Securing the California Delta's levees before a major earthquake

as twenty feet below sea level.

As quoted by NPR, geologist Jeffrey Mount believes that “the delta of today is not sustainable even under today’s conditions, never mind climate change.”

For a levee that protects billions of dollars of investments and millions of lives, it is disturbingly poorly built. The levee system was not designed using modern engineering principles, instead it slowly evolved over time. Beginning in the 1850s the levees were first constructed by Chinese laborers using dirt to create space for farmland.

Over time the levee system grew in a piecemeal fashion to surround over 1,100 square miles and was forced to take on duties it was not originally designed for including providing freshwater for Californians as far away as Southern California and holding back water from the bay and rivers. The result is the current complex maze of levees that wind haphazardly across the Delta.

Many of the levees are built on a foundation of sand, a weak base in the event of an earthquake. To protect against seismic tremors and liquefaction, levees are being fortified with rock at their foundations. Unfortunately, this is a slow and incredibly expensive undertaking that would cost billions of dollars at a time when the California is facing a massive budget crisis.

Prospects for major improvements are bleak as CALFED, the federal-state agency tasked with managing the Delta, is experiencing significant budget shortfalls. After existing for only ten years, CALFED saw a projected budget shortfall of over $6 billion dollars in 2004.

Alternative sources of funding for repairs look slim as well. In the 2010 election cycle, an $11 billion dollar bond proposition which included $750 million for levee repair was pulled from the ballot due to fears that voters, hard hit by the recession, would reject it.

The prospects for a solution that will make a substantive impact on the levees look bleak. The latest attempt to address the Delta’s water issues is a proposed series of canal, tunnel, and pipeline projects – which have been dubbed the “periphery canal” for short – that would divert fresh water from rivers before it reaches the Delta and pump it to communities across California. The system will, in theory, be able to continue pumping fresh water in the event that the levees collapse. The periphery canal, however, even if successful, fails to address the fundamental problem of flooding due to failing levees.

Like repairing the levees, the stop-gap measure of building the periphery canal is fraught with political tension and may never occur. “[The canal] was political poison for about 20 years,” Mount says. “You simply did not talk about that as an option.” In 1982 a similar proposal to build a canal sparked an all-out political battle before it was eventually rejected by voters who believed it was an attempt by Southern California to steal water.

As in the past, the fate of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta’s levees is at the mercy of the capricious political winds of California. The Delta and its water supply effects so many residents across the state, nearly everyone – from local residents to utility companies, from environmental groups to county governments, and from large businesses to state commissions – has a significant stake in what occurs, making it difficult to accomplish anything as every decision is subject to prolonged and heated political battle.

After the horrifying damage that flooding caused in Pakistan last summer and now most recently in Australia, where the cleanup could cost billions of dollars, it would serve California well to act quickly and overcome budget shortfalls and political infighting before the near- inevitable next earthquake occurs and broken levees cause devastating floods that will further ravage California’s economy, environment, and people.