Tag Archives: floods


( – promoted by Robert in Monterey)

Rain falling on the skylight and roof, taps fluttering in waves.

The cool wet smell of new rain, so unfamiliar after the long dry summer and fall.

The drops of rain hanging heavily like dew on the leaves of plants, and the eaves in front of my window.

The long slow hiss of car tires on wet roads in the distance.

The sigh of relief, the hope that maybe this dry spell is safely over.

California is a bipolar state when it comes to water, doubly so here in the axle-pivot of the Central Valley. One year the rains never seem to end, and the century-old levees groan with the floodwaters, suburban sprawl waiting nervously on the other side of those earthen mounds for news of a breach, sandbags at the ready. Everyone pontificates for the cameras on the need for better flood protection.

The next year, the interminable waiting for that one big storm to materialize eventually withers into acceptance that the rain is not going to come, the forests dry to a crisp, reservoirs recede, leaving bathtub rings – memories of old storms – in their wake. Tentative conservation preparations are quietly made without jinxing things by announcing an official drought, everything contingent on how the next year goes. Everyone pontificates for the cameras on the need for water storage.

In truth, both flood and drought are tied together as a consequence of both our bipolar El Niño/La Niña climate and the geography of the Central Valley, the Sierras and the Delta. Before American settlement and subsequent terraforming – the draining of swamps, the diverting of water to canals, the erection of levees and dams – the valley had a certain syncopated rhythm to it:

As the rains fell, the seasonal wetlands of the valley, fed by the streams of the Sierra and coastal range alike, pooled and flooded into a shifting network of marshes and temporary lakes; in wet years it would occasionally turn the Delta into a huge inland sea, until the water eventually drained out to the Bay. Local Native American tribes such as the Patwin made boats out of bundled tule reeds and paddled around in them, fishing in the teeming waters. As spring came, flocks of migrating birds, of which the ones you see along the Causeway are but a shadow, stopped by to rest in those waters. As the spring rains finally subsided, the wetlands dried into fields of tule grass, and the flow of the rivers slowed, fed at lower levels by the Sierra meltwaters. The Patwin retreated up the creeks back into the valleys of the coastal range, as the searing Central Valley summers began, and  their sources of water dried up.

When American settlers remade the Valley to suit the needs of a sedentary population, large scale agriculture and industry, a fundamental tension between a static civilization and a dynamic ecosystem came into being. Rivers were straightened and rerouted to respect property lines, roads and cities, valley clay was pushed up into levees to control floods, and in so doing the rivers lost much of their ability to cushion the force of a spring flood. The islands of the Delta were walled in and converted to agriculture, while the shifting flow of waters that made it such a rich ecosystem were diverted by canals over the centuries to water the fields of the San Joaquin valley and the lawns of Southern California, and in so doing have brought the Delta to ecological collapse. The rivers of the foothills, both in the coastal range and in the Sierra Nevada, were stopped up, their valleys turned into lakes and their waters diverted to cities and farms, and in so doing decimated the numbers of migrating fish such as salmon, which once choked the Sacramento River with their yearly migration to their mountain spawning grounds. The new cities and farms that these changes enabled created sunk demands not only on the water itself, but also on the cost of maintaining an ever-increasing network of protections and public works, so as to freeze the landscape in accordance with maps and city planning, and in so doing made the very dynamic equilibrium of the past hydrulic system into an expensive problem to be solved.

I am not an idealist here; we cannot go back to the status quo ante, not with everything that has been built, not with all the people who now depend upon that infrastructure’s maintainance. But we can at least admit that our insecurity with regard to the weather – putting aside for a moment the even greater threat of human-created climate change and its consequences for our civilization and ecosystem – is in large part a dilemma of our own making. We froze the landscape, we diverted the rivers, we remade the very lay of the land in service of the settling of California; and yet imperfectly, as the erratic swing of flood and drought reminds us, humbles us, from time to time.

As we debate how to best manage this environment that we have shaped for ourselves, it would be wise to consider the unintended consequences of our previous rounds of terraforming and meddling, and make our future steps with more care. Static systems will eventually collapse under the relentless dynamism of the natural world, or else require massive amounts of time, money and effort to defend. Would it not be far better to try to work with those natural processes than continue stacking stones and driftwood across streams like children, and then throwing tantrums when they do not hold back the water?

