Water Wars

Friday, March 26th, 2010

It’s hard for me to take someone seriously when they’re outraged — outraged! — that someone might want to turn water — a shared public resource! — into a private asset that can be traded on the open market. I mean, what’s next? Food? People will starve — starve! — if oligarchs turn food into a private asset traded on the open market!

Yasha Levine seems to conflate privatization with theft and sees an elaborate plot by “billionaire thugs” to profit from a looming disaster, which the California government could prevent, if it weren’t corrupt. Or something. It’s complicated.

The part I have no trouble believing is that old state-owned levies might collapse, with terrible consequences:

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 breeches 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.

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