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December 16, 2009
by Sandy Tolan
photograph of a high river

Before the housing bubble burst, development was going strong in the delta. Now is the time to pause and consider: what happens when the levee breaks?

They blamed it on a beaver. Or perhaps it was a ground squirrel. Whatever it was, it brought quick trouble to Jones Tract early on a June morning in 2004, when the old levee failed and waters rushed through the breach. “A little burrowing animal is usually how it starts,” says Lisa Kirk, community activist of nearby Bethel Island, recalling the sunny day when Jones Tract disappeared. The tract, like dozens of surrounding islands scattered through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, was below sea level, kept dry by an old wall of peat and dirt. For decades it held. Then the critter dug too far.

From the force of Delta waters, the rat-sized hole grew quicky into a 350-foot gap. Within hours Upper and Lower Jones Tracts were inundated. Luckily, the only inhabitants were rows of asparagus, tomatoes, and alfalfa, but it took three weeks to close the breach, and another six months and $90 million to pump out more than 48 million gallons and restore the land to its previous manmade state.

The sinking of Jones Tract was more than passing curiosity to Kirk and fellow island neighbors in the Delta. They too live in the floodplain, protected only by the mounds of dirt built 150 years ago by Chinese laborers. “The island that I live on houses 2,500 people, and we have the same kinds of levees as Jones Tract,” Kirk says. “So we’re in the same boat.”

Bethel Island and Jones Tract are among dozens of reclaimed Delta islands: each a different size and protected by earthen walls. On the other side of the walls flow the engineered remnants of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, now channeled into a series of navigable sloughs. Inside the levees lie the islands—an archipelago of former swamplands now converted to 558,000 acres of crops, and home to more than half a million people.

The levee at Taylor Slough is all that separates Lisa Kirk from a cold bath. The dirt mound lies just beyond the wooden deck of Kirk’s Bethel Island home, past a row of plastic pink flamingos and some giant ferns protruding from concrete planters. A sign at the edge of the levee proclaims “Taylor Slough, 5 mph wake. 6 pm Cocktails.”

From the deck, looking at the lazy waters, all appears normal. Then you remember that Kirk’s house is built atop old telephone poles, and that you’ve climbed up a long flight of stairs to get here. From the base of those stairs you can watch boats float past, above your head.

“I live down in a bowl,” Kirk says wryly, “and if that bowl cracks, it’s coming at me.”

The levees of the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta (also known as the California Delta) were built to safeguard crops, not people. In the 1850s, as the gold rush waned, white men, spurred by the Swampland Act, bought up Delta marshes at a dollar an acre. Chinese laborers, who had already laid track for the transcontinental railroad, came south to the Delta to haul chunks of peat sod by oxcart from the tule marshes, forming and shoring up the earthen walls. They created a landscape they could not possess: Chinese were forbidden from owning the very land they helped reclaim.

Over the decades, those levees grew, as dredgers and tractors heaped piles of river mud atop the original Chinese workmanship. Now the haphazard, multilayered barriers—cracked, leak-prone, and vulnerable to floods and seismic shaking—remain the first and often only line of defense against potential catastrophe. The lands inside the levees, meanwhile, sink farther below sea level each year, as the gases from the carbon-rich peat soils drift into the atmosphere.

In recent years, as Bay Area housing prices shot up, commercial developers began building inside the levees, ratcheting up the risk factor and sparking furious debate about the wisdom of floodplain development.  The real estate crash has quieted that debate for now, but the vulnerabilities remain: A series of levee breaches—a likely scenario in a significant earthquake—would be catastrophic for Delta homes and farms and would jeopardize a major source of drinking water for 25 million Californians.

“The Delta is in crisis, and each day brings us closer to a major disaster,” wrote the authors of “Delta Vision,” the November 2007 report of the governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force. “Current patterns of use are unsustainable, and catastrophic events, such as an earthquake, could cause dramatic changes in minutes…. What the nation learned from New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina is the terrible price of waiting.”

