Former farmer helps find levee weak spots
On a stormy December night more than 20 years ago, Mike Stefani got the kind of phone call Delta farmers dread. A Roberts Island levee was seeping, and high tides and waves threatened to overtake the earthen wall protecting 4,000 acres of farms - including Stefani's.
He drove out with a friend and watched the levee, wondering if it would hold. It did. But Stefani didn't feel much better. "On the way back, we were thinking. There has got to be a better way," he said.
Twenty-three years later, Stefani no longer farms. Instead he drives a sport utility vehicle along Delta
levees with a piece of equipment similar to the beachcomber's metal detector, trying to figure out what's underground. The data he has collected over the years have led to the discovery of pipes, beaver dens and rotted timber floodgates - stuff that could cause levees to leak or collapse.
There's no proof, but Chris Neudeck, an engineer whose company, Kjeldsen, Sinnock & Neudeck Inc., represents about two dozen flood districts throughout the Delta, believes Stefani's company is directly responsible for preventing levee breaks. "Undoubtedly," Neudeck said. "He's finding and locating things we didn't locate in the '80s."
At least a half-dozen companies today provide technology that helps farmers and flood districts understand what danger lurks inside a levee. But when Stefani started surveying levees in 1983 with engineer Paul Cavanaugh, they were in a field by themselves.
Their business model was an 8-foot truck with a 20-foot sailing boom attached to the back that broke down into pieces. An electromagnetic detector hung from the end, which scanned 20 feet below the surface for electrical signals.
The men had one goal.
"We wanted to be able to find where the problems were," Stefani said. "Unless you're guessing or use ESP, you have to examine the whole levee, and that's what we wanted to do."
Basically, Stefani said, they looked for anything weird.
Abnormally high signals generally meant clay below the surface. Low signals meant sand. Other blips and bumps could be anything - a pipe, a cable, or water. Once, Stefani found a whiskey still.
When they found something, a levee engineer would be called in to figure out whether and how to get it out.
They worked at it part time for years, supplementing their full-time jobs by scanning levees on the weekends. But in the 1980s, business was anything but brisk. "We were always on the cusp of trying to make it work," Stefani recalled. "The company never had enough funds. ... We could never expand the equipment enough to get past the curve."
But by 2004, electromagnetic technology had improved to the point that Stefani wanted to give it another go. This time it would be without Cavanaugh, who was working full time for the state.
Two months later, a levee on Lower Jones Tract failed, setting off a wave of business that hasn't stopped since.
Multiple levee failures wrought by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans sparked new fears of levee failures in the Central Valley, and Stefani's business picked up even more. He has four months of work planned and has surveyed the levees of most San Joaquin County reclamation districts, and others in Contra Costa and Sacramento counties.
His price, he says, is affordable for most of the cash-poor districts: $600 a mile.
Rudy Mussi, a Lower Jones Tract farmer whose property flooded two years ago, said Stefani found several abandoned siphon pipes and voids in the levees surrounding his property.
"I think his service is well worth it," Mussi said. "If you do it once, you're doing yourself a disservice. If you run it twice, you pick up changes that occur in the surface over time."
Sometimes Stefani gets called after a levee problem develops. In January, flood officials found water seeping through a Rindge Tract levee. They weren't sure exactly where. It's relatively easy to find water in a levee when a metal pipe is the cause. But Stefani surveyed the levee and found water moving through 8 feet from the surface - without a pipe to guide him. Engineers came and filled the leak.
"That was not an easy find," Stefani said. "It was very unusual to find that."
Newer companies that emerged after Hurricane Katrina offer sonar, radar and 3-D imaging technologies.
One even offers what it calls a "levee MRI."
By comparison, Stefani's mode of levee analysis seems somewhat old-school. Fittingly, he gives himself no special titles, such as "levee doctor" or "levee analyzer."
"We're just a small company that finds bad spots in levees," he said.
Record Staff Writer
Published Monday, May 22, 2006