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A Solution for California's Water Problems
Hint: FEMA's not the answer...

[by K. Lloyd Billingsley] 4/7/06

California's capital, though some 90 miles inland, is barely above sea level. At this writing the water level at the I St. bridge on the Sacramento River, not far from where it is joined by the swiftly flowing American River, is more than 27 feet. The rains continue, and should the levees give out — perhaps nudged by an earthquake or terrorist act — the city could be transformed into New Orleans after Katrina. These damp realities highlight one of California's major problems and recall a possible solution.

California is really two states. Southern California has more people but remains arid most of the year and needs more water. Northern California gets more rain than it needs. In years of heavy rainfall, like this one, the downpour strains the system of aging and sometimes deteriorating levees near Sacramento and in the Delta to the southwest. A system of weirs diverts water around flood-prone Sacramento. In general the system works, but authorities must carefully control releases from Shasta, Oroville, and Folsom dams. A strong case can be made that the system is running at capacity and needs a major upgrade.

K. Lloyd Billingsley
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]

K. Lloyd Billingsley is Editorial Director for the Pacific Research Institute and has been widely published on topics including on popular culture, defense policy, education reform, and many other current policy issues. [go to Billingsley index]

One solution, advanced during the 1980s, is a canal that would divert northern California's abundant water flow around the Delta and send it south. It was called the Peripheral Canal, and it would have doubled the amount of water heading south with a flow of 22,300 cubic feet per second, roughly equivalent to the Hudson River. The plan went down to defeat but conditions have changed since then.

California now gets less water from the Colorado River than it did during the 1980s, prompting a search for new sources as the state's population continues to grow in both the north and south. Flooding has tipped key editorial opinion in the north in favor of the canal.

"The better solution to that dilemma," wrote Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee, "would be to build the long-moribund Peripheral Canal that would carry freshwater from the Sacramento River around the Delta, thereby not only ensuring the quality of State Water Project flows, but undoing the ecological damage that Delta water extractions cause."

The Marysville Appeal-Democrat observed, "Some environmentalists are opposed, but those Californians interested in meeting the needs of the population, rather than shutting down water to supposedly slow growth, need to support this [canal] idea."

Governor Schwarzenegger pledged to make California safe against flooding, and he proposed a $6 billion plan as part of a larger program of infrastructure improvements and public-works projects. That plan is now stalled, but that delay could give legislators a chance to take a fresh look at the Peripheral Canal. With rivers topping out, the need cannot be denied. The problem will not go away when the rain stops and the sun comes out.

California has proven experience in water projects, which like other public works have tradeoffs that legislators need to consider. In this case, these tradeoffs go beyond environmental and cost concerns. For those in northern California in general and Sacramento in particular, the Peripheral Canal would be a lot better than having to rely on FEMA. From the post-Katrina debacle in New Orleans, we know what happens when they get involved. CRO

copyright 2006 Pacific Research Institute




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