Who benefits from crumbling Sacramento Delta levees?

California levee politics.

The state Legislature recently failed to pass a bill in time to qualify a large public works bond initiative on the June ballot. It was not the finest hour of the state Legislature. There is a particularly urgent need for billions of dollars to repair the aging Sacramento Delta levees. In view of the disaster in Louisiana and parts of Mississippi caused by Hurricane Katrina, there is a felt urgency in Sacramento, another large, "river" city, protected by levees, that something should be done about the condition and administration of the Sacramento Delta levees. Considering that about 23 million Southern Californians depend on water supplies from the Delta that, in case of disaster, would be contaminated, is an added urgency. This vulnerability is underscored by the long-running drought in the Southwest, increasing pressure on the Colorado River as it diminishes.

There is actually no good argument against the Legislature asking the people to vote for the bonds necessary to overhaul the levees, and every argument for it.

However, from the start, the bond package was for a huge amount of public works (infrastructure projects) and highway funds is a government word for pork. Evidently, the legislators fell to bickering about projects for their own districts.

The capital press corps threw up their hands in disgust.

But, I never saw an old political question asked, so I thought I'd try it, as simple-minded as it appears in the present political culture of consensus and public-private, win-win partnerships. No matter how dysfunctional any political economic situation is, you have to ask who it benefits.

This led my thinking back to developers, who pretty much run things in the capital. When last fall the state Reclamation Board dared to suggest that under certain circumstances some projects built on flood plains near crumbling levees should be more closely examined, the governor fired the whole board and appointed a new one, which has not yet reopened that issue. It was as if the development lobby in Sacramento declared that the disaster in New Orleans did not exist -- and the governor went along with the gag.

Perhaps I place too much weight on the governor's action. Nevertheless, when I add to it SB 50, which establishes an unreasonably low state cap on developer fees to public schools, and the constant attacks on the California Environmental Quality Act, as well as observing the escalation of water wars accompanying more urban growth and the rapidly deteriorating air quality in the state, I think it's pretty simple.

If developers had wanted a strong bond issue that would have included an adequately financed program for repairing Delta levees, I believe it is probable we would have had one to vote on in June. I think this because I cannot see anyone but developers who would benefit from a major levee breakdown. The governor asked for about $67 billion in bonds. A major failure of the Delta levee system would cost more. Wouldn't the lion's share of those contracts go to the firms that had the equipment, manpower, expertise and political lobby position for the task?

Huge engineering firms like Bechtel, UC's new partner in design and manufacture of a new generation of nuclear weapons, would benefit.

An economic study of the Katrina aftermath would reveal what sort of Wall Street financial institutions would benefit.

By waiting for a disaster, I suppose we spread the risk across the nation, so that taxpayers in North Dakota contribute. After all, it's "federal water," isn't it?

I think others that might, short-sightedly, feel a great flood would be helpful at this time are some environmentalists. I say short-sightedly because the environmental mess such a flood would cause would be a horror unimaginable before Katrina. In any such catastrophe, environmental law and regulation is suspended.

There is an observation that can be made at such times on the relationship between the environment and society. The slogan behind the establishment of the CalFed process a decade ago was: "The Delta is broken." It is now being said, "The Legislature is broken."

If the levees go, California is going to be broken. Who does that benefit?

Another thing to consider is that the economic breakdown of Louisiana and parts of Mississippi is one thing; the economic breakdown of California would be quite another thing. Who would benefit from the consquences of that?

At the moment, it looks like there is no government or consortium of governmental agencies in the United States capable of taking effective responsibility for the accelerating decline of the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, where some small fish species are rapidly going extinct and the Chinook salmon count is so low off the Pacific Coast that the commercial Chinook fishery will probably be closed this year.

The economic consequences of a major disaster on this system of old levees would be somewhat greater even than the damage done to the Port of New Orleans, it seems to me. Who would benefit from that?

Bill Hatch



Dan Walters: Infrastructure bond collapse proves anew that Capitol is broken
By Dan Walters -- Bee Columnist
Published 2:15 am PST Friday, March 17, 2006
Story appeared on Page A3 of The Bee
If nothing else, the comic opera collapse of the two-month political quest for a plan to improve highways, levees and other strained and deteriorating public facilities should finally convince Californians that their Capitol is a broken institution, endemically incapable of dealing with major policy issues.
Monday morning quarterbacks are working overtime to blame this group or that politician for what didn't happen. While some of those observations are accurate as far as they go, however, singling out immediate factors sidesteps the larger political malaise, not only on infrastructure but on countless other big-picture issues as well.

Simply put, California's dizzyingly dense mélange of ideological, geographic, cultural and economic subgroups interacts with a political structure that, in effect, gives every "stakeholder" a virtual veto power over the product. Under those circumstances, there are only two possible outcomes, both of which are bad. Either the product is a monstrosity that accommodates all demands but collapses of its own weight, or there is stalemate and no product at all.
The infrastructure scheme was becoming a classic monstrosity - like the 1996 electric utility "deregulation" plan that blew up a few years later, or a half-dozen deficit-ridden state budgets in this decade - but in the end could not enfold all demands and stalemated.

Governor ousts flood board
Some say the panel's recent move to review new urban development behind levees prompted the change.
By Matt Weiser -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PDT Wednesday, September 28, 2005
Story appeared on Page A1 of The Bee
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday replaced all seven board members of the state's top flood-control agency. Some questioned the timing of the change in light of the board's recent decision to review urban development in flood-prone areas.
The state Reclamation Board handles flood-control policy in California and oversees a 1,600-mile network of vital levees, primarily in the Central Valley. Its members serve at the governor's pleasure and can be appointed or removed at any time.

"These appointees represent the Central Valley and are experts in both water issues and engineering," said Julie Soderlund, deputy press secretary to Schwarzenegger.
The previous board members, most appointed by former Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, brought years of experience to the complicated issue at an important time, said Ronald Stork, a senior policy advocate with Friends of the River ...


Next big quake? Maybe east of Bay Area

By Scott Lindlaw, Associated Press Writer | March 25, 2006

HAYWARD, Calif. --New cracks appear in Elke DeMuynck's ceiling every few weeks, zigzagging across her living room, creeping toward the fireplace, veering down the wall. Month after month, year after year, she patches, paints and waits.

"It definitely lets you know your house is constantly shifting," DeMuynck said. So do the gate outside that swings uselessly 2 1/2 inches from its latch, the strange bulges in the street and the geology students who make pilgrimages to her cul-de-sac.

DeMuynck could throw her paint brush from her front stoop and hit the Hayward Fault, which geologists consider the most dangerous in the San Francisco Bay Area, if not the nation. Like others who live here, she gets by on a blend of denial, hope and humor.

It's the geologists, emergency planners and historians who seem to do most of the worrying, even in this year of heightened earthquake awareness for the 100th anniversary of San Francisco's Great Quake of April 18, 1906.

Several faults lurk beneath this region, including the San Andreas Fault on the west side of the Bay area, but geologists say the parallel Hayward on the Bay's east side is the most likely to snap next.

"It is locked and loaded and ready to fire at any time," said U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Tom Brocher...