Narrator: The graduate students in Professor Bob Bea's Civil Engineering class at UC Berkeley are doing more than just the required coursework. They're participating in a major research project.
The four-year study, funded by a 2 million dollar National Science Foundation grant, will examine the all-important system of waterways known as California Delta. The goal is to develop methods to help avert the worst consequences of a major short or long-term disaster. The project is called RESIN: Resilient and Sustainable Infrastructures - a subject Bob Bea has studied for decades. Bea and his colleagues surveyed the damage from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans five years ago. Katrina serves as a grave warning about the potential for disaster in California.
Bob Bea, Civil Engineering Professor/UC Berkeley: We've learned you can't ignore it, because if you do, it'll get it's revenge.
Narrator: The California Delta lies roughly between San Francisco and Sacramento. The entire area was an inland sea until dirt levees were built on the edges of the rivers to create farms on the land in between. The Delta has since become a major resource for California. Its water is pumped out to 25 million Californians, and to farms that produce half the nation's produce. And 80% of the state's fishery species live or migrate through the Delta.
But the levees, also used as roads throughout the Delta, are deteriorating and have caused the farms to sink below sea level; Fresh water has decreased due to drought and other pressures; fish and their habitat have suffered greatly.
To sustain the Delta's resources, Bea says what's needed is not new technology, but new ways of thinking. He found that the disastrous aftermath of Katrina was result of a lack of communication in planning on the part of the many groups that maintain the area's infrastructure.
Bob Bea: We embraced the philosophy of requisite variety: The variety in the research and the student team had to match the variety of the problem we were addressing. That became the watch word of our project.
Narrator: The study is a huge collaboration, including experts from many public and private institutions, and professors and students from many campuses. The researchers began to look for an area that would serve as a microcosm for the larger problem. They found Sherman Island, in the heart of the Delta. Researchers call Sherman Island a choke point, because of the many interests that converge here: water, energy, telecommunications, environmental protection. Each is maintained by a separate organization, so each has the potential to choke the entire system.
Howard Foster: Sherman island jumped out at us immediately. Anybody would identify this area as problematic. This is the levee system in its various colors, showing the various problems: seepage and earthquake vulnerability; gas lines going through here, power lines crossing here. Water is seeping into the low areas of the island, where it has to be pumped out continuously. When it floods, these areas will flood first. Water levels are going to rise, to the point where the levee system is simply a bathtub. There are many organizations responsible for power, water, transportation, etc. Katrina showed us that these people don't necessarily talk to each other, or communicate, or plan with each other.
Narrator: In this first phase of the study, researchers are gathering information about the situation on the ground and the difficulties of successfully coordinating such a vast array of public services.
Don Boland: If, in fact, we lost power here, that power would effect our ability to pump natural gas. It's going to effect our ability to power our water systems, our pumping stations. Likely, we lose telecommunications. They run the alarm and control systems. So, everybody is in this together.
Narrator: The research teams looked at levees, water levels, power, gas and communication lines, and a carbon sequestration test site, where trees have been planted to help offset the levels of carbon dioxide in the air here.
Emery Roe: We can't build things so that they'll stand everything, but we need to build things nowadays so that they can bounce back from a shock. And we look to nature. One of the things we have to think about is whether you can have all these things in a way that can be co-managed better.
Narrator: Bob Bea says California can avoid disaster if enough cooperation can be built into the system, as well as an understanding among policy makers, businesses, and residents that protection will come with more efficient water usage and conservation.
Bob Bea: There's one message: Manage or be managed.
Narrator: This is Roxanne Makasdjian at UC Berkeley.