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Break in Levee Unleashes a Flood of Worry

Aging dirt barriers on private land protect farms. But some experts say the risk of losing a vital source of water for millions is too high.

June 19, 2004|William Wan and Sara Lin | Times Staff Writers

HOLT, Calif. — Standing on high ground, Rick Marcucci pointed to the lake that used to be his farm. When a levee broke two weeks ago, a rush of water drowned his neatly combed fields of corn, tomatoes and asparagus.

But the threat of flooding comes with the territory in these low-lying farmlands of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where 450,000 acres are protected by dirt barriers.

"Our problem is that we're below sea level," said Marcucci, 45. "This happened here before. I guess you just hope it doesn't happen to you."

This is farming in the delta, a perilous and costly enterprise.

Farmers look at the sunken fields and see some of the richest soil in the country. State water officials, meanwhile, look at the same area and see a disaster waiting to happen.

When a levee burst here June 3, it highlighted the delicate balance along the delta.

The delta, fed by rivers carrying rain and snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada, provides two-thirds of California residents with fresh drinking water distributed through the California Aqueduct. The delta is also a major source of water for Central Valley farms.

A levee break causes a radical shift in water along the delta, as fresh water floods the low-lying areas. The vacuum draws in saltwater from San Francisco Bay, which is connected to the delta through a series of bays and rivers. The saltwater then contaminates the drinking-water supply.

The levee break in Holt forced officials to shut down the pumping of fresh water out of the delta for three days until its salt content could be reduced to normal levels.

On Friday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger requested that President Bush declare a "major disaster" in the flooded area around Holt, a move that would make more federal aid available.

The breach has renewed concerns among state water officials about the aging levees and the delta's islands, which are sinking because of farming activity that is increasing the potential for problems.

"We think about levees all the time," said Ron Gastelum, CEO of Southern California's Metropolitan Water District, noting that 18 million people in Southern California rely on the delta for 40% to 60% of their water.

The state and federal governments don't know what caused the levee to break or whether other levees in the area could also be on the verge of collapse. Of the state's 6,000 miles of levees, 4,300 miles are on private land where state regulations do not apply.

Some experts question whether farming should even continue on the land if it jeopardizes the state's water resources every time a levee breaks. If the farms were abandoned, the levees could be gradually removed, experts said, creating a more stable system of wetlands that would protect the drinking-water source.

"Does it make sense to continue this farming while islands sink deeper and deeper and the risk for fresh water gets greater?" asked Curt Schmutte, chief levee engineer for the state Department of Water Resources.

Farmers, meanwhile, defend their maintenance of levees, saying it is in their best interest to make sure they don't break.

"These are some of the better levee systems in the delta," said Kurt Sharp, who lost 600 acres of crops in the recent flood. "We never thought we'd lose a levee where we lost it."

Like many farmers in the delta, Sharp is carrying on a family tradition. His ancestors came to California from Portugal four generations ago, fortifying the levees while growing alfalfa and corn. He took over the farm about a decade ago when his grandfather died.

"That's our livelihood out there," he said.

The recent levee breach wiped out 12,000 acres of crops and sent 65 billion gallons of saltwater into the delta.

Farmers in this town, 20 miles west of Stockton, first noticed water trickling through the levee on the morning of June 3. By the next day, the breach had expanded to 450 feet and water had turned the land, known as Upper and Lower Jones Tracts, into a giant lake.

Jim Defremery was working in his fields when he saw waves gush through the breach. Floodwater had claimed his crops once before, when another levee broke in 1980. Defremery, 67, knew the only thing he could save was the equipment. So he drove his tractors to high ground and threw open the doors of his barn, hoping the water would pass through instead of knocking it over.

He tried to do the same for his house, but sheriff's deputies stopped him. The water was up to his ankles, and the time for strategy had passed.

"The only thing left to do was to run," he said.

As long as there have been levees and farmers in the delta, there have been breaches and floods. Chinese laborers built most of the levees in the mid-19th century, helping farmers reclaim the land after the California Gold Rush.

In 1967 the state began pumping water out of the delta, an ideal source of fresh drinking water from the Sierra Nevada snowmelt. But throughout the years, levee collapses continued to disrupt the pumping.

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