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Levee Break Forces 300 to Evacuate

San Joaquin Valley farmland is flooded, shutting a rail line. Drinking water supplies for millions could be affected.

June 04, 2004|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

A levee break in fields west of Stockton on Thursday morning prompted the evacuation of about 300 people from a farming community, and forced federal and state water agencies to slow the pumping of delta water for irrigation and drinking water.

The break, estimated at 300 feet long, was discovered about 8:30 a.m. on the Middle River along Bacon Island Road north of California 4, about 20 miles west of Stockton, said Connie Cassinetto, a spokeswoman for the San Joaquin County Office of Emergency Services.

The amount of freshwater rushing across the low-lying farmlands of man-made Bacon Island is enough to supply 150,000 families for one year. Authorities expect the change in water levels to cause salt water from San Francisco Bay to seep into the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, threatening freshwater fish and the quality of drinking water supplies for cities, including Los Angeles.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation cut its water exports from the delta by 80%, said spokesman Jeff McCracken. The California Department of Water Resources halted its exports from the area completely.

"We need to wait until island flows have stabilized to get decent readings on what salinity levels look like," McCracken said.

After that, he said, state and federal water agencies probably would consider releasing water from storage facilities to freshen the delta.

The break occurred on a stretch known as Upper Jones Tract, close to a main rail line and several pipelines that carry water to the San Francisco Bay Area. The pipes, located a mile north of the break, were not affected by floodwaters. Officials said those pipelines have been submerged before.

At 1:30 p.m., officials at the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway shut down one of its two main lines after water reached the edge of the track.

While trains were being operated at restricted speeds on the second line, officials said they would shut it down if water crept closer. Forty trains pass daily through the area.

The railroad tracks, which were built on raised trestles where a levee broke in 1980, divide the island's 12,000 acres roughly in half and are keeping floodwaters from contaminating the lower portion of the island.

"Those levees in the delta are very old and very fragile," said Don Strickland, a spokesman for the Department of Water Resources.

Most levees were not built properly, he said, and were created more than a century ago by "farmers pushing dirt together."

"Over the years," he said, "more people put up dirt and rocks, and then people put a highway on it."

As a result, many of the man-made islands in that region sit more than 10 feet below sea level.

California Highway Patrol officials said a high-pressure fuel line in the flood zone was shut down, but there were no immediate plans to close California 4.

"This mostly affects farmers, their equipment, and some migrant farm laborers," Cassinetto said.

Typically, fewer than 100 migrant workers live in camps in the area, primarily used to farm row crops such as alfalfa, she said.

County officials expected water to spill through the break into the night before engineers could plug it and begin pumping water out.

"When these levees break, it's pretty slow. It's not like a flood," Cassinetto said. A levee can break at any time, she added. "They're just dirt."

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