Southern California's Water Supply Threatened By Next Major Quake As if the drought weren't bad enough, four of the area's aqueducts sit on the San Andreas Fault. Engineers are working to protect the water system against the next major earthquake.

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Southern California's Water Supply Threatened By Next Major Quake

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Southern California gets most of its water from four aqueducts that flow from the north. All of them cross the San Andreas Fault. That means millions of people are just one major earthquake away from losing access to water for a year or more. From member station KPCC, Sanden Totten reports.

SANDEN TOTTEN, BYLINE: All right, so I'm walking up a hill right now in Lake Hughes, Calif. near the Los Angeles Aqueduct. And somewhere beneath me there's the San Andreas Fault, a fault that when it moves next could move up to 20 feet, effectively cutting this aqueduct in two. That is trouble.

CRAIG DAVIS: It's a really concerning issue for the city of Los Angeles.

TOTTEN: That's Craig Davis. He's an engineer with the LA Department of Water and Power, which oversees the LA Aqueduct. Research shows that a magnitude 7.8 quake on the San Andreas could sever this and every other local aqueduct at once, cutting off more than 70 percent of the water sustaining Southern California.

DAVIS: Which is, depending on what counties you look at, is somewhere in the order of 18 to 22 million people. That's a very large number.

TOTTEN: Studies show it would take a year or more to rebuild the waterways. During that time the state's economy would lose roughly $53 billion. That's bad news for Southern California companies like Disney, Mattel and DirecTV. But here's the rub - there's no way to bring water from the north without crossing this fault, so engineers like Craig Davis are looking for other solutions.

DAVIS: So I'm holding a short piece of a high-density polyethylene pipe.

TOTTEN: Davis says the LA Aqueduct crosses the San Andreas Fault in a large underground tunnel that'll shift and crumble in a big quake. But this pipe could survive.

DAVIS: You can almost collapse this pipe in its entirety and still get water through this. And there are some examples of ductile pipes in similar types of fault rupture events in Turkey that actually did this.

TOTTEN: LA Water and Power wants to place this pipe in the existing tunnel to keep some water flowing after a major quake. It's similar to what the San Francisco Bay Area did after its 1989 earthquake. Abby Figueroa with the utility district there says engineers placed a reinforced pipe on sliding cradles inside a tunnel.

ABBY FIGUEROA: We made it so that the pipeline could shift with the movement of the earth, and that way it would minimize any damage.

TOTTEN: That project was paid for by a surcharge added to local water bills. Los Angeles is still looking for a way to pay for its $10 million plan, but shoring up tunnels is only part of the answer.

OK, so tell me about this water in my hands right now.

GORDON JOHNSON: This is water from Northern California. It comes from the Sierras and it is very pure water.

TOTTEN: That's Gordon Johnson with Southern California's Metropolitan Water District. We're in a boat on the Diamond Valley Lake reservoir, about two hours south of Los Angeles. The Water District also oversees one of the region's four aqueducts. If it's destroyed, this man-made lake will come in handy.

JOHNSON: This is Southern California's largest surface water reservoir. This reservoir is intended to supply about six months' worth of water supply.

TOTTEN: The Water District also wants to stockpile construction supplies so crews can quickly build a new waterway after a disaster. But Craig Davis with LA Water and Power says it's not easy getting these big projects off the ground.

DAVIS: But because we are effectively sitting on a time bomb, we need to keep that in mind and get this done as soon as possible.

TOTTEN: Davis just hopes it won't take a major quake for officials to find the money and the motivation to get things done. For NPR News I'm Sanden Totten in Los Angeles.

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