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California levee system at risk

Jane Wolff, author of , joins MSNBC-TV's Tucker Carlson to discuss the vulnerability of the California levee systems.
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California has a systems of levees meant to protect large areas of developed land.  With the recent devastation suffered in New Orleans as a result of levee breaks in and around that city, people are taking a closer look at other vulnerable areas. 

Tucker Carlson talked with Jane Wolff, an expert on the California levee system, on exactly how vulnerable the California system is and what needs to be done to ensure the region doesn't suffer the fate of New Orleans.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

TUCKER CARLSON, HOST, 'THE SITUATION':  With residents of New Orleans still trying to rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, is the west coast prepared for a similar catastrophe?

My next guest believes a levee break in California is on the horizon and would lead to tragic circumstances similar to those in Louisiana.  Jane Wolff is the author of “Delta Primer, a Field Guide to the California Delta.”  She‘s also an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Design at Washington University in St. Louis.  She joins me from there live.  Jane, thanks a lot for coming on.

JANE WOLFF, AUTHOR, “DELTA PRIMER”:  Thanks for having me.

CARLSON:  So, how could this happen?  If levees break in California what happens then?

WOLFF:  Well, the situation is actually not so different from New Orleans. There‘s a river delta that has land in it that subsided.  The subsided land is protected by levees.  The levees are old and they weren‘t designed or engineered for the kinds of circumstances we are facing now, so they could break.

CARLSON:  I mean you must not be the only person who knows this.  The State of California is a huge place with lots of money.  Are the authorities there doing anything about this?

WOLFF:  They are and they aren‘t.  The Department of Water Resources takes this problem very seriously but the issue really is that the landscape is not familiar to most people in California, so most people don‘t know that it‘s right at the center of the water supply for Los Angeles, for instance, and they don‘t understand the importance of making sure that measures are taken to strengthen it and to maintain it.

CARLSON:  So, if the levees break, it would obviously disrupt the water supply to the state.  Would people be injured?  Do people live in the flood zone, potential flood zone?

WOLFF:  Yes, more and more they do.  There‘s a lot of development on the east and south sides of the region, which are pretty close to the town of Stockton that‘s growing very quickly and there haven‘t been measures really adequate measures to limit development in the flood plain so that‘s a huge problem.

CARLSON:  And so people are building homes in the flood plain?

WOLFF:  Tens of thousands of houses, so we‘re talking about probably hundreds of thousands of people over the next, oh, dozen years or so right in the line of trouble.

CARLSON:  So, there are old decaying levees that you think may break soon and beneath them on the now dry side of them people are living.  Is anybody sounding the alarm?  Is anybody saying anything about this?

WOLFF:  Well, actually what‘s happening is slightly different from that.  When these new developments are built the levees that are built to support them are really big but those bigger levees are increasing the chances that the old levees will fail.

And there‘s a pretty obscure agency called the Reclamation Board that has been making recommendations to review development projects in the flood plain.  That board was just completely replaced by the governor about two weeks ago.

And although it was probably just a political reshuffling in a way that always happens, I think the timing of it is really alarming because we‘re at a moment now where we need to stop and say, wait a minute.  What are we doing?  This is just an accident waiting to happen.

CARLSON:  Well, tell me finally how much would it cost to fix these levees?

WOLFF:  You know the Department of Water Resources estimates that to really shore up the system, which would mean partly fixing the levees and partly taking other measures related to flood control will cost about $4 billion.

CARLSON:  Ah, now the picture is becoming clear.  Now I can see why this is not necessarily a thing that the State of California wants to talk about.  Jane Wolff, Washington University, St. Louis, the world‘s expert on the subject and I hope your expertise is not called to use again.  I hope this doesn‘t happen but, if it does, we can say you called it first, thanks.

WOLFF:  Thanks.