Delta Flows: August 28, 2013

“A little neglect may breed great mischief . . . for want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost.”
Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac

An astute reader noted that in our recent article on the five-agency Bay Area desal project being planned for Mallard Slough on Suisun Bay, we said that the Contra Costa Water District gets State Water Project water. They don’t. However, two of the other agencies – Santa Clara Valley Water District and Zone 7 – do.

Levee sleight of hand

Let’s risk taking our eyes off the Bay Delta Conservation Plan’s (BDCP’s) Peripheral Tunnel realignment plans for a minute and notice some other potentially alarming things that are going on. Plans already underway could essentially abandon large portions of the Delta by defunding levee upgrades.

(Before we go on, a word about levee standards:
• HMP is Hazard Mitigation Plan, a short-term, minimum standard developed in the early ‘80s and used by reclamation districts to qualify for FEMA aid.
• PL 84-99 is the stringent Delta-specific Public Law standard that qualifies reclamation districts for federal assistance and rehabilitation.)

In 1995-2000, the integrity of Delta levees was studied intensively, and State and federal agencies decided to upgrade them to the Army Corps of Engineers’ PL 84-99 Delta-specific standard, with the costs to be shared among all beneficial users.

Delta engineers and reclamation districts have been designing levee improvements using PL 84-99. They argue that that standard should be used for state and local investment in the entire system of Delta levees because risks cannot be segregated island by island.

However, DWR’s strategy has been to use different standards depending on what assets are being protected (wildlife, agriculture, infrastructure, or urban) and how vigorously the state responds to flooding. The State has no plan for the Delta as a whole, as we reported in our May 7, 2012 newsletter (“Delta levees: How good is good enough?”).

In a “framework for investment in Delta levees,” released last year, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) began to push for the HMP standard to be the base standard for Delta levees. DWR’s own engineering consultants said this was a terrible idea and stated, “DWR has provided no engineering analysis to establish that such a change is technically sensible or acceptable for long term investments in Delta levees.”

Perhaps the change in standard has a lot to do with the fact that DWR appears to have spent or obligated all $3 billion of the 2006’s Prop 1E bond funds that were intended to “evaluate, repair, rehabilitate, reconstruct or replace levees, weirs, bypasses,” but only about 10% has gone to actually upgrade levees in the Delta – apparently with preference given to levees adjacent to water supply corridors.

DWR has transmitted maps to the Delta Stewardship Council (DSC) showing that a number of levees HAVE been upgraded to the PL 84-99 standard – those along water corridors that are critical for water supply.

So, for example, the Sacramento River side of Brannan island is almost entirely upgraded to PL 84-99 standard, although the rest of the island has HMP levees. Almost all of Sherman Island (owned by DWR) and Jersey Island have PL 84-99 levees. Portions of the Middle River side of Lower Jones and Upper Jones Tract are PL 84-99 levees.

However, the town of Walnut Grove is NOT protected by encircling levees, although legislation mandating that was passed in 1989.

So it appears that DWR’s main priority in spending bond money is protecting water supply, not people.

Here is where the governing body responsible for being stewards of the Delta enters the picture. The Delta Reform Act of 2009 mandated that the Delta Stewardship Council “in consultation with the Central Valley Flood Protection Board, shall recommend in the Delta Plan priorities for state investments in levee operation, maintenance, and improvement in the Delta, including both levees that are a part of the State Plan of Flood Control and nonproject levees” (emphasis added).

At its August 22 meeting, the DSC had an item on the agenda to consider an interagency agreement with DWR regarding a reevaluation of levee upgrade standards.

Tasks under the agreement include (but are not limited to):
• Determining the asset and impact exposure for each island and tract in the Delta
• Analyzing the risks of levee failure and the consequences of the lost use of Delta assets
• Coordination among DWR, the Stewardship Council, and the Central Valley Flood Protection Board to recommend levels of flood protection for various land uses
• Producing a “tiered ranking” to prioritize State investments
• Developing a strategy for allocating costs
• Conducting public outreach

NOT mentioned in this document: Protecting people’s lives.

Most of the work is to be performed by consultants. There will certainly be significant conflicts of interest if CH2MHill, which is doing the planning for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) is selected to evaluate whether the state should keep its previous commitments to upgrade Delta levees.

There is also a question about the independent peer review. The agreement calls for “a transparent, robust, cooperative peer review process” involving agency reviewers and the consultant. But DWR wants to both appoint the reviewers and approve the peer review report before public release and public comment.

That’s not “transparent.”

To give them credit, the DSC staff certainly didn’t think it was transparent and has resisted signing off on a non-independent peer review. At the August 22 meeting, the Council voted to postpone discussion of the agreement. We applaud their hesitation but suggest that DWR is hijacking the whole review process. The legislation mandates that DSC consult with the Central Valley Flood Protection Board, not with DWR.

Meanwhile, we have to wonder how the DSC will decide on a “tiered ranking” to “prioritize State investments.” They could use something like the Levee Decision Analysis Property Value + Assets map and table in Appendix B of the 2008 PPIC report, Comparing Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

click here to enlarge

Notice all those areas identified as “Indeterminate” and “Do Not Repair.”

The retreat from the commitments in the earlier State/federal Levee System Integrity Program happened at the same time that DWR began the BDCP. DWR has justified this shift in policy by citing the dangers of sea level rise and the vulnerability of Delta levees to earthquakes. But DWR’s own analysis for BDCP shows an expected sea level rise of 18 inches by 2060, which could certainly be dealt with by levee upgrades. DWR itself considers higher levels within the next 50 years to be sufficiently unlikely that it is not even evaluating operations of the proposed Peripheral Tunnels for higher levels of sea level rise.

The State is taking a triage approach to Delta levees based on economics, and it is hard to see where the long-term protection of Delta residents is showing up as an important economic value. A summary of the levee subventions program for 2010-2011 showed that Delta reclamation districts got about 20% of the funding they requested, with costs eligible for reimbursement falling into the categories of maintenance, fish and wildlife, and HMP (see Table 3). No requests for levee upgrades above the HMP standard were eligible for reimbursement. (Bulletin 192-82 was the basis for the PL 84-99 standard.)

This past June, FloodSafe California released Draft Regional Flood Atlases for six regions along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. There’s an atlas for the Lower Sacramento River Delta North Region, and there’s an atlas for the Lower San Joaquin River/Delta South Region (see the map below). But it looks like when it comes to flood protection, the Central Delta is some other agency’s problem. The Central Delta is not considered to be in either the Sacramento River floodplain nor the San Joaquin River floodplain.

click here to enlarge
(Click on map to enlarge)

Notice how nicely that area lines up with the Do Not Repair and Indeterminate categories on the PPIC map shown above.

Looking at all this evidence together, it is pretty clear that the State of California, through various agencies, is pursuing a de facto strategy to configure the Delta for the benefit of exports, with Delta people and property being treated as a poor stepchild at best. That’s happening quite apart from BDCP.

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