html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: I expect to see this in my lifetime.

Monday, December 18, 2006

I expect to see this in my lifetime.

I don’t understand how our flood system is going to work. I mean, I don’t understand how the whole system is plumbed, or the details at any site, or how to design a levee or anything like that. I don’t understand that for sure. But, I do have an overview, gleaned from listening around and asking people who’ll answer questions, and I know what some of the problems are. What I can’t understand is what we, as Californians, are going to do when there are more and bigger floods.

Imagine it. Imagine that a big flood, a city-eating flood, came through the Sacramento Valley. Yuba-Marysville, which sits at the confluence of the Feather and the Yuba, gets knocked out; Natomas in north Sacramento is under twenty feet of water; and the Pocket in south Sacramento meets its inevitable fate. The flood collapses several Delta levees, making it impossible to send water south; Southern California has a six month supply of water south of the Delta before it needs to find some other source.

A flood like that isn’t even very unlikely. The 1997 floods strained Sacramento’s levees to absolute capacity; Sacramento was spared because levees broke upstream and flooded parts of Yuba. 1997 was about the same size as 1986; the internal guesses around here say that was about a seventy-year flood (based on the hydrologic record, a flood that has a 1 in 70 chance of happening every year). That is certainly not the largest flood on record. The 1891-1892 flood, after four weeks of rain, flooded more than a tenth of the state. The outflow from the flood caused a weeklong 18-20 foot waterfall from the Bay into the Pacific. Boats reported drinking sweetwater at the Farallon Islands.

A massive flood comes along and takes a chunk out of several cities in the Sacramento Valley and disrupts drinking water to Southern California. What would happen? Well, the Flood Center would do their best to minimize the damage. I don’t think we would get the loss of life here that we saw in New Orleans, simply because there is higher ground closer and floods are easier to forecast. Reporters would cover dramatic rescues and show poignant images of horses and dogs going under. There would be lots of pan and zoom shots of rooflines under water and levees eroding. The waters would subside, hopefully without causing an epidemic. The country would declare a national disaster and vow to rebuild and keep living our Sacramento way of life. Neighborhoods would be uninhabitable wreckage. It would cost billions.

Now imagine that floods like that happened every, say, fifteen to twenty years. What if we knew New Orleans would be flooded again within a generation? Would we vow to rebuild after the second time? The third time? Would we adjust? How? Build stilt houses? Stay off the floodplains? Abandon our too-narrow levees to give the river room for winter flows? Abandon cities? Walk away from that infrastructure?

What if floods were just one part of it? I mean, the guys at the Flood Center don’t sleep at night, but if you want to know who is freaking the fuck out, they’re over at the California Department of Forestry, wondering how they are going to keep a third of the state from going up in flames as artificially dense forests die from less moisture from early snowpack melt. What if Los Angeles burns during the months that the California Aquaduct is down? What if they have to choose between fighting fires in Malibu and reserving a month of drinking water? What if the nation would like to help, but it was a particularly nasty hurricane/tornado/blizzard season and has been for ten years?

Here’s the thing. I think these problems are real and imminent. I wish we would solve them in advance, but I can’t see how that will happen. Smart people are trying and the system is too heavily weighted in favor of shortsighted self-interest. So I wonder what it will really be like. Will there be debates in the Legislature where they decide they can’t afford another disaster declaration? Will they warn would-be returnees that they purely will not get help the next time? Will cities in stupid places ebb by default, ‘til the only people left there live in 19th century self-reliance? What will we do when three big disasters in ten years leave us too poor to respond to the earthquake? What will the big picture look like? What will seem normal to us?

30 Comments:

Blogger Megan said...

I don't want to argue about whether climate change exists. If you don't believe it, pretend that there will be a sequence of large-scale climate-based disasters purely by chance, so you can chat with us about what would happen if the weather changed (from totally non-anthropogenic causes) towards more frequent and more extreme events.

11:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A cheerful topic today, I see. Let's just say that one of the reasons that we live in Davis and not Sacramento is the likelihood of a flood.

The real disaster? The earthquake that breaks a dam, and hell, while we are at it, set a couple of fires. These things have a way of cascading.

Our personal choice is not a public solution. I think our water supply is also at risk. And I think we worry about different dams (Lake Berryessa), but that are less likely to break.

-A

12:21 AM  
Anonymous Jake said...

