When the levee don’t break

When Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, and the Jones Tract levee broke 10 years ago today, it changed the way Californians look at the Delta.

No, amend that: it made Californians look at the Delta. Before that, the region was invisible to policy makers. Afterwards, they viewed it through the lens of their interests, the primary one being the water they export.

Suddenly Sacramento started worrying about the levees as if the mothers could go at any time, cutting off the tap for 25 million Californians and monkey-wrenching agriculture.

There is a kernel of truth to this argument, but they exaggerated the threat. There is not one case of a levee failure caused by an earthquake, not even after the Big One of 1906. That doesn’t mean it can never happen, but it means the probability is nothing like state alarmists say.   

This story buttresses that point. No levees have failed since Jones Tract. Properly viewed, then, the Jones Tract flood flood is an exception to an era of strengthening levees and decreasing floods. And while it is true, as a water attorney says in the story, “Our levees do need constant maintenance,” so does the Golden Gate Bridge. But nobody obsesses over its collapse.

If the levees are resilient, half the rationale for the Delta tunnels project goes away. And since that rationale – reliable water deliveries – is all Sacramento really cares about – because the environmental restoration of the Delta is clearly an afterthought – then the whole rationale goes away.

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    Michael Fitzgerald

    Mike Fitzgerald is The Record’s award-winning metro columnist. His column runs in the paper three times a week. Born in San Francisco, he was raised in Stockton. His column covers diverse beats including, sometimes, the offbeat. Read Full
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