Extensive Levee Damage Needs Repair, U.S. Says

Times Staff Writer

Last winter's severe storms and high water damaged three dozen stretches of California levees so severely that they need to be fixed before the next rainy season to prevent potential damage to homes and other development, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Thursday.

"These levees are protecting urban areas where lives are at risk or where there may be a large economic impact," the corps said.

Emergency repairs to the damaged areas, totaling almost two miles, will cost about $50 million, the corps said. The agency will seek the money from Congress.

"We will complete as much repair work as we can before the rains hit and will have response plans laid out for every site so that we can immediately begin a flood fight to save levees from failure this winter," said Ron Light, the corps' Sacramento district commander.

Corps officials said they would seek $110 million next year to repair 46 other damaged areas, totaling several miles.

But state officials said they would move to protect public safety and property in all the areas before November, whether the federal government comes through with funding or not.

"The state is prepared to do what it can for the most critical sites, even if there is no reimbursement," said Les Harder, deputy director of the Department of Water Resources.

Officials said that, if necessary, emergency repairs could be made using some of the $500 million that the governor and the Legislature have budgeted for levee evaluations, repairs and flood control improvements.

About $156 million of the money is being spent now to repair 29 critical sites totaling several miles.

The extent of damage from last winter's storm, generally considered to be only about a 10-year-flood event, surprised state officials and underscored concerns about the state's levees -- a nearly 6,000-mile system of government- and privately owned barriers of varying ages and conditions.

Officials have been warning that many levees do not meet modern standards, are deteriorating and are vulnerable to breaches that could inundate thousands of homes built behind them.

"The Central Valley levee system ... needs significant investment, everyone living near them needs flood insurance, and we have to invest in flood management," Lester Snow, Department of Water Resources director, told reporters during a conference call.

The areas near the damaged levees range from the small communities of Isleton and Clarksburg in the Sacramento Delta to East Nicholas and the new Plumas Lake housing development on the Feather River.

During December and January, a series of storms caused the Sacramento River to reach flood stage.

A federal disaster declaration was issued for 31 counties in the state after floods and landslides.

In June, inspectors from the corps, local reclamation districts and the Department of Water Resources found that high water and wind on major rivers and in the delta had cut into levee slopes and caused slides and sand boils that weakened parts of levees.

Officials still are assessing the damage from San Joaquin Valley flooding in April, and they say that the number of levees needing repairs is certain to rise when the surveys are completed in a few weeks.

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