I don't know. My gut reaction is that in the US we would be fine, if only because of where we are. I mean, destroying half the housing stock in the country would probably leave us with similar square footage per person as most of Europe. If the price of oil tripled, people wouldn't work in San Jose and live in Tracy because they can get a nicer house there. If food gets more expensive, the ratio of meat to rice in the burrito you get in San Francisco will look more like the ones you can get today in Mexico.

It also seems relevant, although I'm not sure how, that in spite of pledges to rebuild New Orleans, reality shows that it's not happening. "Sorry, no money, move in with your remote family until you can find somewhere else to live in a city that won't get flooded." This time, it's due to governmental incompetence, but if it happened due to resource constraints, what's the difference, really?

Africa, China, and India, however, are probably fucked.

I dunno. I'm not trying to be a pollyanna, but it seems like the same inefficiencies that seem so trivially wasteful have a flip side that there's a lot of slack in the system to handle problems.

1:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After seeing how Katrina was handled I'm not sure if it's right to say that "there's enough slack in the system".

I think Megan raises the important point of whether cities are sustainable (with around one billion people now living in slums and 1/3 rd of all urbanites living in poverty I think it is worth asking the question.

On ability to cope or not, here's mike davis from 'Flames of New York' (online):

"In the ‘Americanized big city’, by contrast, the quest for the bourgeois utopia of a totally calculable and safe environment has paradoxically generated radical insecurity (Unheimlich). Indeed ‘where technology
has achieved an apparent victory over the limits of nature . . . the coefficient of known and, more significantly, unknown danger has
increased proportionately.’ In part, this is because the metropolis’s interdependent technological systems—as Americans discovered in the autumn of 2001—have become ‘simultaneously so complex and so vulnerable’. More profoundly, the capitalist big city is ‘extremely dangerous’ because it dominates rather than cooperates with Nature."

4:42 AM  
Anonymous thelonious_nick said...

Historically speaking, cities come and go. The people of Pompei, Troy, and Persepolis surely didn't think their cities would every disappear. How about Memphis (Egypt), Babylon, Machu Piccu?

THe US is in no way immune to this. The situation in New Orleans after Katrina didn't have to happen and was due largely to incompetence (and what's scary is that what happened isn't even new Orleans's worst-case scenario), but it's not the first or last time we'll see that here. We like to think here that when there are major disasters we will rebuild like after the Chicago fire, or the San Franscisco earthquake, or the almost-forgotten New York fire in the 1830s. But we've abandoned cities, too--the Johnstown, PA flood, remembered in bluegrass songs, and Galveston, once Texas's biggest city but which has never recovered from a hurricane in the 1890s.

For that matter, once-thriving little towns all over Nebraska and the Dakotas are simply dying out as all the young people move to bigger or warmer cities, and many cities in the industrial northwest are in permanent decline. Gary, Youngstown, Detroit, Flint, and many other cities may as well have had a natural disaster happen to them--whether it takes 5 days or 5 decades, the end result is the same.

Thelonious_Nick1, bearer of holiday cheer

6:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A significant amount of agriculture would be disrupted as well, but the slack there is more easily transportable (though I believe Megan doesn't agree that it should be transported) than drinking water and rebuilding of floodplains.

Bryn

7:13 AM  
Blogger Noel said...

Not being faimilar with the geography I can't really say anything specific about California's problems. However, in general I agree with Jake. Europe (the continent, not the mythical entity so beloved of Marginal Revolution) has about twice the population in about the same land area as the US. I don't see land availability as the problem. What will have to change are land use patterns, and with that some attitudes that seem to me deeply ingrained in the self-image of the US. The US has a very low population density, not just overall but also in most urban areas. To pick on an easy target, Houston has a population density of 1,344/km² versus 4,761/km² for London (all from Wikipedia). Pack those people in tighter and it costs less to cover them with a flood defense system. It also frees up land to soak up more rain, and makes a whole bunch of ecological technologies cheaper to implement (everything from mass transit, to installing water butts to catch run off from roofs). Of course doing so runs against the culture of the US (at least what appears to me to be culture of the US) which holds there is always more land/oil/[your favourite resource] out there. I don't think it will be a clean process to get there, due to the factors you list, but I think a livable future is possible.

My questions about an apocolyptic future are these:

How do we produce enough protein to feed 7 billion humans? If we don't, does this mean the Chinese and Indians will buy it all, and we'll be left eating beetles?

