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Council Sees Need for Action on Delta Emergency Plan

December 2010

Amid growing concern over the risk of levee failure in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the Delta Stewardship Council called for an emergency preparedness and response plan tailored specifically to the region.

The Delta Reform Act requires the Council’s Delta Plan to “attempt to reduce risks to people, property and state interests in the Delta by promoting effective emergency preparedness, appropriate land uses, and strategic levee investments.”

After a presentation at the Council’s November meeting by the California Emergency Management Agency (CalEMA), which is responsible for coordinating disaster response among state agencies, Council members noted the need to move more quickly and work together more closely to address the Delta’s vulnerabilities.

The Council directed DSC staff and Agency officials to meet within the next few weeks to discuss their progress.

“There is no Delta-centric plan,” said Council Chair Phil Isenberg. “My overall impression is everyone is planning to build a plan. We plan to plan. Who’s responsible for today?”

Isenberg went on to note that not only was it necessary to build a plan that calls for basic protection of life and property, but it’s also necessary that it consider the policy objectives that support the coequal goals of reliably supplying water to Californians and restoring the ecosystem.

CalEMA officials noted that progress has been made, including the development of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Multi-Hazard Coordination Task Force. The agency is also coordinating development of a draft emergency preparedness and response strategy for the Delta region.

“We want to assure the Council that we have made many positive steps forward for the Delta specifically,” said Jim Brown, the Agency’s administrator for the inland region.

Levee Breech

Isenberg, however, reminded officials that even after a disaster, the Delta is expected to supply water to millions of Californians, and encouraged the agency to provide a more detailed plan so it could be properly considered in the context of the Delta Plan.

“How do we protect valuable resources like our water supply and our ecosystem by having options that might be exercised, but need not be?” Isenberg asked. “Are you bound, or have you thought about, how to respect the coequal goals and the Delta as an evolving place?”

“We all need to keep in mind the coequal goals,” added Councilmember Felicia Marcus. “With a multi-levee collapse, the water supply will be threatened. We’re all on notice. We need to engage at all levels.”

But there are some who question whether concerns about levees aren’t masking other motives.

“All the hype about levee strength is just another thing to throw out there to prove the Delta is unsustainable and in danger,” said Delta farmer Mike Robinson. “I don’t agree with that. And it’s another thing to justify a canal or a pipeline.”

Dr. Jeff Mount, a professor of geology at UC Davis and a member of the Delta Independent Science Board, is one of the leading experts on levee sustainability. He argues the situation will not get better on its own.

“The levees weren’t constructed. They evolved,” Mount said in an online interview with Popular Mechanics. “They would have to continuously add on to these levees to make them bigger and stronger as the islands subside, and frankly, the fact is things are getting worse…when you put a foot of new material on top of a levee…you have to count on the fact that you’ll lose about half of that.”

Coequal goals

The Delta Stewardship Council was created in legislation to achieve the state mandated coequal goals for the Delta. "'Coequal goals' means the two goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem. The coequal goals shall be achieved in a manner that protects and enhances the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource, and agricultural values of the Delta as an evolving place." (CA Water Code §85054)