Disaster in Waiting

By Paul Tullis and Evan Applegate


The scenario is known as “California’s Katrina.” An earthquake or superstorm causes Gold Rush-era earthen levees to collapse. Saltwater from San Francisco Bay floods the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, displacing half a million lowland Californians, poisoning the water supply for as many as 28 million more who live in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Silicon Valley, and ruining farmland that produces 11 percent of the nation’s agricultural value. The eighth-largest economy in the world could be sunk for months, even years.

There are two competing proposals to avert all this. The first is to bypass the delta with tunnels carrying fresh water to Southern California. The second is to upgrade the existing levees. A bill that would have required an official cost-benefit analysis of these approaches got shot down in the state legislature. Civil engineers at University of California at Davis don’t think the levees can be earthquake-proofed. Delta landowners, fearful the levees will no longer be maintained if the tunnels were built, have refused surveyors access to their land. In this fight, if someone doesn’t win, everyone will lose.

1 The Earthquake

Over the next 20 years, an earthquake of 6.7 magnitude or greater has a 62 percent chance of striking the Bay Area. A quake of that strength last hit California in 1994, killing 57 and causing $20 billion in damage. If the next big one were to hit close enough to the delta ...

2 The Catastrophe

... levees protecting the San Joaquin Delta could fail. Local farms and homes could well be swept away. And with a flood of saltwater in the region ...

3 The Consequences

... millions of people and one of the state’s largest industries would be hit hard. Some 10,000 delta residents could be displaced and 28 million, 74 percent of California’s population, might face drinking water contamination. Not to mention ...


in annual agricultural output would be threatened by disrupted water supplies.

Downhill Fast

Sea level 10ft

The delta islands are kept artificially dry by levees; some areas are more than 25 feet below sea level, and farming is causing them to sink deeper every year.

Rich Harvest

California-grown produce, crops, nuts, and nursery plants brought in over $17 billion in 2010. Although the state has just under 3 percent of the nation’s total farmland, its agriculture revenue surpasses those of other states.

Highest-earning crops, 2010

Grapes $3.2b

Almonds $2.8b

Nursery plants $2.7b

Berries $1.8b

Lettuce $1.6b

Tomatoes $1.3b

Pistachios $1.2b | California is the sole U.S. grower

Walnuts $1.1b | California is the sole U.S. grower

Flowers $1.0b

Proposed Solutions

Option 1: Levee Upgrade

Regional activists, engineers who maintain the levees, and several academics propose giving the levees a seismic upgrade. The Delta Risk Management Strategy, a joint state and federal study group, concluded this would be far cheaper and faster than a tunnel option.

Favored by:


Delta residents and farmers

Fiscal conservatives


• Cheaper than other options

• Can be completed faster

• Protects local homes and livelihoods


• May not withstand an earthquake

Option 2: Build Tunnels

Favored by:

Large-scale farmers

Governor Jerry Brown

U.S. Department of the Interior


• Permanent solution


• May cost up to $51 billion, with interest on bonds

• Removes protection for local homes and businesses

• Might take too long

Governor Brown favors the construction of dual concrete tunnels — at a cost of $14 billion — that will move water from the north directly to pumping stations, bypassing the delta entirely. With the tunnels, the incentive to maintain the levees would be diminished.



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