The specter of a California Katrina helped do what the state’s budget crisis could not: create bipartisan momentum to generate a comprehensive solution. In November, the legislature passed a comprehensive water deal that combines habitat protection with secure water delivery from the Delta. This could lead to construction of the peripheral canal, which would safeguard water supplies by transporting them around the Delta. The canal was voted down in 1982 in one of the bitterest water fights in state history. But new political allies may give it a better chance this time.

The Nature Conservancy and the Public Policy Institute of California—groups once opposed to the canal—now support it, provided it is part of a larger fix to restore habitat for sharply declining fish populations. (The Environmental Defense Fund more carefully describes itself as “willing to consider the possibility that a canal could work” if it passed stringent economic and ecosystem tests.) A coalition of fishers, local farmers, and grass roots environmentalists is pushing back hard, and an $11 billion bond measure approved by the legislature, a key step before a canal could be built, will go before voters in November 2010.

“What’s new is the shift in support from mainstream environmental groups and others,” says Richard Frank, executive director of the California Center for Environmental Law and Policy at Boalt Hall. Frank, a coauthor of the “Delta Vision” report, says the task force’s recommendations now form “the baseline for the policy debate in Sacramento.” The recommendations, however, go well beyond fish habitat and water supplies. Frank says the new vision should also cut through a tangle of 200 competing government agencies to establish a clear governing authority. This would help with another pressing issue: the “encroaching urbanization” that allowed people “to build and live in harm’s way.”

Plummeting housing prices and the resulting silence of bulldozers provide a moment of calm to rethink floodplain development. “This is a moment where we have the opportunity,” says Mary Comerio, Berkeley professor of architecture and an expert in postdisaster reconstruction, “to really start to ask, ‘Should we look at where we build, and limit some things, maybe at the state level? Are there certain kinds of areas that shouldn’t be developed?’ We’re not building the risk-cost equations into our planning models. It’s hard to get people to change their mindsets, because disasters happen infrequently.”

A start would be to restrict development in the Delta’s ecologically fragile primary zone, especially in the floodplain behind the levees. “The levee system,” says Frank, “was never designed to protect and accommodate residential development.”

Yet, on reclaimed islands across the Delta, this is precisely what happened.

It’s ironic that Lisa Kirk, who lives in a home in the flood plain, spent years fighting plans for new development on Bethel Island. But the stacks of clippings, books, technical reports, depositions, and other court filings piled high in Kirk’s garage chronicle her fight against a proposed high-density project called Delta Coves. Plans were approved for 495 homes on more than 300 acres in the middle of Bethel Island—but it appears nobody won that fight. The development, begun on a giant plot of raised earth, is unfinished. Not a single house has been built, and the project, yet another victim of a battered economy, is bankrupt.

Still, Delta Coves is affecting the safety of Bethel Island residents like Kirk. The unbuilt neighborhood represents a new phenomenon in floodplain development: privatization of flood protection. The development’s packed, smooth tract of dirt will put all Delta Coves homes (if they’re ever built) above sea level, and technically out of the floodplain. Yet the Delta Coves levee is like a giant raised plug, plunked down within the old levees and shrinking the floodplain itself.

Waters rushing through a break in the old levee would be pinched into a tighter channel and therefore would rise more quickly. Residents would have less time to get to high ground. To put it in the blunt language of Kirk, if “that tiny little levee that was built by Chinese 150 years ago” were to break, “it would create a velocity of water that would just rush down and take out most of the homes on Stone Road and focus the water to downtown Bethel Island.”

A serious earthquake would likely lead to multiple levee failures and sudden inundation. “That failure of 10–20 islands in the Delta causes a tremendous amount of saltwater to rush into the Delta and fill those islands with salt,” says geologist Jeffrey Mount, laying out a post-earthquake scenario. Mount teaches at UC Davis and is an expert in Delta floodplain management. “They may have built a wonderful levee at Delta Coves, but one break, one place, the whole island is gone.” Elevated Delta Coves residents might still be dry, but they would be surrounded by a saltwater lake.