I am not convinced that the solution to California’s perennial water wars is another round of dams, canals, and demands on already-faltering hydraulic systems and fragile ecosystems. If the Delta collapses, the waves will lap upon the Bay Area, the Central Valley and Southern California alike. Better in the long run to first work on reducing our profligate use of water, start treating it like the precious resource that it is, and try to find ways of living within our ecological and hydrological means. First and foremost, that entails accepting that we live in a flood-to-drought climate as a normal state, and not treating it like a unexpected crisis when the rain falls, or doesn’t fall. California has not properly accounted for its water, and working out a sustainable way forward should require sacrifice and accomodation from everyone who makes use of it, urban residents, industry, and farmers alike. Noone should go bust because of the changes, and yet noone should fail to put their shoulders to the wheel either. It is time to face the reality that it is pragmatic to build systems with the environment in mind, and the height of pie-in-the-sky idealism to assume that we are omnipotent to force whatever changes that we want in the natural world without consequence.

The sound of the rain tonight is calming, reassuring, but it should not lull us back into complacence.

Central Valley Water News Roundup + Fabian Nuñez haiku

(originally at surf putah – promoted by Brian Leubitz)

One of the upsides to the unusually dry winter and spring that we’ve had this past year in California is that it gives us a bit of much-needed breathing room to try and figure out how we’re going to avoid becoming Katrina West the next time the floodwaters get high enough. My fears back in the fall about the levees not being repaired by the time the rain started falling in earnest thankfully proved wrong. That being said, water control is always an issue in this state, and the scale and complexity of the problems we face pretty much guarantee that it’s always on the table for discussion, somewhere or another. In recent water-related news:

West Sacramento’s levees have seepage problems of the same sort that threaten the houses sitting behind the Natomas levees, and thus might not be as stable as previously assumed. The good news is that those problems were discovered when the city proactively started taking core samples from its levees. Far better to find out in advance than just keep building houses behind them and find out when the levee blows in the middle of the night in some winter storm.

On the west side of Yolo County, I agree with County Supe Matt Rexroad that having a flood control expert on hand is a good thing for Yolo County and the city of Woodland, even if we might not necessarily agree on the best means to solve the problem. Woodland got pretty close to flooding last year, it’s a good idea to have a full-time expert working on it.

Moving south towards the delta,  the Chronicle reported a couple of days ago that Judge Frank Roesch has ordered that the pumps in Tracy that send water to East Bay and SoCal communities and farms either find a way to operate them without killing endangered species or shut down. This is on top of the ongoing discussions of how to come up with a framework to deal with the gordian knot of delta levees, water exports and floodplain development that Cal Fed hasn’t been able to solve.

Going east towards the foothills, Bayne of Blog recently blogged about Sacramento Congressman Dan Lungren moving towards calling for to be drained and restored. Usually a cause of environmentalist groups going back to ur-naturalist John Muir himself, the conservative Republican congressman seems to honestly be interested in the possibility of restoring the scenic valley in his district. While San Francisco officials oppose the move, UCD science blog Egghead reports that a recent Masters Thesis by UCD Geology grad student Sarah Null argues that the same water flow could be maintained without the dam.

While it’s not actually Central Valley levees under discussion, meterology blogger Jeff Masters over at Weather Underground has a couple of posts up (1, 2)reviewing what went wrong with New Orleans’ levee system that are worth a read. The Army Corps of Engineers do not come out looking very good, to say the least. Always worth a read.

Finally (ok, this last bit’s a bit of a stretch, but the rice is grown with irrigation, so it kind of relates), Hank Shaw from the Stockton Record has coverage of the pre-match trash-haiku’ing between Mike Villines and Fabian Nuñez about the upcoming Great Sushi Roll-off. Nuñez’s haiku?

Sushi challenge on
The public very happy
We aren’t naked chefs

Land-locked Clovis man
Makes worst Republican Rice
Since Condoleeza

Núñez sushi wins
Feral cats at Capitol
Reject Villines’ swill

Who knew Fabian was a poet?

