Winter Season Preview: Is the Delta ready?
A ‘monster’ storm is bearing down on Northern California, the likes of which we’ve not seen in years, reports say. And while the rain is welcome and sorely needed, too much water can cause flooding problems. Is the Delta region ready?
At the November 20th meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, the Council heard from state and local officials about how well the region is prepared for the oncoming event: David LeBlanc, Emergency Management Specialist with the Bureau of Reclamation’s Mid-Pacific Region; Dave Mraz, Chief of DWR’s Delta Levees and Environmental Engineering Branch; and John Paasch, Senior Engineer in DWR’s Flood Management’s Regional Flood Preparedness Section. Michael Cockrell with San Joaquin County Office of Emergency Services and Roger Ince with Sacramento County Office of Emergency Services then gave the local perspective.
Here’s what they had to say:
David LeBlanc, Emergency Management Specialist with the US Bureau of Reclamation’s Mid-Pacific Region
David LeBlanc began by saying that the good news is that there is plenty of reservoir capacity and carrying capacity in the channels to handle one or two of the large soakers when they do come through. Given current very low reservoir storage, releases will be lower than normal. “Right now, our big challenge is meeting our environmental obligations for habitat, fish habitat, stream flows and water temperatures,” he said. “The low reservoir levels mean there is less cold water available, and also less for meeting the Delta salinity control needs. At the same time, we still need to store for next year.”
Short-term weather forecasts enable USBR to adjust releases for habitat preservation, flood control, and water storage and delivery purposes, he added.
Mr. LeBlanc said when the next storm comes, they will go into flood control mode and use the Army Corps of Engineers flood control requirement criteria for maintenance and releases on our reservoirs. “That has become a very complex system that really functions as a big conversation among Weather Service River Forecast Center, USGS, all the dam operators, the levee maintaining agencies, the flood control districts – everybody that has a gauging stage and predicts weather or spills water and conveys water.”
The State-Federal Flood Operations Center is where the conversations occur, he said. “The River Forecast Center and the State Flood Center are the lynchpins to water management in California,” he said. That is where all the agencies have pulled together the modeling and where the decision making occurs for releasing and scheduling water, he said. The factors that affect flood control decision making include forecast rainfall and snowmelt; known and projected reservoir inflows; reservoir storage capacities; dam release capabilities, and river channel levels and capacities.
“The Army Corps of Engineers has responsibility for federal level flood control throughout the United States,” said Mr. LeBlanc. “So even though the Corps manages a fraction of the water that we do here in California, they still have a large presence here with all of the activity in the Delta with levee maintenance and maintaining navigable channels. They have over 120 gauging stations, so all of that is vital to coordinating the flood control picture for California.”
“When the Corps exercises its flood control responsibilities, they basically instruct the Bureau of Reclamation to exceed the upper limits of its normal operating parameters for a particular dam and river channel,” he said. “That’s not a surprise, it’s not an emergency, it’s very well understood, given the big conversation that has occurred, and it’s more of a foregone conclusion more than a formality that Corps tells us go ahead and send more water down. An example would be in the ’86 flood season when Corps instructed Reclamation to put more water out of Folsom than we normally would have, and we exceeded the stated 124,000 cfs channel capacity by quite a bit, and the levees and the river were able to handle it, so all of these things are taken into consideration when we get into flood control season.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than Corps of Engineers flood control requirements,” he said. “We have environmental requirements to release a certain amount of water down the river streams for habitat and salinity control, so a lot of that gets lost. As far as relaxing some of the Corps flood control criteria, probably not because it puts a situation in place where we then have to spill larger amounts of water in an extraordinary situation that we normally wouldn’t.”
Dave Mraz, Chief of DWR’s Delta Levees and Environmental Engineering Branch
Dave Mraz then updated the Council on the condition of the Delta levees and their status going into flood season.
“I have the privilege and honor to say that the levee system is currently in pretty good shape,” he said. “We’ve had a number of years where we’ve placed a lot of funding out in the Delta. The reclamation districts have taken and used that funding to place a lot of material on the embankments, to address deferred maintenance, and to take care of the levees to the best of their abilities. I’ve heard it said that the levees are in the best shape that they’ve been in for a long, long, long time. Attesting to that fact, we’ve had now about 10 years since the last levee failure – almost 10 years.”
“Even though we’re in the middle of a drought, we are still in high water in the Delta, so the levee system was called on in the last year to be ready to receive drought barriers,” he said. “Even though those drought barriers weren’t necessarily needed, we saw that getting the levee system ready to accept the False River barrier was something that we should do, anticipating another dry year. Based on the reports I’ve heard today, maybe that was money well spent. Bradford Island and Jersey Island both made modifications to their levees and we feel confident that those levees will now be able to accept the barrier and operate well along with it.”
Mr. Mraz said that they’ve recently had a couple of near misses, he said. “We’ve had a boil on one island, we’ve had severe seepage on another, and there is a fair amount of cracking that goes on as the levees move to accommodate new loads.” Using the Jones Tract break as a benchmark of $40 million in costs, he estimates the three near-misses saved the state $120 million. “We were able to address those incidents because of the funding that we provide to the local agencies, because of the relationships we have with them, and because of their willingness to work along with us to address the problems while they are still small, before they become crises.”