A similar plight could face residents of Hotchkiss Tract, a few miles southeast of Kirk’s house. There a “dry levee” (meaning a levee inside a levee) was built around a new development called Summer Lake, further reducing the floodplain and deepening the caste system of disaster protection in the Delta. “This has been deemed the emergency evacuation area should the first levee break,” says realtor Margaret Salazar, waiting (and waiting) for customers in the Summer Lake showroom. “You’d want to come into Summer Lake because this is where all the emergency services will be,” she says, as a promotional video, with overhead shots zooming in on the scattering of new homes, plays in the background to no one. “This will be the place to be.”

“The water will hit the dry levee and it will start to build up and it will rise faster,” acknowledges Brad Nix, city councilman for the Delta town of Oakley, which annexed part of the Hotchkiss Tract including Summer Lake. Oakley is currently in a court battle with the Greenbelt Alliance, an environmental group, over continued development. But Nix adds, “You have time to get to the people. Four hours, five hours, six hours, eight hours, whatever the number is, it’s not an instantaneous flooding. There’s time to get people out. And obviously we’re going to do that.”

Oakley’s annexation of 2,500 acres in the floodplain is part of a nearly irresistible ethos facing communities across the Delta: Grow or die. The city, barely ten years old, must compete with bigger, more established communities for the tax base brought by big-box stores. “You can’t avoid it,” Nix says. Staples, Home Depot, and Walmart will come only “when you get enough rooftops.”

In the fight for more rooftops, Summer Lake has so far added precious few. And those roofs may be about the only ones above water, should an earthquake shake the old levees until too many of them burst. Left unsaid by Oakley officials, and city leaders in other nearby Delta towns, is what would happen next. At Summer Lake, multiple breaches in the old levees could send thousands of people scurrying into the new development, which would become yet another island in a reforming California Delta. Peering through their binoculars, Summer Lake residents could locate their neighbors, similarly stranded, on the new island of Delta Coves.

Nightmare scenarios abound for residents of other floodplain developments, as well: at Mossdale Village, a planned community of 2,300 houses near Lathrop; at River Islands, 11,000 homes boasting an “idyllic lifestyle” on the waterfront; and among future elderly residents of a 3000-unit, below-sea-level retirement community in Stockton. Planners of these communities assure residents that the homes will be made safe from the Delta’s waters by fortresses protecting them from 100-, 200-, even 300-year floods.

“I hope it works,” says Eric Parfrey, a city planner–turned-environmentalist in Stockton. “You can always mitigate for identified impacts. That’s what they tell us in planning school. But it’s hard to ensure that there aren’t going to be any long-term consequences of building so many thousands of homes right up against the Delta.”

“We’re just in a little quiet backwater,” says ecologist Jeff Hart as he eases his 21-foot outboard runabout across an old ship’s channel, down Prospect Slough, and astride a sunken Delta island. The boat glides through the Tule Wilderness, past button willow and alder, wild rose, cottonwood, sycamore, and blackberry. Hart cuts off the engine, and as we drift under an osprey nest, he spots evidence of past human habitation. “See, there is an abandoned electrical tower, power lines,” says the naturalist, eco-tour guide, and cofounder of Hart Restoration. A moment later, he determines we are at the outer edge of the flooded Liberty Island: He can tell by the change in vegetation that we’re floating past a human-built levee. “Some of them used to be farm fields,” Hart says. The old croplands might lie just a few feet below us. “You might run over an old tractor out here.”

