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San Luis Reservoir remains a monument to two political worlds

It's official. The governator has proclaimed California is in a drought. Surprise, surprise!

California has been in a political deadlock drought since about 15 million people ago. I don't remember when California's population reached 20 million, but that was when the politicos of this state should have started planning for today when there are something like 36 million Californians and a state water supply in serious jeopardy.

About the only thing the politicians and bureaucrats can agree upon is that California's water supply system is inadequate. It is broken. Solutions abound; the formerly much maligned and once voter-rejected Peripheral Canal has resurfaced as a solution to the state's Delta water bottleneck. Dam proposals like Temperance Flat above Fresno are now back before the public. There has been talk of raising Shasta Dam. The governor has proposed a multi-billion dollar fix to the broken water system. Who knows if any of these will get anywhere near reality within this or the next century?

Unfortunately, “broken” is a word most Californians cannot grasp when they hear it used to describe the governor-designated water crisis. No one has turned off the water to their homes and businesses, and there is still plenty of food in the supermarkets. It is daunting to get the message across. However, there is one fact that is repeated fairly often in the debate to improve the water system that may be a reality staring Californians in the face.

It evolves around San Luis Reservoir on Highway 152 below Pacheco Pass north of Los Banos, Calif. It is an off-stream reservoir because it is filled not with water from natural runoff, but from water pumped into it from the California Aqueduct and Delta-Mendota Canal that is captured in Northern California.

At capacity it holds about 2 million acre feet of water behind the fourth largest embankment dam in the U.S. It is more than 380 feet high with a crest of more than 18,600 feet. Completed in 1967, it is the largest off-stream reservoir in the U.S. Releases from San Luis feed water to farms for irrigation and cities for people and industries.

It is a major component of both the federal and state water projects.

In all the bantering about the state water crisis and the insatiable demand for water, one potential fallout is often mentioned. It is that pumping from San Luis must be limited to a maximum of 2 feet per day. A drawdown greater than that, and there is the danger of the sides of the dam sloughing off, compromising the integrity of the dam.

Never happen. This is the U.S. — not China. San Luis is no quake dam. Engineers who built San Luis knew what they were doing. Yes, they did, but they did not expect a state water system built for 20 million people to be asked to supply 36 million.

Each time I drive by San Luis I recall more than a decade ago when the backside of the dam sloughed off. The Bureau of Reclamation quickly repaired the dam and there was no danger of the dam collapsing. Yet, it did slough off. That incident is evidence enough that when officials warn it could happen, Californians had better listen.

San Luis will never fail. If engineers decided the dam was in jeopardy from rapid releases, pumping would stop immediately and all efforts would be made to fill the reservoir to preserve the dam's integrity. The result would be a water crisis Californians can only imagine.

San Luis is a monument to bold political leaders long past and sorely missed. It is also a monument today to political ineptitude that has led California to the brink of disaster.

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