Is state’s new Delta levee strategy built on a series of errors?

Walnut Grove • May 3, 2015  •  Central Valley Business Times
by Gene Beley, CVBT Delta Correspondent

  • Distrust deepens in Delta
  • Questioning the accuracy of state’s data
s_Sailboats anchored out near Liberty Island
Sailboats anchored near Liberty Island in California Delta (Photo by Gene Beley)

Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are about to be spent on projects to ”restore” a small part of the California Delta. But Delta business owners, farmers and residents say those spending decisions could be based on faulty data, squandering much of Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are about to be spent on projects to ”restore” a small part of the California Delta. But Delta business owners, farmers and residents say those spending decisions could be based on faulty data, squandering much of the money.

How to best protect the “state’s interests” as an investment management strategy for the levees in the California Delta was the hot button of the latest Delta Stewardship Council meeting in Walnut Grove. Farmers and other local citizens told the DSC that the Delta is a single system and that if one levee is allowed to fail without repairing and reclaiming the land, it will do permanent damage to the entire system.

Watch a video of the meeting here. Our story continues below the video window.

Delta Stewardship levees management strategy meeting in Walnut Grove spurs heated discussions with farmers & locals from Gene Beley on Vimeo.

Randy Fiorini, chairman of the Delta Stewardship Council, said they have been holding outreach meetings “to receive the best input of the best expertise available.” But he admitted, “Some of the information that we have received from the usual sources may not be as accurate as it should be.”

He credits the input from local Delta folks in helping get better information.

Nicky Suard, an attorney and owner of Snug Harbor Resort in the Delta, was one of the critics of DSC’s research.

“I really want the Delta farmers to understand they have silently been under attack since about 2004 on water and land rights,” she said after the meeting. “In this latest attack, the Department of Water Resources (DWR), Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District (MWD), and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are trying to keep values down as they harass people out of business or con the farmers out of their family farms or move towards eminent domain of some areas.”

A PowerPoint presentation provokes

“In 2009 we were given the task to prioritize levee investments,” said Dustin Jones, project manager for the Delta Stewardship Council, told the Walnut Grove meeting. “In 2013 the Delta Plan was adopted. We do have a set of interim priorities in there. That was developed in cooperation with DWR. It is a risk reduction policy that touches on some interim priorities. We have some guidelines that we are refining. They are fairly broad and cover a lot of ground.

“Our goal is to narrow down to something more tangible for a long-term strategy that has more focus,” he said. “Where, with a limited amount of money, do you want to put your money first? With the passage of Proposition 1 water bond’s $295 million, a portion of that will be going to Delta levees. We have to use that as effectively and as efficiently as possible.”

Mr. Jones said there is $274 still remaining from Prop. 1E bond money, according to their own 2013 Delta Plan — “but [it] may be a little bit lower now.”

What is the state and DSC trying to accomplish? “We want to reduce flood risks, save lives, reduce property damage and protect the state’s interests,” said Mr. Jones.

The “state’s interest” words produced an immediate reaction equal as if a 4th of July cherry bomb had been dropped in the room. Mark Wilson, a farmer in Courtland who owns Wilson Vineyards, immediately interrupted the speaker and asked to know more about these “state’s interests.”

Mr. Jones told him he’d prefer to have Mr. Wilson wait until the Q&A session. That didn’t sit well.

“How long would that be?” asked Mr. Wilson

Mr. Jones: “10-15 minutes.”

Mr. Wilson: “You need to say now what those state interests are instead of keep using the term because at the end we don’t know the context. What are the state’s interests?”

Mr. Jones told him he’d talk about it on the next PowerPoint slide. He added, “It will include funding for operations and improvements in the delta. We want to keep this whole process an open and transparent process. This is the purpose of these public meetings

Mr. Wilson: “OK.”

The next slide was about lives and property, the ecosystem and water supply disruption.

Again, Mr. Wilson interrupted Mr. Jones. “You said the next slide would show the state’s interests but it didn’t.”

Mr. Jones ignored him and continued talking about with three different funding sources that included state funds, reclamation districts, and federal funds.

“We’ve gathered a lot of information on how well it has been working and where improvements have already been made,” Mr. Jones continued. Finally, he began talking about the state’s interests with first mentioning public health.

“There are rural areas and highly urbanized areas in there,” said Mr. Jones. “This is one of the main concerns we are addressing.” He said the ecosystem restoration and water supply are portions of the co-equal goals. The Delta’s economic well-being and its unique values and agricultural resources are all items that define the Delta as a place, he said.

Mr. Wilson asked him if there is any particular priority?

Mr. Jones: “Not yet.”

Mr. Wilson: “Will there be?”

“I don’t know,” Mr. Jones said. “Right now we’re just developing the methodology for these items and will work through the Delta Stewardship Council members.”

An unidentified young man in the last row of the audience asked, “Is one of these agriculture resources going to be held higher than another?”

