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Lies, damned lies & Twin Tunnels
dennis Wyatt web
Dennis Wyatt

In the Ohlone Wilderness south of Pleasanton is a 220-foot-tall reminder that the past may catch up with California.

Calaveras Dam - built by the City of San Francisco 92 years ago - sits next to an active earthquake fault. Downstream are Fremont and other communities along Alameda Creek where 300,000 people live who are considered at risk in a major quake.

The dam's base is comprised of loose earth from a previous dam that had failed earlier in the 20th century. It was back in the day when quake knowledge was just barely out of the Stone Age. Accepted engineering practices at the time didn't take into account loose rock compacted with soil that was used in the base of an unhealthy number of dams at the time could liquefy in a major tremblor. As such, it could cause the upper portion of the dam to cave in and fail.

The San Francisco Utilities Commission is in the middle of a major redo of the dam after the state Division of Safety of Dams in 2001 ordered the reservoir to be kept at 40 percent of its 100,000 acre-foot capacity to reduce the potential of a collapse during a major quake.

The replacement project is now four years behind schedule - it won't be done until 2019 - and is costing $800 million, double the initial estimate.

Now for the fun part. Federal and state safety experts contend nearly 75 percent of California's 1,585 dams are considered to be at high or significant risk of failing. The most likely time they are expected to fail is during an earthquake.

This begs the question: Why is Sacramento - along with major Los Angeles and corporate farming interests led by Gov. Jerry Brown - so hell-bent on creating more major water infrastructure that California lacks the ability of political will to maintain? The Twin Tunnels at $16 billion and counting is akin to spending tons of money on fancy plumbing fixtures such as claw-toed bath tubs, stone sinks, and designer toilets for your house while your water pipes are showing signs of bursting at any second and the roof is nearing the point it will collapse.

Perhaps the dam safety issue is overdrawn. Maybe politicians are tone deaf.

Or maybe they are what they are - politicians who kowtow to special-interests and use fear to govern instead of living up to our collective fantasy of being elected statesmen.

The main premise behind the Twin Tunnels is that the 100-year-old plus Delta levees that are the linchpin to California's elaborate waterworks that the majority of the state's residents, farms, and businesses are dependent upon will collapse in a major quake. This would leave Los Angeles without one of its three major sources of water for six months or so.

Here are the problems with that scenario:

While there are faults as in most everyplace in California, there has never been a major active fault identified in the Delta.

In previous major quakes in the nearby Bay Area, the levees moved and did not fail just as engineers want buildings such as the tallest building west of the Mississippi River to do - the 73-story, 1,100-foot Grand Wilshire Grand Central that just opened in downtown Los Angeles.

The levees serve other purposes critical for California besides keeping petunias watered in Beverly Hills.

Given the levees were built on what some might call the Dark Ages of engineering in the 19th century compared to what we know today, wouldn't the right decision be to rebuild them just like San Francisco is doing with the Calaveras Reservoir?

Or, if the fear whipped up to justify the Twin Tunnels is even half true, why hasn't the state ordered water flows through the Delta to be reduced to 60 percent of capacity just like they have done with Calaveras Reservoir until a replacement dam is in place?

The answer is simple: It's called situation political ethics or, if you prefer, situational hysteria to justify making one water recipient superior over all others regardless of legal water rights or the needs of the Delta eco-system.

If Brown and the rest of the pro-Twin Tunnels crowd are correct about levee safety, why not repair the levees first, given there are 1,000 miles of them that serve other purposes besides irrigating corporate farm fields and filling swimming pools in the San Fernando Valley?

Even if you say to hell with the levees, consider the following:

• At least $300 million is being spent on emergency spillway repairs at Oroville Dam.

• Subsidence is reducing the California Aqueduct's operational capacity to take water from the Delta to the south state yet not a penny is being spent to fix that problem.

• No money is being spent to increase storage - such as raising Shasta Dam - that would actually increase the water supply as opposed to the Twin Tunnels that Brown and supporters say won't generate a drop of new water for the Southland or corporate farmers.

So why spend $16 billion on the Twin Tunnels that realistically, when the state gets through, will be more like $30 billion plus borrowing costs? The answer is simple. In droughts or other catastrophes Californians won't stand together. There will be two classes of people - Southern California water users and corporate farmers on the unaffected side and the rest of California that will be burdened with whatever suffering takes place on the other side.

In a nutshell, the Twin Tunnels destroys California cohesiveness much the same way placer mining destroyed hills and mountains.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.