Delta Flows: March 23, 2015

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

By: Stina Va

The Delta Stewardship Council has discussed state levee investment strategy for the Delta for over five years. Yet local Delta and state agencies had communicated to the Council their support and confidence in the existing state levee investment strategy, which administers state funds for Delta levee improvements and maintenance.

The agencies’ message has often been, if the system for maintaining and operating the levees ain’t broken, you don’t need to fix it.

But the Council cynically continues to spend taxpayer money into developing a new levee investment strategy, without objectively studying or seeking to measure the benefits and protections that existing Delta levee improvements and maintenance already provide to the state year after year.

Their intention to change funding priorities for Delta levees due to limited state funds may increase risk and vulnerability for Delta communities and farms as well as the rest of the state to potential public health, economic, and ecological disasters.

“Is there any state policy besides ad hoc spending?” Council member Phil Isenberg asked rhetorically at the Council’s board meeting on February 26 in Walnut Grove. Based on previous comments he had made throughout the discussion process, dating back to 2011, it appears that Isenberg views the current strategy of levee maintenance and prioritization of the most hazardous risks on Delta levees as “ad hoc,” or in other words, as benefitting special Delta interests only, rather than particular state interests.

Delta people resist Isenberg’s skepticism. “It’s not a grant program, it’s not a gift program,” Steven Mello, a Delta farmer and active member of local and state Delta agencies, asserted during the opportunity for public comment.

“Public uses of the Delta, of the channels, of the levees, result in damage to our levees that [local Delta agencies] are responsible for fixing,” Mello continued. “We’re not beneficiaries to the state. We’re the benefactors to the state. We pay more than our share.”

At the late February Council meeting, Cindy Messer, Council staffer, presented four approaches to update prioritization of state levee investments. State agencies with Delta levee responsibilities were also convened for a panel discussion to make recommendations for goals that the strategy should further.

The first two approaches Messer presented, titled “Business as Usual” and “Business as Usual 2.0” are most like current practices, which look at numerous state objectives and goals in levee investments and consist of a broad category of investments, such as urban and urbanizing areas, rural or small communities, water supply reliability, ecosystem related goals, economic and other Delta as Place goals.

In a third approach, titled “Economic Sustainability Plan/Delta as Fortress,” all state project levees would be protected to at least the Public Law (PL) 84-99 standard set by Congress and Army Corps of Engineers. Most rural non-project levees, which do not have state liability, would be improved to wider “fat levee” configuration, according to Messer.

Whereas the other approaches are reflective of comments made by local and state agencies, the fourth approach, “Goal-oriented Prudence,” will be the most unpopular but unfortunately (and not surprisingly) the approach most reflected in the Council’s opinions on the levee investment strategy. Goal-oriented Prudence seeks to reduce state liability, while neglecting the government’s dual requirement to protect both life and property of every citizen. In this approach warnings from state and local agencies about how the Delta functions as one entire interdependent levee system are dismissed. Instead, funding would be highly selective and prioritize only specific island or levees that have high state liability.

During the panel discussions, Council member Contra Costa County supervisor, Mary Nejedly Piepho asked Clyde MacDonald, representing the state’s Central Valley Flood Protection Board, what his agency would change about the existing levee investment strategy. He indicated a need to improve the capability to respond to a major flood event.

MacDonald also stated that current programs administering Delta levees funding are “wildly successful” and that they operate very well. He suggested looking at the cost-sharing formula to see how the levee investment strategy could be more effective in funding needed levee improvements. He cautioned against a strategy that would establish rigid rules and recommended flexibility in order to adapt to a changing Delta environment.

“Do you really think what the Legislature told us to do is a waste of time? And overlooks the fact that you are already doing fine?” Delta Stewardship Council member Patrick Johnston asked another panelist, Department of Water Resource’s Gary Bardini. He further pressed his pointed question, asking if the strategy of getting great public servants with knowledgeable people and Reclamation Districts could figure out how to allocate money best.

“It’s another opportunity to have a conversation on how we’re going to do it,” Bardini replied.

Panelist Erik Vink, the Delta Protection Commission’s Executive Director, pointed out that his Commission recommended incorporating the Economic Sustainability Plan into the levee investment strategy. Vink stated, “The levees are a system and it really would be unwise to starve certain levees of funding.” Like MacDonald of the flood protection board, Vink also recommended focusing on the capability to respond to a flood among all levels of government, given the fact that work on bringing levee improvements can take years.

In his public comment, Mello, the Delta farmer, also recommended prioritizing the weakest part of Delta levees.

“I am protecting life and property, protecting infrastructure of statewide importance. I am protecting gas fields in a state that has a paucity of fuel…. The other thing we are protecting is very vital habitat for Sandhill Crane, Swainson’s Hawk, migratory birds protected by international treaty—the margins of our islands have great value for virtue of the shallow and shaded aquatic habitat that we provide,” Mello explained.

Towards the end of the meeting, Council member Piepho requested that Council staff meet with north Delta agencies involved with Delta levee responsibilities to look into a strategy that focused on prioritizing the “weakest link” in Delta levees.

Although the majority of the meeting focused on the levee investment strategy, Council staff also showed how much in state funds went into Delta levee funding.

So far, according to the Council’s staff report, state expenditures for levee subventions program totaled about $165 million and local expenditures totaled $106 million in the 26 years between 1987 and 2013. Staff acknowledged that the Delta Levees Special Project program, however, has less reliable data. In that program, state levee investments totaled about $338 million from the period of 1992-2012, covering about 96% of levee project costs.

Council member Isenberg pointed out that there are other costs that the state covered in Delta levee improvements, which are not found in the Special projects or Subventions program.

Gil Cosio of MBK Engineering, an engineering firm with reclamation districts in the Delta as some of its clients, pointed out in a public comment that data on funds spent by state and local agencies are available, but has not been properly compiled.

Newly appointed Council member Susan Tatayon (who works for the Nature Conservancy) asked if there has been any effort to quantify or track benefits from state levee improvements. Council staffers stated that there is currently no action tracking or quantifying benefits attained from state levee investments. Wilcox, [etc.], confirmed a need to measure the benefits of levee maintenance and improvements for ecosystems.

At the next March 26 Council meeting, which will take place at West Sacramento City Hall Galleria from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Messer writes that the Council will provide guidance to their staff on which alternatives best capture their assessment of the State interests that warrant fuller consideration in the prioritization of State investments. We will continue to stay updated with the decision making process.

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