He said there are materials in place in the Delta that the local agencies can call upon and be able to address these minor issues while they are still small, but that can address the larger issues in the course of business. He noted that with the subventions and special projects program, with a phone call, they can offer them funding to be able to do the necessary work quickly.
Mr. Mraz then gave some statistics. For the year, 2014-15, the subventions program has 69 reclamation districts represented for a total of 761 miles of Delta levees being actively maintained by state investment. On the special projects side which accommodates larger projects, there are 53 open project funding agreements covering projects on 40 islands with work in various stages of progress.
He said there is a PSP currently multi-benefit projects; they will be selecting four new projects in January. “We are open to additional Reclamation Districts coming in and talking to us for new projects that meet the requirements of the project funding agreement,” he said. “We’re working with the Council staff on the prioritization of state funding, and we’re working with the Delta Protection Commission on development of a statewide assessment district, and working with the Reclamation Districts on new projects to address levee stability and ecosystem. We’re working cooperatively to improve water supply reliability and ecosystem enhancement, all in a way that supports the Delta as a changing place.”
“That’s all that I have. Thank you.”
John Paasch, Chief of the Flood Operations Branch for the Division of Flood Management for DWR
John Paasch said he had a long list of things they accomplished this year in partnership with those that are out there on a daily basis operating and maintaining the existing system, and with their partners at all levels of government, including San Joaquin and Sacramento County and many others to make sure they are prepared for whatever Mother Nature can throw at them.
Those accomplishments include:
- Completion of a long-term lease agreement with the Central Valley Flood Protection Board for property north of Rio Vista that will be used to stockpile rock and other response materials.
- Closed purchase on two parcels to complete the Stockton-Weber Road complex, a 22.5 acre facility with two warehouses. The purchase of the waterside complex will streamline the transportation of bulk materials in the event of an emergency through barges, which are the best means to transport these types of materials during the flood.
- At the beginning of the year, they began phase 2 of an Army Corps-DWR Joint Delta Risk Reduction Project which allows the Army Corps to test their emergency processes and allows the Department to develop a resource integration plan that allow us to best integrate federal resources into the Department’s and State’s emergency operations in response to a Delta flood emergency. The Corps has a lot of capability – communications, technical assistance, direct assistance, and a contracting authority that could really be of assistance out there during a major catastrophic flood event, Mr. Paasch noted.
- In April, the Department released the interdepartmental draft, Delta Flood Emergency Management Plan for partner agency comment.
- In May, 14 funding agreements were executed for the statewide flood ER grant to update emergency response plans and other critical emergency preparedness systems to bolster the capacity of local flood emergency response. It included over 80 agencies and totaled $5 million.
- In June, six applicants were awarded $5 million in Delta flood ER grants to support local preparedness and response. He noted that over 125 reclamation districts, cities, and communities that will benefit. “Our primary goal is to ensure that all the Reclamation Districts in the Delta have a robust flood emergency response plans and that all of their plans are consistent and become part of their county’s multi-hazard mitigation plan. It’s also anticipated that all of the awardees will become SEMS and NEMS certified and compliant to make everyone more eligible for federal disaster assistance from FEMA.”
- The Department conducted a Twitchell Island functional exercise involving Reclamation District 1601, Sacramento County OES, California Conservation Corps, CalFire, and the US Army Corps of Engineers which was a very successful two-day exercise.
- They work to make developing partnerships and relationships among all the emergency responders part of their culture by holding quarterly working group meetings. Topics this year included the drought, the interdepartmental draft flood emergency plan, grants, and the response to the Napa earthquake.
Coming up near term, he said they would be putting out a solicitation for the second $5 million round of statewide flood ER grants, finalizing a water resources engineering memorandum to establish internal department expectations for flood emergency response and emergency response training in general, and also provide policy pertaining to the use of emergency funds.
“If it’s any sign of the progress that we’ve made, it’s that we’ve really bolstered our flood fight supplies in and around the Delta region,” Mr. Paasch said. “We’ve purchased and accepted delivery of almost $300,000 in new flood flight materials, including 2000 super sacks, nearly half a million sand bags, 700 cases of twine, 3400 bundles of stakes, and 500 rolls of poly sheeting, that brings the Department’s total statewide up to 2.7 million sandbags, most of which are centered in and around the Delta region.”
“But the work is never done,” he said. “We’ll continue to work with you at the Council to try to implement some of the recommendations in the risk and reduction chapter of the Delta Plan; we think we’re meeting these recommendations head on in the work that we’re doing with our partners and as partners.”
