A Young Professional’s Perspective
on the State Water System
By Steve Soth
Editor’s Note: Steve Soth is a member of AWWA and a young professional in the CA-NV Section, and
currently seeking a career in the water industry. This is a summary of Steve’s tour of the State Water
project during September 2012, organized by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
It’s 4:00 AM, September 14, 2012, and my
alarm begins to blare at me. Something is
at risk at the moment. What could possibly
be at stake? Quite simply, our future.
Yours, mine, and ours.
When we consider the future, there is
probably a laundry list of issues that we
can easily ramble off. But for the moment,
this is simply a focus on water, the thread
of life. Mark Twain is known to have said:
“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for
fightin!” But alas, I don’t intend to start
a fight. Rather, I intend to present a fair
discussion regarding our future. I’d like to
consider the where, what, and why. But
take a closer look at these random where,
what, and why items—these all involve the
California Delta Region, impact the entire
state of California, and are related to water.
Where are we? Roughly half of California,
and well over half the state’s population
is impacted by water shortage, especially
Southern California. We don’t have enough
of it locally and need to pipe it in from
quite a distance, and after all, Southern
California’s climate ranges from semi-arid
to true desert.
Currently, the Sacramento Delta covers an
area of nearly 500,000 acres and includes one
of the largest wildlife refuges in the entire US.
The impact we have had on our environment
cannot be neglected in this region. Waterfowl,
Delta levees are often little better than earthen berms. Oroville Dam provides a great scenic view.
10 SOURCE winter 2013
native flora and fauna, and soil profiles have
been severely and nearly irrevocably altered
due to land development, agriculture use,
water diversions, and road construction.
What are we? We are successful. Yes, and
that’s not being brash. In a traditional
perspective we can see how successful we
have been taming our resources. To attain our
success, we have altered landforms, cleared
vegetation, mapped and tapped water
sources. It is estimated that 95% of Delta
lands have been impacted by local agriculture
and population expansion in the region. We
are, however, learning from our mistakes and
creating a new legacy that will restore some
of the damage left by our expansion. We are
identifying and clearing out invasive species
and allowing some areas to lay fallow and
heal themselves over time. Simultaneously,
population growth is continuing to move
upward, especially within the (CA-NV)
region, placing a higher demand on our
existing resources. We need food, water,
shelter, and transportation, and will need to
continue to manage our resources better or
we will put our future at risk by our activities.
We are at risk. The same infrastructure
that provided fresh drinking water and a
foundation for developing safe communities
is degrading. We have an aging infrastructure
originally built nearly 100 years ago, and we
have learned it isn’t aging quite so gracefully.
Let’s consider the most noticeable infrastructure
feature in the Delta, the levee
system. The levee system is basically a
physical berm structure and categorized as
one of two types—Project (Federal gov-
ernment involvement during construction)
and Non-Project (typically constructed by
local farming). Added to the factors of
infrastructure aging is the threat of earthquake.
News following Hurricane Katrina
in New Orleans, Louisiana, is an example
of what a failed levee system can look like.
Several islands in the Delta have developed
as communities. Isleton is a small community
in the Delta, which flooded in 1972 due to
a small seepage at the base of the levee left
unrepaired. Non-project levees have not
been retrofitted nor designed to withstand
an earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter
scale. At several points along the entire levee
system, sea (water) level in the adjacent
canal is up to 20 feet above the surrounding
land and held back by a man-made rock/soil
berm. A breach of this system would create a
health problem lasting months (if not years)
as high salinity sea water can potentially
contaminate domestic water sources.
Since we’re considering California, let’s not
forget the why. Why? Well, this is where it
gets interesting. Approximately two thirds of
the state would be impacted by a major bay
area earthquake (approximately 6.7 on the
Richter scale) simply by either a failed levee