Visiting Dutch flood control experts suggested Monday that Californians build levees to last as long as 2,000 years, not mere centuries.
Smart levees that diagnose and repair themselves, miles-long water barriers made of rubber and nylon to prevent saltwater intrusion, and solid lead pipes jammed through existing levees for strength were among the ideas floated by a contingent of dam and levee experts from the Netherlands at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.
They joined representatives from various state and local water interests to brainstorm how best to make the Delta's 1,600-mile levee system effective and sustainable in the long term.
While myriad ideas were considered, American and Dutch experts agreed that it'll take a lot of money to get California's levees into shape.
"Initially, it'll cost billions in investments" to build 1,000- and 2,000-year levees, said Sybe Schaap, president of the Dutch association of water boards. "But it'll cost very little to maintain them."
After an hourlong aerial tour of the Delta, Schaap and his team of experts representing some of the Netherlands' best engineering design firms concluded that Californians should spend money now, before waters rise, lands subside and levees are stressed.
If not, Californians are headed for a disaster - both financial and human, Schaap said.
"If you don't believe me," he said, "look to New Orleans."
A few billion dollars might have prevented the damage that followed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina last year, agreed Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy
Pombo, along with Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Atwater, invited the Dutch experts to California for a weeklong look at valley levees.
"I think it has cost over a $100 billion already" to pay for relief and rebuilding after Katrina, Pombo said. "We have just as much at stake in California."
Indeed, if a similar disaster were to strike, he said, "it's going to cost us a lot more than New Orleans."
Rod Meade, executive director of Delta Vision, a group newly created by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to plan for the Delta 150 years into the future, said California's levees are built to a 100-year standard, meaning they could withstand a once-in-100-years storm.
"But that 100-year storm is expected to come every 10 years," now that forecasters and scientists have revamped their predictions based on the science of global warming, Meade said.
Global warming happens when carbon dioxide is trapped in the Earth's atmosphere, warming waters, melting polar ice caps and destabilizing weather patterns.
"Sea levels are expected to rise 2 feet over the next 100 years," he said. "A 3-foot rise would cover much of what we know as the Delta."
We could learn a lot, he said, from the Dutch, who have battled the North Sea's intrusions for 1,000 years. A 1953 flood forced the Netherlands to rethink and rebuild its dams, rivers and levees, spending some 450 billion Euros on things like sand dunes, giant water gates and river widening projects to protect the country's 16 million citizens.
On Nov. 7, voters will be asked whether the state should float a $5.4 billion levee bond to beef up the valley's levees. While Californians ponder whether to spend a few billion dollars to revamp levees from 100-year protections to 200-year levels, officials in the Netherlands are looking farther ahead.
"We're debating whether a 2,000-year levee is enough protection for Rotterdam," Schaap said.
The Dutch group will spend the week touring the Delta and meet with water interests and the governor's high-level staff and are expected to publicize their findings Thursday afternoon in Sacramento.
Like California, the Dutch had a "very old levee system," Pombo said.
But finding the will to pay for super-strong levees is easier said than done, he said.
"That's the debate we're having in Congress," he said.
Contact reporter Phil Hayworth at firstname.lastname@example.org.
First published: Tuesday, October 17, 2006