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California’s water prospects remain stormy

 LOS ANGELES — The future of California’s water supply is anything but clear. A recent survey from infrastructure firm HNTB Corporation finds that just one-third of the Golden State’s residents realize flooding is a threat, and many Californians aren’t aware levees play a crucial role in preventing them.

"Failure of the earthen levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta alone would not only cause overwhelming devastation to homes and businesses in the region; it also could result in the loss of the state’s biggest source of fresh water for at least a year and a half," said Rob Vining, HNTB national director water resources practice.

And while federal officials have determined the state’s capitol of Sacramento has the highest flood risk of any U.S. city outside of New Orleans, millions of Californians haven’t prepared their homes for such flooding, nor have they considered the depleted water supply that would follow such a disaster.

"Our state’s water issues can be resolved from a technical standpoint," Vining said. "The biggest stumbling blocks are a lack of awareness regarding the severity of the situation and a lack of consensus about what to do."

Before and after the flood
If a major flood event were to occur in California, millions would be affected. And in fact, close to one in two (45 percent) Californians predict that their area would experience severe damage if there was an extreme storm or flooding this year. Perhaps they predict so much destruction because more than half (53 percent) fear their communities are unprepared to deal with such an event.

According to the survey, while a solid minority thinks floods are a big threat to the Golden State, about 25 million Californians have not braced their homes for such a disaster. Specifically, approximately 1 in 3 (34 percent) Californians agree flooding is the biggest natural hazard in the state and about one-third (37 percent) think it’s likely their area will experience an extreme storm or extensive flooding in the next five years. Yet less than 1 in 10 (8 percent) have done something to prepare for extensive flooding. That’s far fewer than those who have prepared for an earthquake (53 percent).

The aftermath of a flood likely would include water shortages throughout the state, yet conserving fresh water isn’t top of mind for many Californians either. Seventy percent of Californians don’t think state officials are doing their part to conserve water. Individual residents haven’t done much to address the situation, either. Fewer than 3 in 10 (28 percent) have ever worried about a fresh water shortage where they live. Less than 1 in 4 (22 percent) have actually taken steps to prepare for a shortage.

Lessons in levees
Much like the devastation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the majority of the destruction facing the state likely would be due to the failure of levees: vital structures many people don’t truly understand. Nearly 2 in 5 (37 percent) of the state’s residents think there are no levees in California. In fact, the Delta has 1,600 miles of levees, some of them having failed 162 times in their history due mostly to intense rains. Levees also are susceptible to damage by earthquakes, mountain snow melt, high tides, foundation movement and burrowing rodents.

Funds not flooding in
Despite many Californians expressing a concern about flood damage, a majority are not ready to chip in dollars and cents to protect against such wreckage. Two in 3 (66 percent) in the state are not willing to pay even a dollar extra in their annual taxes to ensure they are protected.

Citizens do feel strongly, however, that flood or storm management systems should be a locally funded and managed issue. More than half (51 percent) believe that city or state funds should allocated to these effort, rather than federal, private funds or bonds.

And more than 1 in 3 (34 percent) Californians think it would be better to improve existing dams and levees to solve long-term water shortage problems in the state rather than take other actions, such as enforcing stricter conservation measures (25 percent) or creating a new aqueduct system (13 percent).

Geographic differences of opinion
More Northern California residents (11 percent) than Southern Californians (5 percent) have prepared for a big flood. Likewise, more Northern Californians (16 percent) have worried about a levee mishap than those in the southern part of the state (3 percent).

There is even a difference of opinion on whether water issues in the north and south are interconnected and if funding should be used collaboratively (54 percent) to solve them, or if they should be dealt with separately (46 percent). More of those in Southern California (59 percent) than the northern part of the state (46 percent) see water issues as interconnected.

Delta delusions
Such results mirror water resource opinions nationally. A recent national survey from HNTB showed more than two-thirds of Americans (68 percent) do not recognize that flooding is the biggest natural threat to their home or property. Fewer than 1 in 10 (7 percent) have prepared their homes for extensive flooding. And more than 3 in 5 (63 percent) would not put more money toward their annual taxes to help ensure measures are in place to protect their neighborhoods.

Vining says when it comes to California, perhaps residents would be more concerned and ready to address the state’s water resources issues if they better understood where their fresh water comes from and the fragile state of its availability.

"Whether they’ve realized it or not, water from the Delta sustains the health and well-being of most Californians – in the north and the south," Vining said. "It’s own health is at threat. We must move to protect it. Rather than ignoring these issues, we should work together to address our crumbling infrastructure and sustain our natural water resources."

About the survey
HNTB’s America THINKS California water resources survey polled a random nationwide sample of 542 Californians April 29-May 5, 2011. It was conducted by Kelton Research, which used an e-mail invitation and online survey. Quotas were set to ensure reliable and accurate representation of the total California population ages 18 and over. The margin of error is +/- 4.2 percent.