“This is a risk based approach,” said Project Manager Cindy Messer from DSC, who was sitting at the front panel’s table. “We’re looking at different types of risks. Saving lives, property, water supplies, Delta as a place and values, and agricultural values. We are looking as to how to reduce the risks for different state interests. There will be prioritization based on interests throughout the region.”

Mr. Wilson: “Only the state’s interests are important? No one else’s interests except the state’s?”

Ms. Messer: “Well, that is the statue: people, property and the state’s interest. That is what the Delta Stewardship Council has stated in the discussions and obviously we’re here to solicit input.”

Joseph Rizzi of Benicia, who calls himself a water problem solver and inventor, was in the audience. “When you know the actual percentage of risk, will you post that so we can see it?” he asked. “I want to see if it adds up to 100 percent. If we see you’re focusing 80 percent on water supplies it is not really co-equal goals. Also we can see how you guys are focusing on water supplies as your only concern.”

The levees and their protection threaded through the evening’s discussion much like how water threads through the Delta itself.

“If you let one island go, you can forget the rest of the state’s interests,” said long time Walnut Grove farmer Steve Barsoom, who lives in Clarksburg. “If you let the island go you’ve lost all the surrounding islands, too. You can not take from a levee standpoint and prioritize where you are going to spend your dollars and not protect every citizen because it is all one system.”

Anna Swenson, a Delta advocate and member of the group called North Delta Community Area Residents for Environmental Stability (North Delta CARES) asked, “How is your organization going to go to each one of those 176 islands and tracts to make sure you are doing an accurate assessment? This is something that will be set in stone and will affect all 176 islands and tracts.

“Their destiny is based on what information you are using. And you are using reports now that are flawed. If the information is incorrect, the entire program will be a failure. It is your duty to do due diligence to go to each 176 islands and tracts to count homes or do a flyover — whatever it takes. There is a big difference between 17 homes and 55 homes [an error noted in one report]. That’s huge. That island could be identified as economically disadvantaged and not important. Maybe with 54 homes it would be protected. You can’t rely on just public input because it is your project and due diligence that has to happen. There has to be a better way than relying on the ‘Dreams’ report.”

“We’re using some of the data in the Delta Risk Management Strategy report (DRMS) but not the DRMS methodology,” said Mr. Jones “Don’t equate what we’re doing with DRMS,” he said, adding, “DRMS does have some valid data that we are using.”

“The fact you are using DWR’s information is frightening to me,” said Mrs. Swenson. “They have a history of not being accurate or current.”

Ms. Suard told how URS Corporation studies confused two Ryer islands in the Delta and commented on the DRMS report.

“Their baseline data was distributed in 2007 before it was ever vetted by anybody. In 2009 the DRMS report map was corrected but the baseline information keeps getting distributed,” she told CVBT.

“Proof that the DRMS Phase 1 is incorrect for Ryer Island: DWR used “three to five” floods or levee failure in the last 100 years, when Ryer Island has actually not flooded in more than 100 years, but DWR was using a time period before the levees were fully improved.”

Ms. Suard also wants everyone to understand how assessor’s values are always lower than real value for making judgments on values of properties to save —especially on agricultural land.

“Another thing I learned [about] their risk report is they do not value any of the marinas,” she said. “We do exist but in their eyes we don’t. I guess they thought if the water was there, it would be no difference if it were salt water or fresh water.”

Questions of accuracy and a use of asterisks

Larry Roth, with the Dutch water engineering consultant firm Arcadis U.S. Inc., said when he began his research he assumed there would be a list of islands in the Delta. But he found many discrepancies that ranged from 67 to 130 islands. “So the first thing we had to do was determine it for ourselves. We used all the lists and contacted the reclamation districts and it went up to 176 islands and that includes Suisun.”

Rogene Reynolds, a South Delta advocate whose experience dates back to the first peripheral canal fight against Gov. Edmund Brown Jr. more than 30 years ago, said, “The district to the north of us is separated by a cross levee. That cross levee has never been tested in the history of that island because Roberts Island has never been flooded. So it is really interesting to me that you’ve divided that island on your map. I realize they are separate reclamation districts. But you are using a delineation that is kind of archaic.

“One of the guides we used,” said Mr. Roth, was the reclamation district. “What we are developing is a living system. As data is improved, or mistakes are found, it can be corrected in almost real time.”

“Where are you going to draw your data?” asked Clarksburg farmer Steve Heringer. “Are elevations being taken into account? Breadth of levees?”

“Some from DRMS,” said Mr. Roth, “some from reclamation districts. We do have continuing information to improve.”

“If you truly want input from locals, this information needs to be vetted closely and strategically to meet with the local reclamation districts’ regulations,” said Clarksburg farmer Steve Heringer. “We are not on the payroll as consultants and we’re trying to farm for a living. No one knows the conditions within our islands like we do. We live there. We work there.”

