The California Aqueduct is one of three aqueducts bringing fresh water to Los Angeles. Here, where it meets the San Andreas fault, the aqueduct could break and potentially cut off some water supply in a large earthquake.
The California Aqueduct is one of three aqueducts bringing fresh water to Los Angeles. Here, where it meets the San Andreas fault, the aqueduct could break and potentially cut off some water supply in a large earthquake. - 
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Ask people in Los Angeles whether they have extra water on hand in case of a big earthquake, and you usually get a sheepish response. “Nothing, like, substantial,” one 23-year-old L.A. native says. “If water were taken away from me for a week or two, I’d probably be screwed at that point.”

Southern California is at great risk for a catastrophic earthquake. Most everyone living there knows it but, like most humans, they live in denial. It's more fun to watch Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in “San Andreas.” But “San Andreas” the reality is scary enough, according to Lucy Jones, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Pasadena. “So if the earthquake were to happen today, first, we are cutting off all foreign water," she says. Southern California’s biggest earthquake vulnerability, she says, is its water infrastructure. 

First, the aqueducts. Southern California imports well over half its water supply; Los Angeles, between 85 and 90 percent. A trio of monumental aqueducts delivers the water from hundreds of miles away.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct is one of three aqueducts bringing fresh water to Southern California. They all cross the San Andreas fault. This historic silent movie celebrates the aqueduct’s completion in 1913.  Credit: Courtesy Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

But here’s the problem: along a fault line, major earthquakes can shift the ground 20 feet or more. All the aqueducts feeding Southern California have to cross the San Andreas fault. That’s a “massive vulnerability,” Jones says. 

One of those crossings is west of Palmdale, California, about an hour north of Los Angeles. The California Aqueduct carries water to Southern California from  the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, hundreds of miles to the north. The Delta is another vulnerable water system, propped up by fragile earthen levees. Steve Erie, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, says the levee system makes “pre-Katrina New Orleans look like an engineering marvel.”

“All you need is basically a little earthquake up in Northern California, and you’ve got a major disruption in one of the key aqueducts that comes to Southern California," he says.

A 2008 report called “The Shakeout Scenario” relates the story of a hypothetical 7.8 magnitude quake on the southern San Andreas fault. In that scenario, the aqueducts take a big hit. “It wasn’t clear, I think, to the planners that it’s very likely that all of them will break at once,” Jones says. “A big earthquake happens on a long fault, and the most likely distribution actually takes out all of them.”

Still, aqueducts can be repaired, right? And officials at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California say they have six months of emergency water in storage, despite the drought.

But here’s the thing: An earthquake can also damage the old water distribution pipes, particularly old cast-iron pipes. Timothy Strack, city of Riverside fire captain and chairman of the California Seismic Safety Commission, said the real weak link is the water infrastructure under the streets. “The distribution system in a lot of Southern California is a really old system,” Strack said. “You’re only as good as your last mile of pipe. You can have good storage, but if you can’t get the water to the hydrants….”

Marty Adams, senior assistant general manager of the water system at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, says the city has over 7,000 miles of pipe, some of it dating back to the 1920s and earlier. Adams was instrumental in efforts to get water services restored after the Northridge earthquake in 1994. "We had 1,500 or so breaks," he says. "We got everybody back in water by the seventh or eighth day. The question for us is, if you have 'The Big One,' is it going to affect everywhere in the city and all the surrounding cities as well?”

If that happens, he says, “It’s going to be harder for agencies to support each other.”

Charles Scawthorn, a global authority on earthquake damage to infrastructure, said a catastrophic quake on the San Andreas could possibly shut off water to some areas for months. “We anticipate tens of thousands of breaks, and those repairs are going to take a long time," he says. "And in the meantime, you’re not going to have water in your house.”

Scawthorn was in Osaka, Japan, when the disastrous 1995 earthquake hit the city of Kobe, about 20 miles away. Water and power both failed throughout Kobe. “It was like Berlin in April of 1945 or something," he recalls. "Collapsed buildings everywhere. People in the street, huddled in camp chairs with coats around them, in complete darkness.” 

Scawthorn says water was delivered by ship to the Kobe port, then trucked to neighborhoods, where residents filled jugs and bottles and carried water home twice a day. It took three months to fully restore water service.

Enough breaks in a city’s water system can severely damage the economy, especially if ruptured water pipes have hampered fire fighting, damaging homes and businesses. Most businesses can't operate without running water, just like households.

“What we are worried about is that life becomes so miserable that people give up on living here,” seismologist Lucy Jones says. "If we don’t have showers, it’s a significant public health issue. And if people leave, they’re much less likely to be able to return.”

A U.S. Growers warehouse.
A U.S. Growers warehouse. - 

It's impossible to quake-proof all of the region's water infrastructure. The city has begun replacing some of the most corroded pipes, but officials say they can only afford to do so much so fast.Corselli says if a monster quake cut off their water supply, they could lock down and last for a week or so, but there’s a limit. “We would be out of business if we had an extended shutdown,” he says. “It affects shipping. It affects everything.”Business people like Peter Corselli, vice president of U.S. Growers Cold Storage, are acutely aware of water's importance to the economy. U.S. Growers freezes and refrigerates food for customers ranging from Trader Joe’s to Farmer John. It takes about 20 million gallons of water each year to run the company's refrigeration systems. That's water, a drought-aware Corselli adds, that ultimately returns to nature as evaporation.Officials in Southern California believe broken water infrastructure would hurt the regional economy more than other post-quake damage. By one estimate, $50 billion in lost business could occur.

Craig Davis, the DWP's quake expert, is behind a pilot program in the city to install Japanese-made earthquake-resistant water pipes. And Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has an ambitious plan to make the city more resilient to earthquakes.

Money, however, is an issue. Charles Scawthorn likes to tell the story of San Francisco fire Chief Dennis Sullivan in 1905. He urged the city to finance a separate saltwater system to extinguish fires, just in case of a big shaker. “And it was rejected because it was too expensive,” Scawthorn says. The next year, the famous 1906 San Francisco earthquake hit and the city nearly burned to the ground.  


Marketplace is teaming up with Waze to look at transportation infrastructure across the U.S. Click here to find out how you can be a part of our series and report bad infrastructure on your own commute. 

Follow Sarah Gardner at @RadioGardner