This summer marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy and Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown (father of the present Governor) going to Los Banos to break ground for the San Luis Dam. Congressman Jim Costa compares the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and Governor Jerry Brown’s twin-peripheral tunnel vision to the San Luis project.
Costa credits them all with bold thinking and vision. “Without the San Luis Dam and reservoir,” he writes, “the Westside of our Valley would have remained dusty and barren as the economy limped along rather than that same area booming and laboring to feed our nation.”
Among other crops, the Westside has produced a lot of cotton and a lot of almonds for export, not exactly feeding our nation. Meanwhile, irrigating this land also gave California toxic run-off, the tragedy at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge, and reduced water quality in the South Delta, trading a boom in one area for busts in others.
By increasing requirements for low-paid, seasonal labor, it gave the Westside double-digit unemployment and increased poverty.
As with water projects all over the arid West, these “visionaries” turn out to have been short-sighted. One important feature of the San Luis project they overlooked was that they were building a big earthen dam over an earthquake fault.
As we pointed out in our August 7 newsletter, the San Luis (B. F. Sisk) Dam is located in a seismically active area over the Ortigalita Fault. There are other faults nearby, including the San Andreas and the Calaveras. During the past five years, the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) has been doing a Corrective Action Study to figure out how to prevent an earthquake-caused dam failure that “could inundate hundreds of square miles including the town of Santa Nella, about 7 miles of Interstate 5, and numerous farms and houses along the San Joaquin River including some areas of Stockton.”
San Joaquin County’s Dam Emergency Plan, which includes dams throughout the county, has a timeline for a San Luis Dam inundation. The plan estimates that within five days, flood waves from a San Luis Dam failure would have inundated areas including South Manteca, Clifton Court Forebay, Southwest and West Stockton, and eight Delta islands. The plan estimates that 165,000 people would be threatened by this flooding.
The kind of “bold thinking” that gave us the San Luis Dam, and wants to give us peripheral tunnels, looks a lot like arrogance.