Faculty Bulletin Board

Engineering professor outlines threats to state water system at National Academies program

Watler Urie/UCLA Engineering

Jonathan Stewart, professor and chair of the civil and environmental engineering department at UCLA, gave a talk in May on the seismic threats to California’s water transport as part of the the public lecture series Distinctive Voices. The program, presented by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, is designed to increase science literacy.

While many Californians are familiar with the threat of earthquakes, Stewart noted the substantial vulnerability to the state’s water systems from a major earthquake is not widely appreciated.

“I find that in talking to non-experts throughout the state that there isn’t necessarily an awareness of what are the most serious risks, what are the risks that are almost existential for us as a civilization on the West Coast,” Stewart said during talk. “As an earthquake engineer, I worry about things like that. And at the top of my list is the risk to the water system.”

Stewart’s hour-long talk highlighted the efforts of UCLA research conducted in coordination with colleagues at the California Department of Water Resources, other California universities and water agencies, and research centers globally to address these problems.

Stewart outlined the state’s sources of water, such as the Sierra Nevada snowpack, and how they are connected to farmland and population centers that need water the most. He talked about the concept of resilience, which is how quickly society can return to normal following a disaster, and how that applies to the state’s water system. He noted that while Los Angeles’s water systems bounced back quickly from the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, it took New Orleans and the surrounding communities a much longer time to recover following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

He then focused a large part of the talk on the vulnerabilities to the state’s water supply following a major earthquake in the Bay-Delta region. The area is a source of water for Southern California via the California Water Project. The biggest danger to it following an earthquake would be the intrusion of saline water from the San Francisco Bay into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta following massive failures of levees. Finally he returned to Los Angeles and looked at several options to strengthen water supply infrastructure for Southern California given our earthquake risks.

The lecture series program was hosted at the Beckman Center, in Irvine, California.

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