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The State Water Project Is Going Through a Classic Midlife Crisis

It’s been 57 years since voters approved the State Water Project, one of two major water conveyance systems in California, and the project is in need of big and small fixes, writes Tom Philp of Metropolitan Water District.

Written by Tom Philp Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
In this photo taken Oct. 14, 2010, water flows down the California Aqueduct near the Central Valley town of Patterson, Calif. The aqueduct is settling in places, one of several age-related infrastructure problems facing the State Water Project.Rich Pedroncelli, AP

My age begins with a “five,” so on this rare issue, I speak with a degree of authority.

I know a midlife crisis when I see one.

I see one in the State Water Project, approved by voters 57 years ago.

Like many midlife crises, some changes are needed. Repairs will be made. Some makeovers may be extreme.

And as it all unfolds, perhaps there is some value at looking at the centerpiece of California water infrastructure, from top to bottom, in a semi-human manner.

Let us start with the sagging.

The California Aqueduct is the ribbon of concrete transporting water hundreds of miles from Northern California to the Southland. In Kern County, there are spots along the route in places like Buena Vista and Lost Hills where the aqueduct is “settling,” as the engineers call it.

This is not a function of groundwater subsidence, which is unrelated to aging. This has to do with the unsettled soils surrounding the aqueduct and the original design that may not have fully anticipated having an aqueduct on top of some giggly geology in Kern.

The engineering solution will be a relatively minor makeover – the equivalent of a tummy tuck combined with the proper foundation. It is hardly surprising that a water highway that is hundreds of miles long will reveal its weak spots over time.

In the Delta, there is a man-made gateway to the man-made forebay where the water is lifted into the California Aqueduct. It is now undergoing the oral surgery equivalent of crown replacement. Concrete at the base of the gateway came loose as the diversions were pulling maximum supplies into the forebay this winter. Nearly 50 years for the original crown is arguably not bad.

Meanwhile above the Delta on the Feather River, there is nothing trite about the travails at Oroville Dam. Complete reconstruction surgery appears to be required for the injured main spillway, whose troubles were as spectacular as they were scary. A small battalion of engineers from various state and federal agencies will also identify the appropriate cure for the emergency spillway. For a few hours in February, it seemed perilously close to failure as water for the first time was flowing over it, prompting an evacuation downstream and increased flows down the injured main spillway until it could handle all the necessary releases.

The final diagnosis may turn out to be an imperfect spillway design, imperfect spillway inspections, imperfect maintenance or a combination of all three. Regardless of the outcome of the forensic evaluation identifying the cause of the incident, age will most certainly be a factor.

Last but not least are the existing intakes for the State Water Project in the Delta and how to handle their aging problems. A version of a double coronary bypass is under development in the state-federal process known as California WaterFix.

Two new twin tunnel pipelines would transport supplies captured by three new intakes in the northern Delta to the forebay in the southern Delta (just beyond the site of the crown replacement) that feeds the California Aqueduct. This would allow the system to access supplies in two locations very far apart, the new ones in the northern Delta, the existing ones 30 miles away in the south.

Why a Delta double bypass? Dividing the water captured in the northern Delta into twin tunnels rather than one would improve reliability and help restore a healthy ecosystem.

How many lungs do you have? System redundancy was not invented by California WaterFix. It has a tried and true history of engineering wisdom and success.

Meanwhile, we all age.



When the State Water Project’s various engineering feats reach their 60th birthday, some may be very different than when they were 50. Will the “crisis” be over? Hopefully we are taking actions in the months ahead so that the next generation of aging will be more graceful than the many aches and pains of today.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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