“That’s a great point,” noted consultant and facilitator Charles Gardiner. “Give us ideas as to the best way.”

“I get brain dead about 7 p.m.,” said Mr. Heringer. “I can’t read 200 pages at 9 p.m. However if you want to meet me about 5 a.m., I’ll do that,” which drew chuckles from the audience.

When asked how the independent scientific review panel is chosen and how the peer review system works, the audience was told the panel submits names and the lead scientist picks those with the expertise to understand what they are trying to do.

“Will you please note that we object to your choices?” said Mrs. Swenson, noting not one person from the Delta is included on the Independent Scientific Review Panel. In fact, it appears all seven members are from out of state.

“I know you have good intentions and mean well,” said an unidentified man in the rear of the audience, “but you could get out of the way on some things. I see you are handcuffing the local reclamation districts to protect themselves without any participation from the state. There are houses all along the eastern side of the Delta. Those districts will get the money while those living on the dirt without a reclamation district or highway on their island is going to be s***-out-of-luck. What should be at the top of your priority is realizing the Delta is operated as a system. By improving urban levees you are going to throw agriculture under the bus. We’re opposed to doing this the wrong way for some cockamania idea to flood islands to restore habitats. It’s crazy. It’s like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Your methodology is bad. Everyone in the Delta will be competing for this $285 million but we can’t compete.”

Gilbert Cosio Jr., an engineer and principal of MBK Engineering in Sacramento who is on the board of Board of Reclamation District 2059, which is Bradford Island, [this is a correction from earlier versions of the story. See reader comment below] told the audience, “You are a very smart crowd.” He added, “I’m just here. I’m not getting paid. I’m not getting dinner either.” Then he added he is hopeful but can’t guarantee anything. “There will be little toggle switches to change and adjust things.” The next day he told this reporter that there was not actually much new given in the Walnut Grove meeting.

“The system is very frustrating,” said Mr. Cosio, but he said in his first meeting “a woman from the Rand Corp. said we could do it.”

“I’m sure the Delta Stewardship Council is trying to get their hands on the purse strings so it’s not in-house with DWR anymore,” said Delta farmer Mark Wilson.

That drew an immediate, emotional response.

“That’s not true,” said Mr. Gardiner.

“I’m here to tell you that is inaccurate,” piped up Mr. Fiorini, chairman of DSC, who was sitting in the audience.

Bring back Governor Arnold?

Then Steve Barsoom, a Walnut Grove farmer, told an interesting story about when the Jones Tract levee break in 2004 flooded an area off Highway 4. “If it weren’t for Governor Schwarzenegger, I don’t know if we would have reclaimed that island. He came down on a Thursday and showed up for a meeting Saturday in a trailer. Lester Snow, then head of the California state water agency, and all the people who were allowed to speak, spoke. Then Dante Nomellini said, “Shouldn’t the president of the reclamation district have his say?”

Mr. Barsoom, who was president of that reclamation district back then, said they had spent everything in their treasury.

“Arnold put his fist down and said, “’We will reclaim this island!’”

“I thought Lester Snow was going to fall under the table,” said Mr. Barsoom. He almost had a heart attack.”

“The problem was we had all these ‘experts’ who sit in cubicles and don’t come out to talk to the locals,” continued Mr. Barsoom. “We had the equivalent of your MBK engineering firm sitting at the table. I love DWR — we need them in the worst way, but would they listen? No, they did not. Afterwards, they built a levee out of rock. Rock does not hold back water. When they were done, we had more water coming through the rocks. At that point in time, someone pulled the trigger, got hold of Governor Schwarzenegger, and he said, ‘We will fix it’ but it is still not fixed. It took two pumps to just pump out seepage.

“All I’m saying is these people with all the education need to listen to people who have been there, done that. You can’t build a levee out of rock. This is the frustration I see with the people who pull the purse strings. They say, ‘It’s our money and we will do it our way.’ When it doesn’t work then the taxpayer picks up the bill and that’s not fair. If somebody doesn’t listen to the locals these islands are going to be like (falling) dominos.”

“The ultimate goal is to get this right,” concluded DSC Chairman Fiorini. He said he’s proud of the volunteers he has gotten from the Delta like one engineer who is at the end of his career and wants to give this project everything to help get it right.

“If we had all the money in the world, we could pay everybody,” said Mr. Fiorini, after several in the crowd said they ought to be paying Delta farmers for consultants, rather than asking them to volunteer their time and knowledge.

The reporter’s opinion:

Overall the comments of the local Delta people in the audience reflected a lot of distrust of government officials, perhaps magnified by the fact the meeting was held immediately following Mr. Brown’s rescinding his promise not to use Prop. 1 water bond money for his Sacramento River twin tunnels project. When the top dog lies, how can you believe any of his followers who may all be well meaning people, but have no choice but to follow the leader if they want to see their next pay check?