By Charles Wilson
Originally posted in the Ventura County Star
Southern Californians know that a big quake here would be devastating, but they should also know that a quake 400 miles away would take a toll on the whole state.
The hub of California’s water supply lies just east of San Francisco, and it’s a disaster waiting to happen. That’s the bad news. The good news is that a plan is advancing to protect against that disaster — the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.
We’ve been repeatedly warned by leading scientists, engineers, water managers and other experts that a significant portion of the state’s water supply could be wiped out for months if a major earthquake strikes Northern California.
Studies show that a 6.7 magnitude temblor in the Bay Area could contaminate and cut off a key drinking water supply for two out of three Californians, with impacts cascading throughout the state, including Ventura County.
At the core of this issue is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a network of rivers, streams, marshes and grasslands — one of the state’s most prized, yet most troubled, environmental resources and also the route for much of the state’s water supply.
The Delta channels water that is delivered to 25 million people, businesses and farms throughout California. But that water is ushered through by 100-year-old levees that are weak and structurally vulnerable.
If the levees don’t stand up to an earthquake, water from the San Francisco Bay will rush into the Delta, turning freshwater into saltwater. The economic toll of this seismic event could amount to $40 billion from losses in water supplies, farm production, wages and jobs and downed utilities.
For more than three decades, the state has been grappling with how to best address the mounting problems in the Delta, and we are finally on the verge of moving forward on a solution.
That solution, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, is advancing under the oversight of the Brown and Obama administrations. After five years of research and analysis of various options, Gov. Jerry Brown and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced the project framework for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan in late July.
The proposed project will include major reconstruction of the state’s water delivery system — a new pair of 35-mile-long tunnels — along with significant habitat restoration.
The water that goes to water agencies in the Bay Area, Central Coast, Central Valley and Southern California would be routed underneath the Delta and moved through the new tunnels, instead of through the fragile estuary and levee system.
The project would restore reliability to our water supply, protect it from floods and earthquakes, improve water quality, all while restoring and protecting the Delta ecosystem.
We simply can’t afford to continue on with the status quo — the risks are just too great. Constructing the new tunnels will be an estimated $14 billion investment, paid for by the water agencies and their ratepayers that benefit from the project. If we delay, the cost of rebuilding the system and making these new investments after a major earthquake could be much higher.
With five years of planning and more than 300 public meetings already complete, at a cost of over $150 million, the state is currently undertaking the extensive environmental review process. The first public draft of the environmental impact report is expected later this fall.
It is now time to turn study into reality. It’s time to build a project that will give California another 50 years of water supply reliability.
Charles Wilson is chairman of the Southern California Water Committee.