By Charley Wilson, Director, Santa Margarita Water District.
Director Wilson also serves as Chairman of the Southern California Water Committee.
May 8, 2013 - The Bay Delta Conservation Plan will not only help ensure reliable water delivery to Southern California, but will also restore environmentally sensitive habitat in the Delta Region.
Perhaps a little known fact for local residents… It’s 400 miles away, but Orange County relies heavily on freshwater that originates in the Sierra Nevada and moves through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Delta). While Orange County has made great strides in finding and utilizing local, alternative sources of water, the vast majority of water used by residents and businesses is still imported – much of it from the Delta.
What’s unsettling is: the imported water we depend on has become increasingly less reliable. We need to take measured action through the Bay Delta Conservation Plan this year to secure our imported water supplies, because many parts of Orange County simply do not have enough local supplies to get by without the Delta.
The Delta is a network of rivers, streams, marshes and grasslands and is one of the state’s most prized, yet most troubled, environmental resources – it also serves as the primary hub of our statewide water delivery system. Currently, water from the Delta is ushered through by 100-year-old levees that are weak and structurally vulnerable in the event of an earthquake. The U.S. Geological Survey, the national expert on earthquakes, has warned that a 6.7 magnitude earthquake in the Bay Area could lead to salt water rushing into the Delta, contaminating and cutting off this crucial source of water. To use an analogy, the Delta is like a heart, circulating and pumping life blood to our state. But, it's currently broken and in desperate need of open heart surgery.
The economic toll of this seismic event could amount to $40 billion from losses in water supplies, farm productions, wages and jobs and downed utilities. The impacts would be felt throughout California’s economy, and Orange County’s public water agencies would face severe shortages and increasingly costly choices to replace the lost supply.
For example, the 155,000 business and residential customers served by Santa Margarita Water District, the second largest water agency in Orange County, rely almost exclusively on imported supplies because the district has no major local supply source. With an outage in the Delta, our customers, and others, could face water shortages for up to a year and a half.
The ability to import water is what helped make Orange County the nation’s sixth most populous county, headquarters for several Fortune 500 companies and a popular destination spot for tourists from around the world. It is vital that California has the necessary infrastructure in place to securely transport water to the residents, businesses and farms that rely on it, not just in Orange County but across our great state to the 25 million residents, three million acres of farmland and businesses that rely on the Delta.
For the past seven years, the state and federal governments have been thoughtfully crafting a science-based plan that would provide the water supply reliability our state needs and also restore the ailing Delta ecosystem. This proposed plan is called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and will be reaching important milestones this year. It is a habitat restoration plan that includes the construction of a new twin tunnel conveyance system that would protect water supplies from the destruction and saltwater invasion that an earthquake could cause. The tunnels would also allow the state to have increased flexibility in moving freshwater out of the Sacramento River, by allowing them to pump more water during wet years, and scale back pumping during dry years. This flexibility is essential to water management, and it’s a flexibility we do not have today under the current system.
Arguably the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is a major investment for our state, but one worth making. It is high time we upgraded our statewide water delivery infrastructure…doing anything less is turning a blind eye to a looming crisis. Governor Brown has made this proposed project one of his priority focuses for his administration in 2013 and we need to support its careful evaluation and encourage steady progress. Public water agencies have stepped up to the plate and agreed to provide the funding for construction and operation of the new facility because we know the cost of inaction will be far greater. If we delay, the cost of rebuilding the system and making these new investments after a major earthquake could be much higher.
Completion of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan will protect Orange County and the rest of the state from potentially devastating water supply losses, which is why businesses, local governments, water agencies, farmers and more have voiced support for this important project.
To learn more, visit socalwater.org/delta-disrupted and baydeltaconservationplan.com.