Michael Cockrell, San Joaquin County OES
Michael Cockrell said he would present the local perspective on readiness, acknowledging that emergency preparedness and response is a group effort with the five counties, the state and federal agencies, and the Levee Maintaining Agencies or LMAs. He said there are four phases to the work they do:
The five counties and the LMAs are in the process of developing or revising current flood response plans. The DWR grants are instrumental in helping to get that completed. The money will be used to standardize new or even existing LMA flood plans, to standardize the LMA flood fighting mapping, and ensuring that the counties and cities plans are up to federal standards and not in conflict with each other.
“There are some specific things that we are going to make sure that meets the new water code,” said Mr. Cockrell. “One, are the LMA’s flood fighting maps standardized and does it have all the elements needed to ensure implementation; Two, for the public safety, do we have evacuation routing, mapping, and once we do secure that area, do we have some kind of controlling process to let people in and out for that recovery; and finally, for our neighborhoods, do we have any type of simple mapping and instructions for them and what they should do when they get that warning.”
DWR conducts a pre-flood season orientation with all the LMAs, the sheriff’s office, fire departments, and emergency managers to discuss things such as plans, stockpile locations, and warning systems. They also use the Weather Service alerts to practice dispersing that information among the cities, responders, and LMAs.
Mr. Cockrell said the results for the California Flood Preparedness Week were disappointed. “Of the 58 counties, only 5 participated. In the whole state, only 2 cities participated, and we’re hoping that next year, maybe with more encouragement to get on board, that we can try to make those numbers better,” he said. “With the drought, we tend to forget that floods do happen. But in the history of our County, we have had many, many October and September and August and July floods, so we really do have to make sure we keep our eyes on the ball.”
Besides using the Weather Service Alerts as a tool to test the communications system, they also discussed the response to the Napa earthquake extensively, and there is room for improvement. Communications with the LMAs was a bit of an issue, with everyone continually calling them directly. “We do really need to make sure we are using a single structure, so we really need to make sure as we do this planning that we solidify that,” he said.
For recovery or mitigation stage, even though 2004 and 2006 storms happened a long time ago, we just finished the federal and state claims on those, he said. “It takes a long time, and my concern is that looking at Napa and all of the fires that happened in the summertime, it’s getting tougher to access those state and federal recovery and response funding,” he said. “Those LMAs really can’t absorb that kind of a cost or waiting 10, 20 years for reimbursement, so I think that’s an important thing for you to consider and our legislators, we really have to make sure that if the need is really there, that we jump in and help.”
Federal programs for mitigation are getting hard to find and more competitive, and a lot of jurisdictions don’t want to go through the hassle of applying for a mitigation grant, he said. He also said that to get funding, you are required to have a mitigation plan, but it’s getting harder for FEMA to get those mitigation plans approved. “If you can’t go for funding to mitigate something because you don’t have a plan, and you can’t get the plan approved, it’s a really Catch 22 effort. At least our legislative bodies were trying to work on that to make it to where it’s a matter of if you’ve submitted a plan for review, maybe there’s a gray area there, so that’s an important thing for us to think about.”
Roger Ince, Sacramento County Office of Emergency Services
Roger Ince began by talking about how new technology from NASA helped assess the levees after the Napa earthquake. In recent years, technology developed by the military has been made available to government agencies for humanitarian use. “One thing we found was that for the last five years, NASA/JPL had a contract through Homeland Security to fly the Delta to see what was occurring in the earthquakes and nobody knew this was going on,” he said. “Their instruments can tell us within 23 centimeters of a change in the Delta in land subsidence, so that’s a huge tool that we were unaware of, especially when we have a large incident.”
“FEMA wants to know what the Delta looked like before the incident occurred. Well, we have three to five years history of radar imaging of what it looked like before the incident occurred, and it covers all the counties in the Delta,” Mr. Ince said. “So after the Napa earthquake, we thought this is a great opportunity for us to find out how good this technology is, so we contacted JPL the next day and asked them to refly the area. They were able to tell both Sacramento and DWR that their analysis in 48 hours had indicated there was no change in the Delta at all.”
Mr. Ince said they were working with the Sacramento Water Forum and the Regional Water Authority to support efforts to reduce use of water in the communities. They also wrote a drought plan and a climate change plan which will make them eligible for some grant programs.
Each year for the last five years, they have conducted a flood fighting training exercise in the Delta with DWR and RD 1601, and this year was the most successful event so far with 250 people participating. Participating agencies included the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, California Conservation Corps, Cal-Fire, Sacramento County, RD 1601, and even the local ham radio group, he said. “How do we manage this effort as a unified command? It sounds on paper really simple to do, but much more difficult to do in reality.”
Over two days, they brought in new team members. “We put them to work and used our communication tools – we know on a good day communications using cell phones and radios is bad,” he said. “So we felt very good with the way it went and we’re comfortable that if we had to do it again today in real life, we’d be very successful. We plan on doing it again next year.” He added so far, only Sacramento County has participated, but they are planning on asking other counties to participate next year.
“We also want to mention RD 1601 has done great job,” said Mr. Ince. “They never said, ‘no we can’t do that;’ in fact, they’ve come up with ideas of how we can make it work and how it can be more successful, so it’s a team effort on making this project a very successful program, and we look forward to doing it some more.”
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