Gov. Pete Wilson and other dignitaries last week celebrated one of the many human triumphs over the great Northern California flood of 1997 and its related miseries.
Working nonstop over 28 days, earth-moving crews cut through a massive, storm-triggered landslide that had closed a stretch of U.S. 50, a scenic route over the High Sierra that is usually traveled heavily this time of year by Lake Tahoe-bound gamblers and skiers.
To the delight of tourists, casino owners and resort operators, Friday was the big day. With the removal of orange road cones by Wilson at the slide site 22 miles east of Placerville, traffic began rolling again, more than a month ahead of schedule.
But many miles downhill, in the mud-oozing flats at the edge of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Alex Hildebrand had nothing to celebrate.
Six weeks after the waters first rose along 300 miles of the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems, Hildebrand still can’t go home.
He is separated from his farmhouse near Manteca “by a mile and a half of flowing water running between the house, standing on its own little island, and what’s now the shore” of the still uncontrolled San Joaquin River, he said.
He is not alone.
Of the 100,000 people evacuated from flooded homes after swollen rivers burst through levees from 40 miles north of Sacramento to Fresno in early January, about 2,500 residents still are flooded out, mostly in the San Joaquin River basin south of Modesto and around Manteca and Tracy, according to Assemblyman Michael Machado (D-Linden), who represents part of the area.
In pockets of still-flooded neighborhoods, houses remain inundated to the eaves. Officials say it may be April before residents can reoccupy those homes.
The San Joaquin River must be drawn down by slower dam releases upstream before broken levees can be fixed and acres of standing water pumped from flooded neighborhoods. But the process must be carefully gauged.
Slower releases mean less room to hold back winter and spring runoff--and more storms are likely over the next two months, officials said.
“If we have six or seven days [of warm rains] like we had in January, we’re right back in the middle of the flood fight again,” said Don Yeoman, chief of field operations for the state Department of Water Resources.
Federal and state flood fighters say Hildebrand and his unlucky neighbors are victims of an inadequate flood-protection system that now, finally, with a major natural disaster fresh in memory, may get fixed.
The debate over addressing flood-protection needs throughout California’s network of reservoirs, dams and rivers has dominated discussions since the recent flood waters mostly receded and attention shifted from saving lives and property.
Some state and federal elected officials have called for the building of more dams and suspension of environmental protections for endangered animal species that can place restrictions, for example, on building bigger levees.
“We’ve put the life of gopher snakes and garter snakes ahead of human life,” said Rep. Wally Herger (R-Marysville). He said that, if environmental protections had not interfered, levee failures such as the one that took three lives on the Feather River 40 miles north of Sacramento might have been avoided.
Others say the major hang-up on proper levee maintenance is an erratic flow of money--plentiful only when disaster strikes.
The last time Congress gave serious attention to California flood protection came with the floods that ravaged the Sacramento River system in 1986, said Army Corps of Engineers officials who help maintain levees.
Thereafter, the corps methodically went about levee repairs, granting priority to areas where the most people live, such as Sacramento, where the Sacramento and American rivers meet. That area held up without incident this year.
Now, said Jason Fanselau, a Corps of Engineers spokesman in Sacramento, federal funds have again materialized.
The corps spent $45 million repairing 35 levees over the last two months, he said. Some of the tasks were enormous.
Fanselau said contractors poured 130,000 tons of rock and 400,000 yards of sand into the Feather River levee breach north of Sacramento.
To do the rest of the job right, he said, another 200 miles of California river levees must be repaired before next year’s rainy season, at an estimated cost of $350 million. Not all of that amount has been appropriated by Congress, he said, and as the recent flood recedes in memory, getting the rest of the money will be harder.
For now, however, the 1997 flood continues to command attention in high places.
Since the disaster struck, Vice President Al Gore has visited a flood area, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and a group of U.S. representatives and state legislators have surveyed the damage from the air, and Gov. Pete Wilson has appointed a Flood Emergency Action Team of state officials to seek long-range solutions to prevent flooding.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has convened no less than four separate brainstorming sessions with state and local officials, the latest held in Sacramento on Friday.
A “flood forum” was convened by two California congressmen, Herger and Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento).
In the Legislature, emergency bills have been introduced to grant property tax relief to flood victims and to ask voter approval for flood-prevention bond measures.
Leaders of the state Senate and Assembly have written to President Clinton asking for a high-level assessment of how to improve government response to flood emergencies.
Among the most talked-about solutions is a proposal from the governor’s group to create a so-called “levee set-back system” to widen river channels and thereby increase their capacity.
All levels of government, Feinstein said Friday, “need to take a hard look at what we can do to improve California’s flood control system, so that a disaster of this magnitude does not occur again.”