Hart flicks on the runabout’s ignition and turns about, purring slowly through the waterscape of half-submerged tracts of land; it seems we have the entire Delta to ourselves, at dusk. “If we had been on this boat, at this calendar date in 1849 or 1850, we would see all manner of vessels through here,” Hart says. “Every type of sloop and schooner and merchant steamboats were plying these waters, transporting men hungry for gold.” After the gold rush came the steamboats and barges shipping wheat from the Central Valley, down the Carquinez Strait, through the Golden Gate, down the Pacific, around the tip of South America and up to Liverpool, England. “This region became part of international trade and globalization a long, long time ago,” Hart says.

Around the same time, the Chinese laborers arrived in the Delta to build the levees for habitation and commerce. Since then, unceasing vigilance has been required to maintain a human-built landscape. Hart points to another abandoned farm tract, Prospect Island, whose levee was scoured and melted by waves. “They have to pump the water back out to drain them. In fact, if there were no pumping action, most of the islands would in time just fill up with water. It might take a couple, three months or so, but it just demonstrates that this landscape requires constant human maintenance to sustain itself.”

The light is failing now, and Hart picks up speed, a wake rippling behind us in Steamboat Slough. He slows as a group of kids come into view, playing by the em-bankment. “You be careful now,” he calls out gently.

“We live in a society that honors Amer-ican freedom, the frontier, unlimited growth,” he says, hand on the grip of his outboard motor. Ahead, pink clouds reflect upward from the still surface of the slough. “There’s always a new resource to conquer. And if you look at the history of the West, it’s been one resource after the other. And of course the biggie has been water. At some point,” says Hart, “we humans have to recognize that we live in a finite world.”

Hart could just as easily be talking about land use, especially in the Delta floodplain. “Given the significance to the state of the Delta’s water resources, it seems to me that some state agencies have a real role in regulating development. There really ought to be a planning and regulatory role that looks at the risks imposed by development.”

The window to make change, left open a bit longer by a devastated economy, may soon close as a stimulated housing market, and all that comes with it, stirs back to life. The reality of growth—a doubling of the Delta’s five-county population, to 7.5 million in 2050—will build momentum quickly.

“‘We have lots of land and you can build wherever you want’—that’s been the American mindset,” Professor Comerio muses. “Only recently have people begun to ask, ‘Do these developments make sense?’”

“Why not?” counters Bethel Island realtor Ralph Wallace. “I mean, they build houses in the mountains. They build them on hillsides. They build them in forests. There are certain areas where people want to live. And they say, well, we like the San Francisco Bay Area, we want to live here. So the growth goes into areas that can be developed. And the floodplain can be developed. We could sit here and argue and say you should never ever build in an earthquake zone. If that were the case, there would be no Hayward, no Fremont, probably no Oakland. There would be no Bay Bridge. But we do those things. We overcome.”

Lisa Kirk is standing on the superlevee of raised earth known as Delta Coves, gazing at the surreal project she fought for five years. The land is empty but for the dozens of aluminum docks that lead from vacant lots down to the water’s edge. Tiny manmade waterways await future residents. But before they come, the bankrupt project (once owned by Lehman Brothers) will have to find a new buyer.

“There was some hope that this project would bring Bethel Island out of a depressed economy, but so far we’ve just all landed in it together,” says Kirk. At least, she had hoped, the revenues from Delta Coves would help shore up the cracked, seeping levees around the rest of the island. In fact, it’s unlikely they could be made truly safe. A more probable scenario in an earthquake or other natural disaster is that the levees would fail, just as they did in New Orleans. If they do, the future residents of Delta Coves may see themselves, for a very short time, as the lucky ones—safe and dry on a superlevee. But then they’d look around realizing they’re cut off and alone, with everything around them sunk.

“You think that people that live in flood zones would understand that,” Kirk says. “But I think sometimes when you live in a dangerous situation, whether it’s a dysfunctional family or something else, you go into denial in order to exist. I think people go into denial because they do realize the danger that they live in, and it’s just easier to turn away than try to face it.” 

Sandy Tolan is the author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, and an associate professor of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. He writes frequently about land and water issues
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