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Skelton: Shaky rationale behind Jerry Brown tunnel plan

Maybe I've watched the movie "Chinatown" too many times, but a major justification for digging Gov. Jerry Brown's massive water tunnels just seems suspicious.

Brown's not creating a drought by dumping water in the ocean and poisoning wells, as Noah Cross (John Huston) does in the classic film inspired by Los Angeles' draining of the Owens Valley.

Developer Cross was selling L.A. voters on the need for a water bond to finance an aqueduct and reservoir.

Brown and the water buffaloes — government bureaucrats, corporate farmers, urban expansionists — are peddling their own rationale for a $25-billion re-plumbing of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

A catastrophic earthquake could topple current levees, flood the delta and cut off much of the fresh water supply to Central and Southern California for months, even years, tunnel promoters warn.

Never mind that there's little historical evidence to support the potential for such a calamity.

"If they have to resort to a lie to justify (the project), then the actual justification must be pretty darn weak," says Bob Pyke, a Bay Area consulting engineer who specializes in earthquake protection and is an outspoken critic of Brown's plan.

"Lie" is a bit strong. Let's just call it a stretch, an attention-getting talking point also used in the delta re-plumbing pitch by previous administrations. Nothing stirs Californians like earthquake chatter.

I bought into the earthquake argument for years until it finally dawned on me that I've lived in Sacramento for several decades and never felt — or heard of — a local serious shaker. Indeed, it's one of the pluses in residing here.

Sure, back in 1989 when the Loma Prieta earthquake interrupted the World Series in San Francisco and collapsed an Oakland freeway and part of the Bay Bridge, we felt some rolling 100 miles away. That 6.9 temblor along the San Andreas fault killed 63 people. But there was little damage in the state capital.


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