Loaded Levees

Even before his big love fest with Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez over caps on greenhouse gas emissions, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted to terminate global warming in Cau-li-for-nia. He set emissions targets and directed state workers to study and monitor the effects of climate change. But flood control officials have proven recalcitrant.

That’s why a number of environmental groups, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, filed suit in August against the state’s Reclamation Board. The board issued a permit in June that would allow the construction of 224 luxury homes atop a 300-foot-wide “super levee” on a Delta island in the city of Lathrop. The suit contends that the board did not consider the effects global warming will have on the ability of the earthen barriers to protect future residents. The environmental groups charge that the board’s failure to look into this nasty scenario puts the project in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act.

“We hope to get the Reclamation Board to address these issues in a rational and considered way, and to draw the public’s attention to the failure of the board to do its flood protection job,” writes NRDC’s Kate Poole in an email.

Agencies such as the Department of Water Resources—following the Governor’s June 2005 order—have looked at how the Delta and other parts of the state will fare as temperatures rise. They’ve generated computer models and what they’re finding is not encouraging. (See article on page 11 for more on the state’s modeling.)

Poole notes that the flood threat to the Delta is “on a scale of Hurricane Katrina.” Climate experts have generated computer models demonstrating that higher temperatures could raise sea levels by more than two feet by the end of this century. This will affect not just coast dwellers but also residents in and around the Delta and its 1,100 miles of levees.

The report by the Department of Water Resources estimated that as little as a one-foot rise in sea level would likely flood the three westernmost Delta islands—Jersey, Twitchell, and Sherman. To guard against flooding, levees will have to be built higher—something the Reclamation Board did not take into account when it approved the plans for the Lathrop development, known as River Islands, writes Poole. Eventually, plans call for as many as 11,000 homes to be built on the Delta island.

Scott Morgan of California’s Reclamation Board challenges Poole’s assertion. Morgan, who could not comment directly on the suit, did say that the board lacked the authority to stop a housing project. It does have the authority to ask a developer to fix a flood control plan that, upon the board’s review, doesn’t adequately contain the water that’s projected to flow by. “Is the board concerned about flooding—yes,” says Morgan. “But it’s not the responsibility of the board to control what goes on behind a levee.”

“Well, it’s no secret that when I was on the board, I advocated strongly for worrying about what happens behind the levees,” counters UC Davis geologist Jeff Mount upon hearing Morgan’s comment.

Mount was dismissed from the Reclamation Board along with all other members when Schwarzenegger knocked out Gray Davis in the 2003 recall election. At the time, Mount and that Reclamation Board had pledged to use its authority spelled out in the California Environmental Quality Act to assess development projects in flood zones.

Mount says that priorities change when the equivalent of cities are built on levees—tasks such as repairs and future flood control projects must take into consideration the needs of the human population. “For this reason alone, it is an inescapable fact that what goes on behind the levees impacts the state’s plan of flood control,” says Mount.

Unfortunately, he notes, the changing of the guard at the Reclamation Board came before standard protocols could be developed for incorporating climate change into hydrologic analysis. Absent these protocols, “it’s not considered standard practice to require projects to take climate change into account.”

While this suit may be the first of its kind, Poole hopes it will start a new trend of state flood control officials taking the effects of global warming into account. And while the klieg lights have dimmed on the bipartisan Climate Change Cha-Cha-Cha for the moment, Mount believes that these efforts—and willingness of the state’s Climate Change team to address the issue head-on—may eventually bubble to the surface of flood management thinking. “But we’ve got a long way to go on this,” he says.

Comments are closed.