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California's Katrina?

The scenario is known as “California’s Katrina.” An earthquake or superstorm causes Gold Rush-era earthen levees to collapse. Saltwater from San Francisco Bay floods the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, displacing half a million lowland Californians, poisoning the water supply for as many as 28 million more who live in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Silicon Valley, and ruining farmland that produces 11 percent of the nation’s agricultural value. The eighth-largest economy in the world could be sunk for months, even years.

There are two competing proposals to avert all this. The first is to bypass the delta with tunnels carrying fresh water to Southern California. The second is to upgrade the existing levees. A bill that would have required an official cost-benefit analysis of these approaches got shot down in the state legislature. Civil engineers at University of California at Davis don’t think the levees can be earthquake-proofed. Delta landowners, fearful the levees will no longer be maintained if the tunnels were built, have refused surveyors access to their land.

In this fight, if someone doesn’t win, everyone will lose.

Tullis is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.
Applegate is a contributing graphics editor for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @evanapplegate.

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