Saturday, June 05, 2004

* CONCERNS: Rising waters threaten Highway 4 and a second farming island
* EVACUEES: 300 people estimated homeless, many of them illegal immigrants
* TRAIN TRAFFIC: Break disrupts freight traffic throughout region Boulder-filled barges sat idle alongside a 400-foot-wide Delta levee breach Friday evening as local, state and federal officials scrambled to secure repair money before rising floodwaters and weather could inundate a second farming island west of Stockton.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency Friday in San Joaquin County as a levee break discovered Thursday on Upper Jones Tract continued to drown 12,000 acres of farmland and 70 houses and outbuildings.

Schwarzenegger will tour the flooded area by helicopter this morning and then attend a meeting with emergency-relief coordinators, a spokeswoman from his office said Friday.

But a county-hired contractor was waiting for a federal emergency declaration -- and subsequent federal disaster money -- before launching repair work, San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Chris Stevens said.

"They're not going to start until there's somebody to pay the bill," Stevens said.

That sent crews racing through the night Friday to brace a south Jones Tract levee before floodwaters could top Highway 4 and reach more farmland on nearby Roberts Island.

Flooding has temporarily transformed Jones Tract into a Delta outlet, affected by the same winds and tides that define the Delta's 1,600 miles of waterways.

But the Trapper Slough levee that runs alongside a stretch of Highway 4 was never meant to withstand the millions of gallons of water now covering Jones Tract. Forecasters fear stiff, wave-forming winds and a high tide Sunday could send floodwaters over the highway, forcing more evacuations and closing an important link between Contra Costa and San Joaquin counties.

"The next 36 hours are going to be critical," said Jason Fanselau, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "It's a race against the clock, really."

A 72-member California Conservation Corps crew filled sandbags along Trapper Slough on Friday afternoon as state and federal contractors trucked in loads of dirt and boulders. Engineers hope to raise the levee by 2 to 3 feet and line it with plasticlike sheeting along a 21Ž2-mile stretch of Highway 4, a project expected to cost $2 million, Stevens said.

Any spill threatens approximately 25 people and 10 structures on Drexler Tract, an agricultural area on the northwest corner of Roberts Island. ::: Advertisement :::

"At this time, there's no evacuation order in place, but we want the people who live in the area to be alert to the fact that the next 48 hours are going to be a critical time for Trapper Slough," Stevens said.

Even as emergency workers struggled to contain the damage Friday, early cleanup-cost estimates staggered officials. Engineers predict the bill for closing the levee breach, pumping out floodwater and restoring farms and structures could run more than $17 million. Repair work could take 45 days, Stevens said.

That doesn't include Jones Tract crop losses that the county agricultural commissioner estimated at $10 million Friday.

"This has enormous human impact," said county Supervisor Steve Gutierrez, who spent much of Friday trying to find migrant workers displaced by the floods. Relief agencies reported few requests for help from residents of the sparsely populated island.

But migrant-worker advocates fear many undocumented immigrants who lived in camps are afraid to approach agencies for help or have already left the area to look for work elsewhere.

No one knows what broke the levee, which is privately maintained by a reclamation district comprised of 15 Jones Tract property owners.

"Clearly, it wasn't built of proper material, and it wasn't maintained," Fanselau said.

Richard Johnson, the reclamation district's attorney, called that charge reckless. The district spent $242,000 on levee and canal maintenance in the past fiscal year, he said.

"Our engineer drove over the levee three times the day before it broke and didn't notice anything," he said. "We're just astonished at this break."

State and federal water regulators sought to ease concerns Friday about the flood's effects on water quality. Some water samples in Delta showed an increase in salinity, a possible sign that the breach had sucked in more salty San Francisco Bay water than usual, said Jeff McCracken, a spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation.

But water quality remained at safe levels, and the federal agency has increased flows from Shasta Reservoir to pump more fresh water into the Delta, he said. The bureau is still making deliveries to its Central Valley customers but also has asked that they tap groundwater wells and conserve where possible.

The state Department of Water Resources shut down its pumps Thursday and Friday for scheduled maintenance, not flooding, spokesman Don Strickland said. The state agency continued supplying customers as far away as Southern California with water from other reservoirs.

"We are confident that we can address potential water-quality concerns with minimal effects ... as long as we're able to stabilize the situation in short order," said Curtis Creel, chief of the State Water Project's planning branch.

The Delta provides water for two out of three Californians.

The city of Tracy responded to calls to conserve by shutting off sprinklers in parks and landscaping.

Engineers hope Jones Tract floodwaters will reach the level of the Middle River early today so permanent levee-repair work can begin.

Flooding consumed a Pacific Gas and Electric substation near Jones Tract on Thursday, knocking out power to 342 customers. PG&E has rerouted power to 322 customers and plans to inspect the remaining outage sites by boat when safe, a company spokeswoman said.

Record Staff Writer Emil Guillermo contributed to this report.


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