February 19, 2013 - From the January/February, 2013 issue

Threat to Water Supply After An ‘Event’ Necessitates Delta Fix

This year’s VerdeXchange conference included a panel entitled “The Delta Resiliency After an Event,” featuring Jeff Kightlinger, General Manager at the Metropolitan Water District; Gerald Meral, Deputy Secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency; Jack Baylis, Senior Vice President of the Shaw Group; Paul Brown, a International Water Association Fellow; Lucy Jones, Senior Advisor for Risk Reduction at the USGS; and Phil Isenberg, Chair of the Delta Stewardship Council. Moderated by TPR editor-in-chief David Abel, the following transcription is part one of a two-part series following this panel’s focus on the Delta’s vulnerability. See VERDEXCHANGE for more information.


Lucy Jones

“After an earthquake, the levees start to collapse. Basically, most of the farm land is bellow sea level, so after an earthquake water comes rushing in, and most of the water will be fresh water at first... This has been predicted by UC Davis to have a two-in-three chance of happening within the next couple of years,” -Lucy Jones, Senior Science Advisor, US Geological Survey

Jeff Kightlinger: When you include the Owens Valley supply of water and the 50 percent that the Metropolitan Water District imports, almost two-thirds of Southern California’s water comes from 250-450 miles away. We’re obviously very reliant on importing water for our lifestyle and our economy. Our metropolitan serves the six counties of the Southern California costal area, which is 19 million people, or half the state. A little over two thirds, about 60 percent, of California’s economy, comes from Southern California. Over a trillion dollars of California’s $1.6-1.7 trillion economy is generated here in Southern California. 

So when you look at the water supplies, you basically see we have three major sources of supply: Colorado River, Northern California through the State Water Project, and then that 45 percent local supply that’s primarily our ground water basins. Most of that State Water Project moves through the Delta, and that’s why the focus is going to be on the Delta after an event. But if you look at it, basically two-thirds of Californians get water that moves, in some way, shape, or form, across or through the Delta, and more than 4 million acres of California farmland gets water that moves across the Delta. In Southern California, about 30 percent of our water comes from the State Water Project, so that means 30 percent of our water moves through the Delta. But you see in parts of the Bay Area, and certainly in parts of Central California and the valleys, part of those regions are up to 100 percent reliant on water that moves in some way through the Delta—over 5 million Californians.  

This is an animation of what would happen in an earthquake, and this is going to show one week after an earthquake in the Delta, which is reliant on these levees that keep the water supply moving. After an earthquake, the levees start to collapse. Basically, most of the farm land is bellow sea level, so after an earthquake water comes rushing in, and most of the water will be fresh water at first. But because there’s a tidal pulse that moves back and forth from San Francisco Bay, you see salt water start to intrude all the way through, and within a week, it becomes and inland sea that is salt water. This has been predicted by UC Davis to have a two-in-three chance of happening within the next couple of years, and this was put together in cooperation with their geology team. 

David Abel: Thank you very much. To make the point clear, Lucy, how big of a threat is this to the resiliency of the Delta?

Lucy Jones: There’s two earthquakes to worry about—there’s the big earthquake in the Bay Area that has a high likelihood of happening, and you’ve got the San Andreas and Hayward-Calaveras fault. You get above about 6.5 and you start to get liquefaction in any sort of loose sand that is more saturated. And those long-period waves travel farther; the bigger the earthquake the longer periods; so once we get up to, say, a seven on the Hayward, it’d be pretty sure to cause liquefaction in the area of the Delta. 

In addition, there are earthquake faults in the Delta itself. This is a map of faults around the area—they’re less active faults than the ones in the Bay Area, but they’re closer. So the earthquake is absolutely inevitable, but the question is when? 

I mention liquefaction—that’s the really big issue. That’s where you shake the loose soil; it’s got water in it; it temporarily becomes quick sand; quick sand does a poor job of holding up structures; levees built on quick stand will probably disappear on you. The Christchurch earthquake, which happened three years ago, is a good example of what happens when you have liquefaction—the sand roils up, like you’re shaking a canister of flour, but you now have water in between those grains as the pressure goes up. So you get temporary quicksand that will blow up through fountains, and it happens wherever you have long enough shaking at a high enough level. The Delta is highly susceptible through most of the system. So this is a pretty inevitable response. 

The other way you can take out the levees easily is a big storm. Our project at the US Geological Survey modeled the storm the same way we did the big earthquake, and we were trying to look back at 1861 or 2 and say, “What would happen if that happened again?” In fact our model storm is a little less than that storm. It was one where we had over 400 percent the normal level of precipitation in Sacramento, and it created a 300-mile-long lake that was 12 to 16 miles wide, and essentially the entire Central Valley was underwater. Now, since that time, we’ve built a lot of flood control because we had such big issues. 

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Any flood control system has a limited capacity; there will always be the potential for a storm bigger than that. And when we look at the geologic record, these types of storms look to happen pretty often actually, and that level of the one that happened in 1861/2 is probably on the order of every one to two hundred years, which is about the same as the big earthquakes. And we’re pretty sure we’ll loose the levees in that as well. 

Here is the projected flooding in the Delta Area for a storm where it basically rains solidly for a month. In 1861/2 it rained for 45 days. And it changed the economy of California. It wiped out the ranching industry—200,000 head of cattle drowned—the state went bankrupt; we lost a third of our taxable land; the state had to not pay its legislators for 18 months. So we’re pretty sure that would happen again. The one good news for the Delta is you’ve got a nice, strong, freshwater flow to help keep the seawater out. In 1861/2 there are reports of 20-foot-deep of freshwater flowing out through the Golden Gate, and it actually kept ships from coming in. 

