Could We See Another Katrina in California?


Image: Flickr

Thats what some scientists are saying according to a new article published in OnEarth, but this one won't come from a hurricane. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, an 1,153 square mile area that was once marsh flats has now been managed and converted over to farm lands, most of which sit below sea level. The 1,110 miles of levees in this area are also on the verge of collapse due to unchallenged growth in the area and climate change. The result: A collapse of the one barrier that is keeping saltwater from devastating freshwater supplies for over 23 million residents and farms in California. One question: Who should be the one to make sacrifices in order to ensure a sustainable water supply?Why are the levees under threat?

One reason is climate change. Sea levels are rising, more rainfall and quicker snowmelt are predicted, all of which could cause water levels to top the levees and bring water levels up at rapid levels, faster than the system can handle. The is also the ever-present potential for an earthquake that could be the crack that broke the camels back.

In 2005 Jeffrey Mount of UC Davis and Robert Twiss, environmental planner, conducted a study that said there is a 64 percent chance that up to 20 levees will all collapse at the same time over the next 50 years. Other scientists see many parallels between the California Delta and New Orleans pre-Katrina. The level of preparedness and the potential for disaster are troubling to say the least.

Brief Historical Snapshot of the Delta

The delta was once a "back swamp", whereby water would fill in and flood the area and then recede and dry out the area. Farmers quickly began moving in and rerouting water and draining the marshes. Crops were planted and soils weren't properly managed, often causing top soils to blow away. The area continued producing huge amounts of fruits and vegetables with this highly productive soil. As soil kept blowing away, land levels kept shrinking. Levees would occasionally collapse, get repaired and people could keep moving forward. More and more people continued to move into the area and two pumping stations were built to manage the water supply.


Image source: NationMaster.com

The Control over Water

The water from these two rivers (Sacramento & San Joaquin) provides freshwater to over 23 million people in California, from San Francisco all the way to San Diego. The water is funneled through two pumping station - the state-run station provides water to residents and the U.S. Bureau of Land Reclamation station delivers water to area farmers. "Some years, depending on the rainfall, the two stations divert enough water to flood 1,000 football fields more than a mile deep."

These two pumping stations have decimated local salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and smelt populations (say that five times fast) by sucking fish into the machinery and changing the local ecosystem. Farmers have been put on water restrictions and many had to leave fields unplanted this year. "This year, in an unprecedented move, the state and federal governments shut down California's commercial salmon fishery because of record low numbers" due to several reasons: invasive species, toxic dumping, but mainly because of the pumping stations.

Judges are stepping in to limit water use but this mean groups, particularly farmers, are going without. "The valley's eight counties grow more than $20 billion worth of crops each year, more than the rest of California combined (and more than any other state, for that matter)." Farmers this year left almost 10,00 acres unplanted with other planted acres later abandoned - amounting to almost 10% of the land.

Breaking the Levees

The levees have broken 166 times in the last 100 years, oftentimes without a major disaster or warning ahead of time. One breach can cost anywhere from $20 million to $40 million to repair and take months to finally get all of the water out of the area. Multiple levee failures could costs billions and displace tens of thousands of people - not to mention decimating homes and agriculture. And yet, houses continue to be built below sea-level right in the way of a potential flood zone. Officials are building more levees to protect these communities, though some community plans have been denied because of the threat to the area.

Possible Solutions

One option is to turn some of the areas into floodplains- allow them to take on the extra water to take the pressure off of the levees. Farmers wouldn't lose crops as the flooding typically occurs in the winter, and they would be paid if there was crop loss. Also it would allow for more fish habitat. Not all communities are happy with this option as it limits development and restricts growth.

Another option is to let some of the levees fail, particularly those closest to San Francisco Bay and the salt water. This plan is highly contentious, as many people don't want to lose their land (even if they will be compensated) and others think the science behind this is wrong. Just strengthening levees would take at least $1.4 billion. One proposal is to quit exporting water to other areas of California and let them find their own sources. Yikes. Not to mention it would cost other areas almost $1.5 billion a year and ruin farming areas.

A final proposed alternative is to build "a multibillion dollar canal to divert freshwater away from the Sacramento River before it reaches the delta." Double yikes! The canal would ensure that southern California and the San Joaquin Valley get freshwater and is supported by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's Administration. This plan is not popular among delta locals, but they are afraid that if they don't agree to supply some water to other regions then they've lost their trump card. The state will see no incentive to invest in them and towns will continue to decline.

Conserving water and cutting back on use just might be the silver bullet. Maybe. The Governor has already called for a 20% reduction in water use by cities by 2020. Instead of looking for the next supply, residents all over the state may have to turn the finger back at themselves in order to save themselves.

::On Earth
More on California's Water Resources
Cat-tails and Tules Perform Double Duty as Soil Rebuilders and Carbon Scrubbers
Water Shortages Hit Long Beach
Future of Water in the West: A Bleak Projection of Climate Consequence
Climate Change Adaptation: Businesses Already on Point; Is Government Capable of Long-Range Planning and Budgeting?

Tags: California | Drinking Water | Farming | Rivers | San Francisco | Water Conservation

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