Still Working On Those Levees…

(The levees should see some money out of the bond packages. Problem is that we have to wait for the legislature and governor to allocate those funds. That must be the top priority. Also, check out wu ming’s blog, Surf Putah – promoted by SFBrianCL)

An article in yesterday’s Chronicle suggests that we could be in for another nail-biter of a winter storm season. While the bond measures thankfully passed, the funds won’t be available until next June, while repairs on last year’s erosion damage are still ongoing, and running out of time before the rains start:

More than one month into California’s flood season, engineers are scrambling to repair 71 deeply eroded spots that water officials worry could lead to collapse of the delta’s levee system, which protects more than 500,000 people and property valued at $47 billion.

The nearly unprecedented repair efforts — such work is generally not done this close to winter, when weather is bad and water levels high — come after the state spent the summer and $176 million strengthening 33 other sites it feared could lead to levee breaches when battered by winter storms.

“I expected at this point in time to be patting everybody on the back saying we solved the erosion problems for the year,” said Les Harder, deputy director for public safety for the state Department of Water Resources. “Instead, we now have another 71 to do. We’re actually further behind than when we started.”

High floodwater levels in both the Sacramento and San Joaquin watersheds lasted well into the late spring, making both surveys below the waterline and repairing storm damage difficult. To make things worse, we still don’t really know what the levee system is actually made of, although the state hs begun frantically taking core samples from urban levees (the government of West Sac had the sense earlier this fall to start doing the job on its own, instead of waiting for the state to get around to it).

At least Lois Wolk is looking a bit ahead to dealing with the root cause of the problem (ie. sprawl in the floodplain), with land use restrictions:

Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Davis, whose district includes major parts of the delta, favors a similar distribution formula where areas of highest population and risk get first attention. But she also insists land-use rules need to change.

“We need to create good policies that don’t put more people at risk,” Wolk said. “Development continues where it should not be — behind these eroding piles of dirt. No one should be under the illusion that everything is fine.”

Of course, the Water Reclamation Board got fired by Schwarzeneggar last summer when they made the same suggestions on reining in development in the floodplain, and were replaced with developer-friendly types. Here’s hoping Arnold v. 5.0 will pay attention a little better than v 3.0 did, before Natomas or Rio Vista looks like this:

In related news, the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency is considering charging fees on urban development and using the revenue to purchase development rights on adjacent ag land in Yolo and Sutter counties to prevent development in the floodplain, in hopes of preserving the current hydraulic system in a manner similar to the Yolo Bypass. By preserving ag land adjacent to the Sacramento River, floodwaters past a certain level would be drawn away by weirs and other waterworks, and allowed to flood fields in exchange for payments to farmers. The idea sounds good, and the fact that Sacramento is pursuing it is great news for Yolo County, which as a small county simply doesn’t have the resources to fund the same sort of easements or flood protection. In the future, if we’re smart, government will do more of this sort of thing, thinking in terms of hydrological watersheds instead of artificial county boundaries.

In his book The Retreat of the Elephants about Chinese premodern environmental history, Historian Mark Elvin makes a strong case for the dangers of relying upon massive levee systems to defend urban centers, and the problems that occur when manmade defenses against water encourage more development behind  levees, when combined with the inevitable decline of those hydraulic systems over time, and the natural propensity for rivers to silt up, change course, erode their banks, etc. Before an area is developed and levees established, it is easier to set aside open areas such as the Yolo Bypass to lessen water bottlenecks during a flood, but that once those areas are built in, the whole economy ends up locked into a system that is expensive to maintain, and which tend to get underfunded and neglected until the next disasterous system failure.

We cannot change the way that the Sacramento River drains through the Central Valley, and we can’t do much about the cities that already exist, but getting smarter about developing on higher ground, concentrating growth in well-defended urban centers, and hardening the levees we have, are well within our grasp, should there be the political will to resist selling out to developer interests for short term political gain. While “no growth” is not a reasonable solution, smart growth, especially in a region so vulnerable to flooding, should be a no-brainer.

Now let’s all cross our fingers and hope that this winter doesn’t send us a pineapple express to rain on the snowpack, like has happened in past El Niño years.

Originally posted at Surf Putah