State of Disrepair: Levee Failure

John Blackstone is a CBS News correspondent based in San Francisco.
Every time I drive from San Francisco to Sacramento it seems another farmer's field has been turned into a subdivision. Around Sacramento new homes now sprout where crops once grew.

Much of this development is on land protected from flooding by levees that may not be strong enough to do the job they are expected to do. There's a lot of water here. This is where two of California's great rivers, the American and the Sacramento, meet. In the springtime, when the snow melts in the Sierra the rivers can run dangerously high.

When there were just farms here it didn't matter all that much if it flooded from time to time. But now a flood would be a disaster for thousands of people and millions of dollars worth of property.

The city of West Sacramento is one of the fast-growing suburbs that is most at risk if there is a levee failure. The citizens of West Sacramento recently voted to increase taxes to raise some of the money needed to fix the levees.

But the city is also taking a controversial route to raising money for levee repairs: it is encouraging more development on land that could flood if the levees fail. The new development will generate fees and assessments that can be used to pay for levee repairs. But that new development will also put more people and property at risk.

It's a "Catch 22" situation that bothers Jeffrey Mount, a geologist at the University of California, Davis. For years he has questioned the wisdom of increasing development on floodplains where a levee failure will mean catastrophe.

"There are only two kinds of levees," Mount says. "Those that have failed and those that will fail."

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.