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An excavator tractor working for the Department of Water Resources works on placing rock along the eroding levee on the San Joaquin River near Airport Way and Division St. in rural Manteca, Calif. on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011. (Jim Stevens/Staff)

Bob Bea has investigated such high-profile disasters as the Exxon Valdez spill, the Deepwater Horizon blast, Hurricane Katrina and the space shuttle Columbia, which exploded in 2003.

But the UC engineer and associate director of the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management says the problems looming in the Delta dwarf the others because of the vulnerability of levees and the threat that poses to drinking water, power, transportation and other infrastructure.

"It's the worst damn mess I've ever seen, and I've seen some pretty bad ones," Bea told a Contra Costa water task force in Pleasant Hill on Wednesday.

The problem is not just the conflict between the Delta's ecosystem and the demand for water. It is flood safety and the risks that levee failure poses to a web of aqueducts, power lines, telecommunications, highways and rail lines.

The levees and other infrastructure are getting older, the risks are getting larger and no one seems to know how to untangle the "Gordian knot."

"We've got this infrastructure that is powering a very critical economic engine," Bea said, adding that the Delta is on a "roadmap to disaster."

Bea and a team of researchers are about halfway through a four-year study of how to assess and manage threats in the Delta, which touches five counties and provides a portion of water for two-thirds of Californians.


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The most immediate thing that can be done is to get the operators of the Delta's aqueducts, power lines, railroads and highways communicating better now so that the response in an emergency will be smoother, said Bea's colleague, Emery Roe, a policy analyst at UC and Mills College.

Some of those who attended the meeting, hosted by the Contra Costa Council's water task force, questioned whether the Delta's levees are really that fragile. Many of the region's levees date to the Gold Rush and they could fail in a large earthquake or flood, allowing water to rush into the farms and developments built below sea level and contaminate drinking water with salt water from San Francisco Bay.

Previous studies on the Delta's levees have been hurried or were susceptible to political pressure, a few levee engineers said.

Many Delta residents contend state government has a political interest in making the levees appear vulnerable because that boosts the argument for a peripheral canal or tunnels to divert water around the area. If a canal or tunnels were built, a levee failure might no longer cause seawater to intrude into drinking water supplies, although flooding would still inundate farms and, potentially, houses.

Bea agreed many previous studies were flawed, but added that he had yet to see an analysis that showed there is no problem in the Delta.

The risk of flooding, he contends, is great. And like New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina, Delta experts know about the problems while little is getting done to address them.

There are two basic ways to cope, Bea said. California can adopt a "stand and fight" approach to maintain and repair levees or it can adopt a "strategic retreat" in which highways, railroads, aqueducts and power lines are gradually moved out of harm's way. When the Delta's bowl-like islands are flooded, perhaps they could be left that way.

Neither of those approaches, however, provides a clear way to address the Delta's fundamental conflict between water supplies and its ecosystem. A canal or tunnel to move water outside the levee-lined channels would come with its own risks, Bea said.

"The water (issue) is the devil we can't see through yet," Bea said.

Mike Taugher covers the environment. Contact him at 925-943-8257.