Cost of Sacramento Delta water woes

May 4, 2012


Here I go again! I was thinking of giving the Sacramento Delta water woes a rest but a fairly recent move, discussed in an editorial in the San Fransisco Chronicle in December, by our old friend the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has got me going again.

Not meaning to bore you once again by mentioning my pedigree of 162 years of my family’s farming in the Delta but it does give me some personal insight into how outside governmental interference sometimes goes against local common sense.

To the point. The levees in the Delta are made of sand and/or peat – hardly good building blocks but it is what we have to work with. The early settlers built up their own levees, forming fertile islands, in the vast swampland and immediately planted trees and shrubs to hold the soil in place. Pretty much common sense – Ag conservation 101. Well, back in the 1960’s the Corps, which has control of all navigable streams, decided to take down all the trees and rock the levees at the average water levels leaving the Sacramento River and many of its tributaries looking like big ditches.

The resulting flow greatly increased the force and speed of the river causing erosion problems when the water normally goes above the rocks in the winter. Might work on the rocky Snake River and other streams that lie below the surrounding land but not the levees where the water is over 20 feet higher than the ground on the other side.

The beautiful Live Oaks, Sycamores, and other beneficial trees, many of which were over 100 years old, were chopped down and the remaining vegetation burned off. Their main thinking, plus making it easier to look for squirrel and other varmint holes, is that they fear that winds might topple trees taking a chunk of levee with them. They also worry that a tree might die and with the resulting root decay, water seepage may occur causing a blowout. Rarely has any of these two scenarios have ever caused a flood on their own.

My 5’1” sweet maternal grandmother (but of feisty Spanish heritage) seriously threatened to shoot anyone who tried to cut down her favorite large oak on the old paddle wheel steamboat landing in front of her farm. It got a lot of play and because it was not on the slope but on the flat part of the landing she was able to save it. However, all the work and rocking around it damaged the roots which led to its demise a few years later. Another neighbor got into a fist fight with a job supervisor and they ended up rolling down the levee into the river – real Wild West stuff.

After a few decades, the Corps started to see the error of their ways and began reversing some of their practices and encouraged and even paid for some of the plantings of trees with fibrous roots, especially native Live Oaks. Well, that has now changed post-Katrina so once again we are suppose to chop down the trees and shrubs or face the loss of federal funding after a flood. How’s that for blatant extortion.

But what about the proven water and wind erosion on the unprotected sand and peat levees? What about the loss of shade for the migrating fish (salmon, steelhead, shad, etc) and the lost vegetation protection and roosting for birds and animals? What about the Corp’s own studies that show vegetation strengthen the levees and slow down flows? What about the cost of this flawed thinking of at least $7.5 billion dollars to take out the vegetation from 2,100 miles in the Delta?

That cost is half again more than what the proposed buffet rule would bring in per year to give you a perspective from several angles. What about the extra cost of taking out the roots of the trees this time and how are they going to do that without weakening the levees? What about doing all this which will not offer much more protection if any? More likely it will make the levees worse according to the water reclamation districts which maintain the levee systems?

This new reversal was called “our Pearl Harbor” by Ann Riley, a Bay Area riparian expert, because it was a sneak attack only found out when published in the Federal Register. No hearings, just an edict. Evidently a $1.34 million dollar study concluded that trees “increase uncertainty” (how much – 5 percent, less?) for levee integrity. They also demand “other than federal entities” take out the trees. I guess that means those of us who live on the other side of the levees have to take out the trees we were encouraged and willingly planted thinking the Corps finally wised up and were thinking of our safety.

My good friend and next door farm neighbor, U.S. Representative John Garamendi, who also lives behind a levee near my home town, Walnut Grove, said that local flood control district managers know what is necessary to protect our levees – not Washington. He well stated “The Corps has set a one-size-fits-all-policy. But would the Army buy the same size boot for every soldier?”

A proposed compromise that is in the works is the idea that would leave the river side of the levees with mature vegetation for soil protection and wildlife habitat with shade for the fish. It would also provide for removing seedlings as they come up on the land side so eventually it would clear much of those slopes. This would make it easier to inspect the levees and all right with most farmers except that it will wipe out half of the best pheasant, quail and other bird habitats the levees provide.

Farmers need to farm every inch of their properties to stay solvent so the irrigation ditches on the delta farms are about the only other areas left for wildlife habitat.

I know this is a regional problem and not specifically about our area on the Central Coast. But like the potential big pipe transfer of water around the Delta to be state funded by a huge water bond (perhaps on the 2014 ballot) whereby few locally will see a drop of water, this expense will be also partially paid locally. Just trying to point out why and where some of your tax money may go and how it will impact farmers up north. I will probably go into local water issues next month while I am on point.

We only have around 5 percent of the Central Valley’s riparian forest left and now the Army Corps of Engineers wants to wrack a good chunk more of it down. It is kind of like they are stuck in the movie “Groundhog’s Day” doing the same dumb thing over and over and never learning a thing.

“A nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself. Forest are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and gives fresh strength to our people (plus animals and levees!). Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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“A nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself. Forest are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and gives fresh strength to our people” (plus animals and levees!). Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Ironic and apt quote, as many of the CCC & WPA projects (logging, dams) can be pointed to as the precipitating cause of never-before-seen catastrophic flooding since the 30s, with consequent widespread loss of topsoil in the heartland.

Thanks for the cogent history of individual forestry protecting the levies. Common sense of common folks is based on the day to day observations of real conditions and events (science that no one need to pay for in a study).

Government agencies and common sense must be an oxymoron if the definition is a “combination of contradictory words”.