Levee Failures in the Sacramento - San Joaquin River Delta: Characteristics and Perspectives



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Between 1850 and 1922, agriculturalists built 1,700 kilometers of levees to convert 250,000 hectares of tidal marsh to farmland where the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers enter the San Francisco Bay (the Delta). Drained, farmed and isolated from the water channels, the organic soils behind the levees subsided to elevations as low as 8 meters below sea level, turning "levees" into "dams" that hold back water constantly. Engineers built water transfer projects in the mid-20th century, transferring water from the south Delta to 25 million Californians who now rely on the "dams" accidentally converted into supply channels. In 1972, however, a levee failure caused a salt-water intrusion into the Delta, raising the prominence of the polemic Peripheral Canal which, if built would replace the levees in the trans-Delta water transport role. Levee failures in 2004 (the Delta) and 2005 (New Orleans) have re-ignited the debate, fueled by comments made by public officials who warned that the Delta levees posed more risk of failure than did the pre-Katina Louisiana levees. This background motivates two research questions: What are the social perspectives regarding levee failures of the experts managing the Delta; and what is the history of levee failures that might support their perspectives?

The research employed Q-Method to identify and describe four social perspectives: Delta Sustainers, Abandon the Levees, Levee Pragmatists, and Multi-Purpose Levee Advocates. A critical element underlying differences among the perspectives revolved around the perceived history of failures of Delta levees. This dissertation employed semi-structured interviews, archival record searches, and historic map and aerial photograph comparisons to compile a history of 265 levee failures since 1868, many of which are referenced to location, segment, and levee type. In addition, the dissertation compiled a list of emergency repairs and successful flood-fights. The history of failures indicates that important levees of the Delta have performed significantly better than previously identified. Sharing these social perspectives and research results among the key actors addressing Delta issues may lead to improved consensus decisions.