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Water Can't Wait

June 11, 2004

California has the world's heavyweight champion of water systems. Its brawny parts range from Shasta and Trinity dams in the north to the Colorado River Aqueduct in the south, all of it tied together by the giant state and federal canals. Computerized operations can move water to almost any corner of the state. Such size, however, leaves corners and crannies of weakness that may put the whole enterprise at risk, as in the sudden collapse of an old farm levee in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta last week.

The delta is a 738,000-acre maze of sloughs and channels that borders islands reclaimed from marshes in the 19th century to become some of the nation's most profitable farmland. The islands are protected by 1,000 miles of levees, such as the one on Upper Jones Tract, near the southern end of the delta. Most of the farmland itself is below sea level, and erosion from water and wind eats at the old, mostly earthen levees.

The delta is the heart of the state's water system. Various water projects collect snowmelt from the Sierra and the southern Cascades and funnel it through state and federal canals to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. There, giant pumps push it onto the valley farms and to the Metropolitan Water District, which wholesales water to an estimated 18 million Southern Californians. The aqueducts of the two big agencies serving millions of customers in the San Francisco Bay Area transect the delta as well.

When the Jones Tract levee failed, millions of gallons of water rushed in to cover 12,000 acres of farmland. That upset the hydrology of the delta, allowing the tides to push salty seawater deep into the delta and to the pumps. Salt contamination forced the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project to halt pumping until the break is repaired, expected in about 45 days, and the salt recedes.

The MWD quickly turned to local water storage and other supplies to make up for the loss. Farmers pumped groundwater for their crops.

"It is a wake-up call," said Tim Quinn, a delta expert for the MWD. "But it's important not to overreact." The lurking fear is that an earthquake might ruin dozens of levees and disrupt water supplies for months, although no earthquake has ever been recorded in the area.

State officials say it would cost $600 million over 10 years to assure levee integrity in the delta. The money isn't there for such a massive project, so state and federal officials are working together on a piecemeal plan that would target the most important and vulnerable levees.

It will be up to the state and Congress to scrape together funding for the smaller project. Despite the onerous demands on state bond funds, including paying off budget shortfalls, dependable water can't wait.

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