Without the last word in the title, that’s what the late reputed dean of western writers, Wallace Stegner, replied when asked what a newcomer should know about California.

San Diego is the ultimate metaphor for California’s benign climate, natural resources and incomparable scenic beauty from coast to valleys to snow-capped mountains. Sure, there are severe earthquakes shaking Californians now and then, but the real, continuous and growing problem is to ensure reliable and abundant fresh water storage and delivery.

Geology and Environmental Resources Professor Nicholas Pinter at Southern Illinois University is on record as having recently said that the California Delta is the most endangered system in the United States after New Orleans. Turning on the tap seems such a reliable reflex action that we rarely if ever think about it. But we should because it is likely that one day sooner than we might expect, the water from the tap in San Diego will be salt water. Unless, that is, we do something about it and do it now.

New Orleans had been warned for many long years, with solid accumulating engineering data from a variety of concerned authoritative specialists, that the day would come when critical parts of the some 300 miles of Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain protective levees would be breached by a hurricane with disastrous consequences. Those who listened mostly with half-an-ear had neither the clout nor the will to act.

The majority of national and local people in effect said to let the good times roll and continue to depend on Providence. Besides, it was just too expensive to remedy.

The same attitude exists in California today and the consequences of heavy rains and a sizable earthquake in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta could prove to be as catastrophic for the San Joaquin Valley and economically disastrous for the entire United States. Five of the top 10 agricultural counties in the country are within the San Joaquin Valley, that produces most of the some 200 crops in carload lots, representing almost 25 percent (in dollars), of the country’s total agricultural output.

California suffers from the dilemma that most of its water collects in the verdant northern part of the state, while most of its population is found in the arid south. It required the elaborate construction of a massive system of dams, canals and levees to bring water to the immense agricultural fertility of the Central Valley, and to the large population of Southern California. Most of the northern water is impounded by the huge Shasta, Oroville and New Melones dams and delivered to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub of the entire system, via the 400 miles-long California Aqueduct, thence to a complex system of canals and associated water works. This includes the giant Delta pumping stations located near Tracy that move the water to the California Aqueduct for delivery to Central and Southern California. Because of lack of funds and political objections from Northern California legislators (why should we pay to help Los Angeles and San Diego get some of our water?), a critical peripheral canal to move water around the Delta in case of a major failure was never built.

The most vulnerable part of the California water transport system is the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta. Its importance is based on the fact that millions of acres of farmland and almost two-thirds of the population of California depend on a water supply that goes through it. The enormous amounts of salt waters from the Pacific Ocean filling San Francisco and San Pablo Bays with their tributaries are held back by more than a thousand miles of large earthen levees that prevent its access to the Delta. These earthen levees were assembled with the cheapest available handy material, namely the underlying soils. Not only are many of these earthen levees made of wobbly decomposing soil, the islands between them that were once at sea level, have sunk about 30 feet below the surface of the water today.

This means that severe prolonged rain storms alone could destroy some of the levees and devastate the Delta with massive brackish and salt water flooding the region and contaminating vast agricultural lands with salt water.

A moderately severe earthquake could aggravate the damage and it could wipe out enough of the levees to overwhelm the entire system all the way to Southern California. A recent storm that flooded part of the region and reminded California what could happen in the future. The 90,000 square miles of Gulf Coast destruction following Katrina and Rita should be considered a much-needed warning alarm bell for California.

Elie A. Shneour, a native of France and World War II U.S. veteran, is president of Biosystems Institutes, Inc. and research director of Biosystems Research Institute of San Diego.

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