Earthquakes a Danger to Los Angeles Water Supply

by | December 17, 2014 AT 4:10 PM

By Rosanna Xia and Rong-Gong Lin II

Los Angeles gets 88 percent of its water from three major aqueducts, flowing from the Colorado River, Owens Valley and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

But as they make their way into the region, the aqueducts cross the San Andreas fault 32 times.

Officials have long warned that a big earthquake on the San Andreas could destroy key sections of the aqueducts, cutting off the water supply for more than 22 million people in Southern California.

L.A. officials are for the first time taking concrete steps to address the problem. Making the water supply less vulnerable to a huge quake will probably cost billions of dollars, and it is unclear where that money would come from.

Mayor Eric Garcetti has asked for proposals aimed at better protecting the water supply and developing alternatives in case a quake blocks the aqueducts. The ideas include strengthening the waterways and developing an emergency supply for firefighters using ocean water and reclaimed water.

Los Angeles is behind the San Francisco Bay Area in this effort.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District has built backup tunnels, stronger pipes and new waterways to ensure that water continues flowing from the Sierra Nevada even if one of its three main aqueducts is blocked. The efforts have cost more than $350 million, paid by water customers, bonds and government grants.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission built a new water tunnel under San Francisco Bay and installed a pipe that crosses the Hayward fault. The pipe is connected by accordion-like joints that allow it to flex and swing, even as a quake moves the earth in two directions. The projects are part of a $4.8-billion effort funded by a surcharge on water bills.

Compared with other large cities, Los Angeles is critically dependent on water sources far from the city center, said U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Lucy Jones, the mayor's science adviser on earthquake safety.

"We're the first city that's really bet its life on outside water," Jones said. "We have to cross the faults. There's no way to not go over the fault."

A first step would be for the three agencies that manage the Los Angeles, California and Colorado River aqueducts to work together to come up with an earthquake retrofit plan.

Another would be to add existing L.A. fire hydrants to a recycled water pipe system already being planned for certain parts of the city to irrigate golf courses and parks. The "purple pipe" system would be connected to treatment plants that sanitize wastewater. Equipped with quake-proof pipes, the system could act as a backup water system like the one San Francisco built after the 1906 earthquake.

After the 1994 Northridge quake, hydrants ran dry in large parts of the San Fernando Valley, forcing firefighters to switch to water-dropping helicopters using swimming pool water to fight blazes.

The aqueducts have never been tested in a large San Andreas earthquake in Southern California. The last time the fault unleashed a Big One in the Southland was in 1857, when a magnitude 7.9 earthquake hit. All three major aqueducts were built after that earthquake.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct, built a century ago by William Mulholland, crosses the San Andreas fault through the 5-mile-long Elizabeth Tunnel under the mountains north of Santa Clarita. Experts said the San Andreas fault can move as much as 33 feet in a big earthquake and could slice the tunnel, dam it up and collapse some of its concrete sections.

The most expensive solutions include building a wider, stronger tunnel; another is to use electricity to pump water over the mountains toward L.A. But the Department of Water and Power hasn't had the resources to extensively study various retrofit options until now, said Craig Davis, the utility's water system and earthquake engineering expert.

The department has already begun sketching out an interim solution _ placing a 3-foot-wide strong plastic pipe through the tunnel. Even if the tunnel collapses, it's hoped the plastic pipe might keep enough of the passageway intact to keep some water flowing through, Davis said.

Davis warns that the Edmund G. Brown California Aqueduct could be pulled apart by the San Andreas fault in the Palmdale area, allowing large volumes of water to escape.

The 1940s-era Colorado River Aqueduct has a different problem. A section of the aqueduct in the mountain pass west of Palm Springs could be lifted 13 feet in a San Andreas quake, stopping the water flow. There's no backup pumps there to keep the water moving toward Los Angeles, Davis said.

Representatives of the California and Colorado River aqueducts said they have been studying the seismic vulnerabilities of their systems.

"There should be a serious dialogue among the agencies that are responsible for the three sources of water to Southern California," said Thomas O'Rourke, a Cornell University engineering professor and longtime seismic consultant for the water department. "Sometimes it's very difficult to go beyond those institutional barriers ... Somebody just has to take it up."

Although authorities have been studying the seismic risks for many years, it was only in about 2008 that water officials began to understand that all three aqueducts could be choked off in the same magnitude-7.8 San Andreas earthquake, based on the research Jones and a large research team published that year.

O'Rourke said the consequences of failure would far exceed the bill to prevent calamity.

"The price tag for protecting the incoming water supply might not be as high as people think," he said, pointing to the projects already completed in the Bay Area.

(c)2014 Los Angeles Times