Over the last few weeks, we’ve been getting to know some of the people of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. We’ve met farmers, fishing guides and marina owners. All those industries rely on levees that form rims around the dozens of islands in the Delta, holding back the water that can be 20 feet higher than the farmland.
Major failures could impact the quality of the Delta’s water, which is diverted to much of the state. So I headed to the levees to meet the people who know them best.
Mike Scriven is driving a big truck on the levees of an island called Terminous. He’s in charge of maintaining the levees here, and that means he’s looking for … squirrels. He spots something out his window, stops the truck, and shows me freshly dug holes.
“Now here’s something that we’re always watching for, is all this squirrel activity that you see here,” he says.
It’s a danger sign to Scriven. Squirrels, he says, can burrow into or underneath a levee.
“If they go all the way through, we’ll have water come through the levee,” he explains. “They’re hard workers!”
Scriven says animals are a main cause of levee failure. On another part of the levee, up on a road, he points out track marks left by a beaver or otter. If beavers make dens in the levees, he tells me, water can seep through, weakening the structure.
Water in the Delta rises high above the farmland, and levees hold it back. Scriven says, “If that starts really getting high water, and there’s a lot of pressure, you can have a failure.”
That’s why Scriven or one of his employees checks these levees every day, at least once. If they see a wet spot growing, they dig into the core of the levee to intercept it.
A crane barge takes a load off a rock barge as part of a levee maintenance operation in the Delta.
“We have material, like Gunnite, that we mix with dirt and it becomes very hard,” Scriven says. “We dig below where water is seeping through and build it up.”
Scriven was elected to a governing board on Terminous. Almost every island has one. Besides inspecting and improving the levees, his job includes maintaining pumps and canals. The work is covered in part by money collected from a tax that landowners impose on themselves. Scriven says the government provides funding, too, as long as they can prove they’re improving the levees.
“The levee has to be this high and this wide,” he says. “It can have this on the levee, it can’t have that on the levee. If you don’t attempt to reach those standards, you won’t receive funding.”
Highways, railroads and energy, and petroleum lines depend on strong levees. Major failures could impact the quality of the Delta’s water, which is diverted to much of the state.
Scriven says what he and his neighbors get most concerned about is when there’s both high water and high wind. He knows what havoc that combination can wreak from when he was farming Holland Tract in the western part of the Delta.
“I personally lost Holland Tract in 1980 due to overtopping,” he says. “The day it flooded, I can still remember, it was a very clear sunny day in February, but the wind was blowing 40-45 mph out of the north.”
The wind blew over a large body of water next to Holland Tract, causing larger-than-normal waves.
“My partner and I were standing right next to section that broke, sandbagging with workers, to keep it from washing, and we lost,” he says. “The whole 2,500-foot section of levee just rolled over and water poured in.”
Scriven and his partner reclaimed Holland Tract, draining the island and fixing the levees with government help. He says there have been a few close calls, but never a breach on Terminous. Raising the levees and inspecting and maintaining them with vigilance has a lot to do with that, but Scriven takes nothing for granted:
“You gotta be lucky,” he says.
I head off the island and travel about 15 miles to the town of Rio Vista. I’ve got an appointment there with Janet Bennett, whose family has a long history in the Delta.
Inside the Dutra Museum of Dredging, a mural fills one wall, depicting the Delta's history and its physical transformation.
Bennett welcomes me into a lovely 100-year-old house at the top of a residential street. It’s very homey, except for the half-dozen tools called clamshell buckets displayed around the yard. They’re huge. Some are taller than I am. For decades, levees were made from tools like these attached to dredgers.
This building is the Dutra Museum of Dredging. Bennett explains that her late mother and stepfather, Ed Dutra, turned this residence into a museum in 1980.
Bennett flips through displays of photos and engineering designs of dredgers, hand-drawn on linen. She shows off paintings and scale models of dredgers. There’s a mural that depicts the Delta’s history and physical transformation.
“We have to remember that during the Gold Rush, the population ramped up exponentially with both people and animals, and they all had to be fed,” she explains.
That’s when a process called reclamation began. The state sold what it defined as swampland to farmers, who drained it and built levees to create prime farmland. A mostly Chinese labor force built the first levees by hand. Eventually companies used dredgers and clamshell buckets to move sand and mud from the waterways and build up levees.
Bennett says, “Buckets got larger, booms got larger, and this helped in reclamation work here in the Delta.”
Dredging played a huge role in building the levees, but today maintenance and repair work looks different. I see that firsthand, about 40 minutes away on Rindge Tract. Three barges sit side by side in the water; the one closest to the levee has a crane attached and the other two are loaded with rock. Project engineer Ryan Abood is overseeing levee maintenance work, and explains the process to me.
“The first step is to get the quarry stone on the barge,” he says. That happens at a rock quarry in San Rafael. “Then it’s towed up by tug to this location, which is about a 12-hour, one-way trip for our tugs.”
Abood says they take two flat deck barges at a time, with each barge carrying about 2,000 tons of rock, which is called riprap. Then the crane barge scoops the rock off the barges, swings it over and places it on the levee to help prevent erosion.
Abood is 37 years old. He was born and raised in the Delta, in the town of Isleton.
“You’re living on an island so you’re surrounded by levees,” he says. “To get to the river you’ve got to be up on the levees. Growing up, we would ride our bikes around an island all day long, drink the river. If you’re going to go fishing, you’re fishing off the levee. We were always out on the boat, water-skiing, enjoying the Delta.”
He says that in his 20s he got into a pretty bad accident.
“I took my ‘66 Mustang off a levee and rolled it between Rio Vista and Isleton,” he says. “There are a few friends that lost their lives on the levee system, going into the river or head-ons. It’s part of life out here.”
Levees weren’t just part of the landscape, though. Abood grew up helping fill sandbags during a flood and watching people do maintenance work on the levees for a living.
“It was around all the time,” he says. “I always thought it would be cool for me to work in the Delta, work on the rivers, so here I am,” he says.
Because of people like him, the levees are still here, too, part of the interdependent relationship between the water and the people who make the Delta what it is.