Dec 11, 2013
The Looming Water Disaster That Could Destroy California
Posted on Mar 25, 2010
By Yasha Levine, AlterNet
This article was originally published by AlterNet.
"That, in your own backyard there, is the scariest place after New Orleans."—Geologist Nicholas Pinder’s description of the precarious situation in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta after the hurricane Katrina disaster.
Imagine the devastating flooding of Hurricane Katrina multiplied by epic sandstorms, drought and economic collapse of the Dust Bowl. Now picture it happening an hour east of Apple’s headquarters in Silicon Valley and spreading all the way down to the Mexican border. It’s not as far-fetched as you think. A routine 6.7-magnitude earthquake would be enough to set it off, liquefying the decrepit levee system that walls off California’s main source of drinking water from the Pacific Ocean and triggering a deadly flood that would submerge roads, destroy homes, wipe out thousands of acres of farmland, kill countless numbers and possibly cut over 20 million Californians off from their water supply for a year or more.
Just like the oligarchs who used the shock of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction to tear down public housing, privatize public schools and pillage the city’s poorest, California’s most powerful business interests have positioned themselves to profit from this disaster. A handful of billionaire farmers and real estate developers are in line to pull off the most brazen water heist in American history, seizing control over much of Northern California’s water supplies and do what they have always wanted: turn water, a shared public resource, into a private asset that can be traded on the open market.
At the center of this epic water grab is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a Yosemite-sized patchwork of waterways and farmland an hour east of Oakland that sits atop California’s single largest water source. Formed by the confluence of state’s two largest rivers as they flow out to the San Francisco Bay, more than half of all rainfall and snowmelt drains through the Delta, supplying two-thirds of California with water and irrigating most of the state’s farmland. The Delta’s agricultural, fishing and tourism industries produce up $5 billion in combined economic output a year and the region remains one of California’s last holdouts of small and family farms. It is also home to the most dangerous flood control system in America.
"Now we realize it may be the single most at-risk piece of property in the United States," John Radke, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Department of City and Regional Planning, told Emergency Management magazine. "If you had a catastrophic event there and you can’t get things built, you won’t just have people unable to go across a bridge, you’ll have people without drinking water—22 million of them."
A simulation carried out by state water officials in 2005 showed that 6.7 magnitude earthquake could cause multiple levee breaches that would suck salt water in from the San Francisco Bay and shut down the pumps and aqueducts that move drinking water to two-thirds of California’s population. The California Department of Water and Power estimates that it would take $40 billion and 1.5 years to get the water pumping again. Aside from the potential damage to the state’s water supplies, the levees protect 400,000 people, 520,000 acres of farmland, three state highways, railroad lines and natural gas and electric transmission facilities, which adds up to a total of $50 billion worth of property. Meanwhile, the United States Geological Service estimates a 62 percent probability such an earthquake will hit the San Francisco Bay Area sometime in the next 28 years.
With Southern California depending on Delta water for over half of its total supply, you don’t need to be a municipal planner to realize how hairy the situation could get.
"Los Angeles’ aqueducts, viewed through telescopes from space, have given astronauts pause. If the contrived flow of water should somehow just stop, California’s economy, which was worth about a trillion dollars as the new millennium dawned, would implode like a neutron star," wrote water historian Marc Reisner in his unfinished book, A Dangerous Place, describing a potential Delta catastrophe.
Yet one group that might be anticipating this disaster is a tiny cabal of billionaire farmers from the Westlands Water District, an irrigated farming region spanning 1,000 square miles of some of the hottest, most arid land in the San Joaquin Valley between Fresno and Bakersfield. "With crops worth $1 billion a year, this one district produces more than some whole states," writes Mark Grossi of the Fresno Bee. The farmers in the district make up a secretive old boys’ network that has used its wealth and power to divert rivers, empty lakes, plunder taxpayers’ wealth, privatize water and defy California’s constitution. Many of them trace their roots back to the landholdings of America’s most notorious industrialist vampires: the Union Pacific Railroad octopus, John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and the family of Los Angeles Times‘ publisher Harry Chandler. The 19th century robber barons might be dead, but their degenerate grandchildren are still following in their footsteps. And they’ve been keeping themselves busy.
In the 1960s, after Westlands’ farmers thoroughly tapped out their own groundwater supplies, the irrigation successfully lobbied the federal government for their very own branch of the Central Valley Project aqueduct, which would suck water out of the Delta and transport it roughly 100 miles south. Westlands still hasn’t paid back the roughly $500 million it owes the federal government for building the aqueduct , and it’s not clear if it ever will.
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