove the vegetation. The response indicated that the county was unable to clear the river due to increasingly stringent environmental regulations.

"Environmental rules have a dramatic effect on the ability to maintain existing flood control structures, and habitat projects in floodways actually raise the risk of flooding," said Tony Francois, CFBF director of water resources. "In addition to subjecting flood maintenance to a labyrinth of permitting requirements that sometimes result in no maintenance being done, these new rules also increase the costs enormously for maintenance that actually does get done. Until the state grapples with this problem, the system cannot be called reformed, and we will have lives and property at risk in part because of protection of animal habitat that will be destroyed in floods as well."

The bottom line to solving California's potential flood troubles is funding, according to the DWR report.

"In terms of the investment that would be needed (to maintain levee systems in California), it is in the hundreds of millions of dollars," Sims said. "What they are finding in New Orleans is that it is hard to find the couple of billion dollars needed to protect those levees and now the consequence is $150 billion.

Sims cautioned that flooding disasters in California will financially impact everyone.

"The state ends up being financially responsible when one of these levees fails, and that is what the courts have decided, that it comes out of the general fund or some other funding mechanism that everybody pays for," Sims said. "The consequences are pretty overwhelming and maybe that is why this is such a difficult issue."

(Christine Souza is a reporter for California Country. She may be contacted at (800) 698-FARM or by e-mail at

Follow us on: Facebook Twitter YouTube Pinterest Pinterest