PD Editorial: Don’t count on Sonoma Water after an earthquake

Sonoma Water has been preparing for an earthquake for more than a decade, but work remains. Residents need to make sure they have their own emergency plan ready.

By now, everyone has heard the horror stories about what Sonoma County will look like after a major earthquake. Basic services like water, sewer and power will go offline, roads will be trashed, and relief efforts could take days or weeks to arrive.

Sonoma Water provides mostly Russian River water to more than 600,000 people in Sonoma and Marin counties. The public agency doesn't sell directly to consumers. It's more like a wholesaler that sells to providers in nine cities and special districts. Those providers in turn sell water to residents and businesses. The providers are the cities of Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati, Petaluma and Sonoma; the town of Windsor; and Valley of the Moon Water District, Marin Municipal Water District and North Marin Water District.

If Sonoma Water goes offline, it will take down all of those districts. That's one of the reasons that the Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury gave the system a close look.

After a disaster, Sonoma Water will try to restore service as quickly as possible. The agency already has installed isolation valves so that it can cut off water around breaks and has some emergency water reserves in place. It estimates that water service could be restored in as few as three days after a moderate earthquake.

The grand jury concluded that was an overly rosy prediction. For example, rapid repairs would rely on a handful of long-term employees with deep institutional knowledge, and their expertise hasn't been adequately documented for other staff. If they aren't available after a quake, restoration work would slow tremendously.

Getting repair parts also might be a problem. The grand jury found that the current inventory of parts is insufficient and that the agency lacks an accurate record of what's on the shelves. Meanwhile, some tank maintenance and other system upgrades have fallen behind schedule.

All of which means that Sonoma Water has done a decent job, but not a stellar one. The agency would do well to follow the half-dozen recommendations in the grand jury report.

At least the water agency is doing better than the rest of Sonoma County government. The grand jury found that the county has significant maintenance issues with its buildings and no clear plan for paying for or even prioritizing repairs.

For the more than half-million residents of the region who rely on Sonoma Water, the warning is clear: Prepare for the worst. When the next major earthquake strikes the region, no one should count on government coming to the rescue immediately. Maybe Sonoma Water is right and will restore service in three days. Do you really want to bet your family's lives on it?

Residents can prepare for the worst with an emergency kit, and water is one of the easiest things to add. Experts recommend one gallon per person per day, so if a family of four wants to have enough on hand for those three optimistic days, 12 gallons is a start.

And keep the pressure up on public agencies to continue making progress on preparing for an earthquake.

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