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May 3, 2006

Experts from the U.S. and Netherlands to discuss risk of catastrophic levee failure in California and other states

By Mark Shwartz

The catastrophic failure of the New Orleans levee system during Hurricane Katrina, and the potential for similar disasters in California and other states, will be the focus of the seventh annual Shah Family Fund Lecture at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 10, in Stanford University's Kresge Auditorium. The event, which will feature a panel of experts from the United States and the Netherlands, is free and open to the public.

"With entire cities, such as New Orleans and Sacramento, relying on flood protection provided by hundreds of miles of often underdesigned, poorly maintained levees, difficult questions about levee safety and flood management policy are now being asked," said lecture organizer Martin McCann Jr., a consulting professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford.

"In California, the issue of levee integrity and safety is particularly acute," he added. "The 1,600 miles of aging levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are part of a unique, valued and vulnerable ecosystem. Two-thirds of Californians get some part of their drinking water from the delta, and $400 billion of the state's annual economy depends on delta water exports. In addition, there is extensive infrastructure and capital investment in the delta, ranging from residential communities, businesses and towns to state highways, rail lines and natural gas fields."

At the Shah lecture, three prominent speakers will address these issues and discuss effective strategies for managing levee risks in California and elsewhere:

  • Gerald Galloway, research professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Maryland and a retired brigadier general with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will discuss the unacceptable flood risks that exist in the United States and the inadequate attention that is given to the levee infrastructure nationwide. A leader in water resources planning and flood risk management, Galloway has called for a comprehensive national water policy to address these issues.
  • Jeffery Mount, professor of geology at the University of California-Davis, is a member of the Independent Science Board of CALFED, a collaboration between the state and the federal governments to improve California's water supplies. Mount has estimated that there is a 60 percent chance of a large earthquake, flood or other catastrophic event in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in the next 50 years. He argues that the levee system as currently managed is not sustainable and is calling for a new vision for the future of the delta.
  • Carel J. J. Eijgenraam, program leader for spatial economics with the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, will discuss new concepts and insights in flood protection in the Netherlands. Following the flood disaster of 1953, the Dutch developed a risk-based economic approach to establish optimal dike heights for flood protection. The Dutch are now re-examining their flood standards and the appropriate level of protection and investment that should be made, taking into account national growth and thus the increased losses that could occur in the event of a dike-system failure and a sea-level rise. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Eijgenraam suggests that considerably higher levels of protection are required in New Orleans, given the population at risk and the economic impact that could result in the event of levee failures.
  • The panel will be moderated by Stuart Leavenworth, associate editor of the Sacramento Bee, who produced an award-winning, three-part series on the Sacramento Valley's flood threat in 2004. The Shah Family Fund, named for Professor Emeritus Haresh Shah, former chair of the Stanford Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, was established in 1995. It provides annual fellowships for students in civil engineering, an annual prize for an outstanding staff member in the School of Engineering and an annual distinguished lecture on catastrophic risk management and related subjects.

    For more information about the May 10 lecture, contact Racquel Hagen at (650) 723-4105 or

    Editor Note:

    A press conference on the risk of levee failure in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will be held at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 10, in the Blume Earthquake Engineering Center, Building 540, 439 Panama Mall on the Stanford campus. Panelists Gerald Galloway, Jeffery Mount and Carel Eijgenraam will be available to answer questions. Reporters also are invited to attend the Shah Family Lecture at 7:30 p.m. that day. For more information, contact Mark Shwartz or Racquel Hagen.



    Mark Shwartz, News Service: (650) 723-9296,


    Martin McCann Jr., Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering: (650) 814-0878,

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