Climate change: Water woes haunt Californians

California would sidestep most of the effects of climate change.

The state already is hot and dry, and its coastal areas, with some exceptions, are blessed with some elevation, enabling them to avoid disaster should the seas rise significantly. But one region, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, faces distinct peril, says climate risk analyst Richard Snyder.

"You'll have a problem," says Snyder who spoke at the 2012 International Green Industry Hall of Fame event in Fresno. "Water and climate change are big issues, especially in California."

The Delta is a complex network of levees and channels and the source of water for two of three people in the state. Fresh water from the Sierra Mountains is sent by way of a massive aqueduct and a sophisticated and energy-intensive network of pumps down through the San Joaquin Valley and up over the Grapevine pass to Los Angeles.

When the levee breaks

Should that aging network of levees fail, disaster would strike. Years of farming the roughly half million acres caused large swaths of the peat-rich soil to drop, so that now much if it is below sea level. Some more than 20 feet below. Salt water intrusion would poison the Delta fresh water source, causing extreme economic cost on a scale hard to imagine.

Snyder, a professor at University of California Davis, says Sacramento, the state's capital, would definitely have a problem. Some parts of the city are no more than 20 feet above sea level.

Drought is another probability of climate change. And California would suffer greatly in an extended dry spell, Snyder says. "If you have a 100-year drought, there's no hope," he says.

A decade-long drought would be more manageable. But still no walk in the park. "The secret is to be prepared," Snyder says.

Politics presents a problem

However, politics, and especially the politics of water, is turbulent in California. Always has been. Agriculture would be the first casualty of a water shortage, pummeling the San Joaquin Valley economy.

Heidi Cullen, a senior research scientist with nonprofit Climate Central, spells out the Delta's woes in her book "The Weather of the Future." "The Delta has far more in common with New Orleans that with Hollywood," she writes. "The odds are roughly two in three that during the next fifty years either a large flood or a seismic event will affect the Delta."

Even without such disasters, rising sea level will bring more salt into the Delta and increase the cost of water, Cullen says.

The situation doesn't look good. And attempting a political fix in California is described as a nightmare.

An urgent fix is needed

James Hansen, climate scientist and director of NASA's Goddard Center, says delay shouldn't be an option. He co-wrote a new report, "Scientific Case for Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change to Protect Young People and Nature," which says humanity is the dominant force driving atmospheric composition and the climate.

"We must transition rapidly to a post-fossil fuel world of clean energies," the report says. But that can't be done without public and government support, the report says. But that "requires widespread recognition that a prompt orderly transition to the post fossil fuel world" is the best choice for avoiding disasters like the one that faces the Delta.

A solution may be tough to find. A line in 1974 film noir "Chinatown," which uses California water politics as its central theme, explains the importance: "Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water."

But the difficulties surrounding water, climate change and the potentially tumultuous mix indicate a bleaker outlook, something like that faced by Jack Nicholson's character Jake Gittes in the movie: "Forget it Jake. It's Chinatown."

And let's hope the Delta can avoid the destruction wrought by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 that destroyed homes and the agricultural economy of the Mississippi Basin.

That flood was chronicled by blues duo Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, but I know the Led Zep version with John Bonham's drums a whole lot better.

Photo: Sacramento's Yellow Bridge.