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Cost of Burst Levee in Millions

June 09, 2004|From Associated Press

FRESNO — The levee that broke in the heart of the state's complex irrigation system put 1 million acres of irrigated Central Valley farmland on alert for possible water cutbacks just as peak irrigation season begins.

San Joaquin County estimates the damage and the cost of rebuilding the levee, which failed last week, at more than $82 million.

The nation's most productive farm belt, California's Central Valley is watered by irrigation districts as large as Rhode Island. Six thousand miles of levees contain and channel snowmelt as it runs down the Sierra Nevada and through the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta to the Pacific.

And yet one broken levee -- one burst capillary in the heart of the intricate system -- can hurt users more than 100 miles away.

"The scary part of it is still evolving," said Dan Errotabere, a board member of Westlands Water District, which uses delta water to irrigate 550,000 acres of farmland in the western San Joaquin Valley.

The American Red Cross and the Stockton Diocese helped the hundreds of farmworkers who were displaced by the flood when a levee bordering the lowland island west of Stockton broke Thursday, flooding 12,000 acres.

The San Joaquin County agriculture commissioner calculated lost crops at nearly $10 million. The office of emergency services estimated damage to homes and structures at $25 million and damage to other property at up to $30 million.

Crews spent the weekend piling rocks around the initial opening and stabilizing other nearby levees, although winds of up to 30 mph pushed water onto an access road used by residents of two nearby islands. Seventy-five residents of the two islands were evacuated.

Rebuilding the levee and pumping out the floodwater will take at least two months and up to $15 million. It's unknown how long it will take farmers, some of whose land sits under more than 10 feet of water, to produce again once the water is gone.

Fifteen area farmers form the reclamation district that is responsible for maintaining levees in the flood zone. Each year, they spend an average of $200,000 on that effort, said Richard W. Johnson, the district's secretary and legal counsel.

While the emergency continues, the U.S. Corps of Engineers and different state agencies are helping to close the gap in the levee and pumping out the water. But much of the reparation expense is going to fall to local farmers, Johnson said -- and that will be difficult.

"The reclamation district can't afford these repairs," Johnson said. "It's all very expensive, and farming is a chancy occupation. They don't have that much to fall back on."

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