Does fear of earthquake in Delta justify $25 billion project?

Last week California water agencies dumped a 34,000 page project report — on Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the need for twin tunnel project — on an oblivious public.

The LA Times editorialized on the project without stating a clear opinion, but did mention that the city has become much much better at water conservation:

There are those who argue, here as well as in counties farther to the north, that a sustainable water future for Southern California lies in conservation and reclamation rather than in continuing to bring in current levels of delta water. 

Today their moderate Sacramento columnist George Skelton scoffed at the central justification for the project. 

Brown and the water buffaloes — government bureaucrats, corporate farmers, urban expansionists — are peddling their own rationale for a $25-billion re-plumbing of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

A catastrophic earthquake could topple current levees, flood the delta and cut off much of the fresh water supply to Central and Southern California for months, even years, tunnel promoters warn.

Never mind that there's little historical evidence to support the potential for such a calamity.

"If they have to resort to a lie to justify [the project], then the actual justification must be pretty darn weak," says Bob Pyke, a Bay Area consulting engineer who specializes in earthquake protection and is an outspoken critic of Brown's plan.


I bought into the earthquake argument for years until it finally dawned on me that I've lived in Sacramento for several decades and never felt — or heard of — a local serious shaker. Indeed, it's one of the pluses in residing here.

Sure, back in 1989 when the Loma Prieta earthquake interrupted the World Series in San Francisco and collapsed an Oakland freeway and part of the Bay Bridge, we felt some rolling 100 miles away. That 6.9 temblor along the San Andreas Fault killed 63 people. But there was little damage in the state capital.

More relevant to this writing, no levees collapsed in the delta, between Sacramento and the Bay Area. In fact, they didn't even suffer damage. "None at all," Pyke says.

Hmmm. Add this question to the other doubts raised by the project. Such as: When designed as a bond project back in 2007 the cost added up to about $11 billion. Now it's officially $25 billion, and — skeptics charge — probably closer to $50 billion. Further, even earthquake experts such as the USGS question the justification. For instance, as noted at this site a couple of years ago, they no longer see a catastrophic risk of failure of the levees due to earthquake (as Skelton argues in simpler language). 

Further, the doubters now threaten to put the matter before the voters, seemingly confident that Northern Californians will not want to give Southern Californians water and Southern Californians will not want to pay higher rates to get water. 

Puzzlingly, the LA Times expresses in a general way support for the process, even as the paper decalres that the city has come a long ways in water conservation, but needs to do more. 

Los Angeles, especially, has excelled at conservation, using the same amount of water today as it did 20 years ago despite a growing population. We will need to do more — clean up contaminated aquifers, recapture storm-water runoff, increase storage capacity. Those projects and more are necessary parts of a water portfolio.

So the LA Times takes a hands off attitude, essentially, and ducks the possibility that it's agribusiness (according to Food and Water Watch) or the fracking industry that wants this project (according to the California Indian Water Commission). 

Adding to the malodorous stew, the bureaucrat that has spearheaded this campaign for Brown, Jerry Meral, recently resigned, after a) declaring that it was "virtually certain" the project would be implemented, and b) declaring that the twin tunnels is "not about saving the Delta…the Delta cannot be saved." 

One problem: Supposedly that's what this project is all about — heck, it's called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan


[graphic from a new group called simply Stop the Tunnels]

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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