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CA levee breaks

A break in a rural dirt levee is prompting concerns about the safety of drinking water for cities from northern to southern California.

BY PJ HELLER | STOCKTON, CA | June 4, 2004


"We've never been in this position, so have to look at having this hydrologic event continue before we can come up with some solid answers."

—Jeff McCracken, Bureau of Reclamation


A break in a rural dirt levee is prompting concerns about the safety of drinking water for cities from northern to southern California.

The break in the levee west of Stockton on Thursday morning flooded thousands of acres of farm fields and resulted in salt-water intrusion from the San Francisco Bay into San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta. The delta is a source of drinking water for much of California.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation cut its water exports from the delta by 80 percent — from 2800 cubic feet per second to 700 cubic feet per second — and has urged its agricultural customers to try to rely on ground water supplies, said spokesman Jeff McCracken.

The California Department of Water Resources stopped all exports from the area.

McCracken said the bureau on Friday morning increased releases by about 5000 acre feet per day from its Shasta Reservoir into the Sacramento River in an effort to stabilize the freshwater supply in the delta. It will take about five days for that water to reach the delta.

“By late Tuesday or Wednesday, that water will be down there,” he said. “I’m sure by that time we’ll have a much better handle on what kind of operation we’ll need to take to make sure we increase our pumping back to where we were before this levee break.”

Spokesmen for the East Bay Municipal Utility District and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission both said their water supplies had not been affected. The Metropolitan Water District, which imports water to cities in Southern California, said it had adequate supplies of stored water at reservoirs so that its customers would not be affected.

Authorities said they were keeping a close eye on the situation.

“It's a watch situation, it’s not an immediate problem,” said Charles Hardy of the East Bay Municipal Utility District.

“We’re still monitoring the level of saltwater intrusion, and we continue to keep our exports at a minimum until we can get some solid scientific numbers,” McCracken added.

The break in the levee, which has grown to about 300 feet, occurred in a rural farming area where there are few homes. Water from the Middle River then flooded the low-lying farm fields and forced the evacuation of a few hundred workers. No injuries were reported.

Freshwater fish, some of them said to be endangered, were threatened by the intrusion of saltwater from San Francisco Bay. There was no estimate on the loss of farm crops or equipment.

Jim Defremery, who has farmed the area for 40 years, estimated that he lost $500,000 in corn, wheat, tomato and alfalfa crops.

The cause of the levee break was not immediately known.

“Those levees in the delta are very old and very fragile,” said Don Strickland, a spokesman for the California Department of Water Resources. He said some of the levees were built 100 years ago by farmers who drained the marshy area and created a series of island protected by a series of levees, which they formed by pushing together piles of dirt.

McCracken said that as of Friday morning, the island that had the levee break was still filling with water.

“It’s expected to equalize by tomorrow (Saturday) sometime, so we we've got another 24 hours of delta water moving into this void,” he said. “Our first initial read of delta water quality shows the level of salinity has increased but it hasn’t increased well into the area where we export water. It hasn’t got that far yet.

“We've never been in this position, so have to look at having this hydrologic event continue before we can come up with some solid answers,” he said.

Emergency crews were dumping boulders along the levee to slow the flooding. The floodwaters were also being partially contained by Burlington Northern-Santa Fe railroad track embankment. One of two train tracks through the area had been shut down.


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