Climate change, of course, leads to rising sea levels and is another thing that could take out the Delta. So the present system is going to be gone, no matter what disaster happens, within a hundred years or so. But also, all of the climate change models predict an increased rate of extreme storms; when you have more energy in the atmosphere, you have more storms. Just as we saw with Super Storm Sandy, some of the same interactions will happen here in the West. We have atmospheric rivers in California, and they draw the same amount of rain as really big hurricanes. They’re predicted to increase with climate change. So there’s three ways to take it out. 

David Abel: Thank you Lucy. I want to turn to Jerry Meral now. I want to spend just one more second on his bio, because in addition to now being the appointed Natural Resource Agency Deputy Secretary for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, Dr. Meral is charged with guiding the completion of that plan to restore the Bay Delta ecosystem and create water supply reliability in California. In addition, he will also be responsible for the development of any revenue and funding proposals necessary for the completion of the program. Jerry, do you want to talk a little about the plan for dealing with the threat? 

Jerry Meral: David’s description is quite accurate; the Bay Delta Conservation Plan was originally created to comply with the state/federal Endangered Species Act which placed great constraints on the operation of state water projects. It was thought that a combination of conservation measures would allow for the recovery of those species—a great many, over 50 species—and also for the greater reliability of the water project export systems, keeping in mind the nature of the Delta as a changing place. 

There are other aspects to the program that are safety oriented. They have to do with the corps of engineer programs that we have to have, because one of the concepts seriously being considered in all this is a pair of tunnels that would start out near the City of Sacramento and go down underneath the Delta to Tracy where the existing pumping plants are. We would need permits from the corps of engineers that would certify that we were not increasing the flood danger if we actually built these tunnels, because they would go into flood control levees.

I wanted to emphasize a little more the importance of the Delta’s water supply. When you look at it as a fraction of the state’s water supply, it’s about 18 percent. But as Jeff pointed out, a great many of our urban areas rely on it. To put a finer point on this, about half the water from Silicon Valley comes from the Delta; almost all of the water for the Livermore Valley, which has a national nuclear facility there; much of the water from the east and west sides of the San Joaquin Valley (the largest agricultural producing counties in the country); and then, of course, 25-30 percent of the water for Southern California. 

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The combination of threats that Lucy just described—the earthquake danger, the atmospheric river (you have to see the 1862 picture in the Scientific American article of the Central Valley as a lake to put it in perspective)—along with sea level rise, which most people view as inevitable, are only going to make all of these things worse. The sea level rise itself is more than enough to take out all of the levees in the Delta. There’s a new article on a website, Enviro-net, or something like that, that shows the effect of sea level rise of one to seven meters, and there’s of course no way the delta could withstand the seven-meter sea level rise that’s forecasted by some. 

I think it’s important to mention something else: we’re taking the water from a system of islands in the Delta, most of which are bellow sea level. And so it isn’t like we’re diverting water from a river—we’re taking it from something that’s bellow sea level. The Dutch have faced this problem; they’ve invested billions of dollars in trying to protect their bellow-level infrastructure. But we probably don’t have that option. Those in the Delta believe that a) there’s really no threat, b) the state should continue to provide hundreds of millions of dollars, as we have before, to shore up those levees, and c) if the worst happens, well, the worst happens. But I think, as the governor said in the State of the State message, we cannot stand by and tolerate this kind of risk to our economy. 

To put it in perspective, Dr. David Sunding, Agricultural and Resource Economics, and Professor Tom Braff, Natural Resource Economics, UC Berkeley, have said that the impact on the State’s economy of a Delta outage would be $8 billion a year, and up to $12 billion. It’s hard to picture actually building these tunnels in case the Delta did collapse, in much less than eight years. Even though we have emergency declaration, you still need federal permitting to guarantee flood safety. So we’re looking at a danger of a 100-billion-dollar impact on the State’s economy. The annual job loss would be about 40,000 a year, and there’s no way that a rational society can tolerate that kind of risk, even a risk that we know is virtually a certainty. So the investment of perhaps $15 billion (if that is the final decision, we haven’t completed our CEQA process yet), it would seem like a relatively small investment. People forget—how many people in California remember the flood of 1862? No one alive remembers it! But beyond that, there’s a book still in print called Up and Down California that describes it very well, and it’s still selling copies. So we have a historical record; it’s well documented; it’s going to happen again. People do remember, I hope, Sandy, Katrina, Fukushima—these are not unique events. These are events that are going to happen to us, probably in the relatively near future, we have to be prepared for it. 

David Abel: Thank you Jerry. Well, I think we’ve begun the conversation about the threat to the Delta and the need for resiliency. We’ll turn now to Jack Baylis, who is an engineer who’s spent a good portion of his career thinking about environmental infrastructure and how to do it. Jack, chime into this conversation and take it to the next level.

Jack Baylis: Thanks David. You know it’s great to hear Jerry Meral; many of us know him as a great environmental leader, along with Warner and Felicia Marcus and others in the audience, that help push the right things for our environment. Now to see him advocating for this makes sense. 

He brought up the $15 billion price tag. Now to compare it—many of you have relatives on the East Coast, where they are going to spend at least $50 billion to respond to Sandy. So the one commonality, wherever you are on the stakeholder list of this—whether you want 9,000 CFS or some other flow, or some other method—is it makes sense to do something now. We all rely on our environment and the infrastructure every day, and this project makes sense—makes sense for the environment; it will improve the existing Delta; it will improve our reliability on water supply. 

Resiliency is the ability to adapt, absorb, react and respond to an event, whether it be an earthquake, an act of terror, a storm, or air quality. Right now, as a state, this is one of our most vulnerable areas. We don’t have a Delta that’s resilient, and I think we need to take those eight years or more to do that. 

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© 2014 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.