California mired in its own levee crisis

Officials, in a stalemate, struggle to find money for repairs - despite rising warnings of failing levees.

New Orleans' levees aren't the only ones getting close scrutiny these days. California's deteriorating network of water barricades - humbler in structure than those in the Big Easy but no less key to the health and safety of millions of residents - is prompting state and local officials to speak in "state of emergency" terms.

But even as concern mounts about the state of disrepair of levees in California, any internal resolution of the problem remains mired in partisan politicking.

The stalemate became baldly apparent last week when state legislators let lapse a deadline to put a giant public-works improvement plan, which included the levees, on the June ballot. The inability of lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to rise out of a "politics first" mind-set has led some observers to suggest that the biggest "state of emergency" may be with the political system itself.

"This is another example of a complicated government and political situation in California failing its populace," says Robert Stern, director of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles dedicated to creating effective, inclusive government. "Everyone knows what is needed, but each seems more interested in delivering body blows to their opponents in an election year."

The threat of levee failure in northern California is immediate and widespread, warn experts. Depending on where a failure in the vast system occurs, it could be hurricane Katrina-like in scale, they add.

At serious risk are cities large and small, including the state capital; the San Joaquin Valley in central California, producer of half the nation's fruits and vegetables; and drinking water for 24 million Californians.

The state Department of Water Resources (DWR) last year testified that a magnitude 6.5 earthquake in the Sacramento Delta region could topple levees and damage other flood- control structures, inundating the city of Sacramento with 17 feet of water. It could also threaten water supplies in much of the state (by allowing salt water from San Francisco Bay to stream into the delta) and halt transportation and farm activities for months. The short-term damage could be the loss of 30,000 jobs and $30 billion to $40 billion in economic losses.

In response, Governor Schwarzenegger in February declared a state of emergency that triggered $100 million in quick repairs to the 100-year-old levee system, a web of earth and concrete that traverses nearly 6,000 miles. The levees were built piecemeal with equipment of the day, when the state was largely agricultural. In the past 10 years, individual levees have failed 140 times, usually during flood season in winter.

Because of unusually high floods in recent years, levees are deteriorating rapidly - causing multiple emergency declarations across 42 counties for flooding, mudslides, and washed-out roads and homes, the DWR says.

Politicians of both stripes, business people, farmers, and environmentalists agree that the $100 million sum is woefully inadequate. They have petitioned the US government to come up with its share of funds under federal law to make repairs. They are also seeking as much as $6 billion in state funds, part of the more than $60 billion public works package that missed last week's deadline to be placed on the June ballot. In the wake of that delay (ostensibly until November), legislators are trying to negotiate up to $2.5 billion for levee upgrades.

But experts worry aloud that the money either will not be forthcoming or will not be enough. "Levees certainly are not a sexy topic, but in terms of importance to ... the world's fifth largest economy, they are as important as any other piece of infrastructure," says Richard Golb, former head of the Northern California Water Association. "A collapse of the levees near Sacramento would likely result in a catastrophe far greater than Katrina. If levees near San Francisco Bay failed, you could see a shut-off of water to southern California. It would certainly go down as one of the greatest catastrophes in US history."

Deadlock over levees and other public-works projects in Schwarzenegger's huge $222 billion rebuilding plan has loosed a stream of commentary - by political observers, talk-radio hosts, and newspaper editorial writers - about Sacramento's perceived ineffectiveness in managing the state. Among other issues that remain stymied: prison reform, election reform, state spending, and immigration. For the governor, who campaigned in 2003 as a leader who could break political logjams, the stakes are high. He's up for reelection this fall.

While politicians scramble for funds, the US Army Corps of Engineers has identified 24 sites it sees as crucial to flood control on the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. A challenge is that strengthening levees in one place transfers the vulnerability to other spots. The 24 sites, experts say, are a fraction of the problem.

"We need a systemwide answer to this, not a band-aid approach," says Les Harder, DWR deputy director. "Ninety-nine percent of the levees in New Orleans were fine. It was just one small hole that brought all that damage. We have a lot of hidden defects ... - so many that we don't know where they all are."

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