If scientific progress depending on paradigm breaking geniuses, does a fixed or falling human population mean the deccelleration of scientific progress?

7:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In some senses I think the planning for 100 year events is tied to the procrastinator in us, not acting unless there's a crisis. It's so hard to get funding for preventative measures. Luckily as has been discussed there's some slack and savings to pay for rebuilding. But maybe that procrastination is a good thing (read an article claiming that recently -- I felt very vindicated) because it saves you the effort of working on things you didn't need to work on. So unfortunately you have to absorb the costs of disaster, but you save the costs for places where disaster didn't occur. I imagine there are many other places with 100 year flood plains that need protecting, and we *should* build the irrigation and transportation systems to withstand bigger earthquakes and so on, but we can't do it all. So the random disaster becomes a part of life. Perhaps we should accept that and try to save more money for the disaster fund rather than fix everything. (I'm just positing here. In reality "trust funds" often get borrowed to pay for other things, and there are often easy fixes that don't even get paid for because voters won't vote to raise taxes because they can't see beyond their short term problems.) So it's both good to raise issues like this, and it also makes people worry more (which worries me that they are less happy as a result)

Bryn

7:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It can be argued that in the case of floods, federal government policy - in the form of the flood insurance program - already has rendered normal risk factors irrelevant. Building in high-risk coastal and other locations is economically workable only because the taxpayers pick up the tab for the excess risk. Heck, we even have to pay for the TV commercials touting the program.

As for natural disasters in general, we can't expect too much planning guidance from the federal government because everyone's too preoccupied with Islam-will-Conquer-the-World scaremongering.

Peter
Iron Rails & Iron Weights

7:38 AM  
Anonymous Rob M said...

You will look like Florida. In the last 14 years we have had a number of storms that you could classify as major disasters. Andrew 1992, Opal 1995, Ivan & Charlie 2004, Dennis 2005. Each of the storms destroyed a city. Granted with half the population of California, the losses are not as great as potential losses you are expecting to see in your lifetime. Each year we rebuild and each year we have debates on past lessons and what we can do to improve our response and our rebuilding efforts. We reform and rewrite our building codes. We look for ways to improve our own response both from a government and citizen perspective. But we don't walk away from anything.

As for what it will look like, the cities will not ebb but you will see a greater value placed on self-reliance. The debates will turn to should we start saving for the next one not how can we afford this one. We can't afford any of them but we will always find a way too foot that bill.

And when the three major events in 10 years happens California will bear a terrible burden and bear it well. And normal will become a constant state of rebuilding and preparation for a generation.

7:42 AM  
Anonymous justus said...

I think it would be completely awesome. America needs more natural disasters. I'm sick of the weather channel showing reruns of last year's storms.

Plus, according to SustainLane I live in the 7th safest (from Mother Nature) large city in the US. (We're also apparently the 26th "most sustainable" city (they say we don't recycle very much) and the 23rd "most ready for Peak Oil". They seem have a lot of free time to make up lists).

8:05 AM  
Blogger jens said...

Nice plug for the site, Justus, by making us go there to find the name of the city.

Don't worry, I won't spoil things!

9:21 AM  
Blogger Pandax said...

This is why I was unhappy about paying more to support levees that allow tract homes to be build in flood planes. Sure, natural disaster will always occur, that doesn't mean it's okay to put yourself in the path of one and expect to be bailed out by others every time.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

How come you guys aren't wigging out about the 1891-1892 floods? A TWENTY FOOT waterfall of freshwater out the Golden Gate Bridge for a WEEK? Seriously, y'all. That doesn't amaze you?

10:34 AM  
Anonymous justus said...

Jens - Nah, I just reckoned that I've mentioned often enough that I live in Colorado Springs (recently in the national news for being hometown to gay-hating gay pastor "I only bought the meth from the gay hooker because I was curious" Ted Haggard.)

Megan- my favorite American natural disaster is either the New Madrid Earthquake of 1811 -- come on, it reversed the flow of the Mississippi River, how cool is that? -- or the 1953 Worcester tornado. I mean, a tornado in Massachusetts? How awesome is that?

11:32 AM  
Anonymous Jake said...

Sure, that sounds like an impressive flood, and I'm sad that I couldn't find pictures or even drawings of it. I also wish I understood hydrology a little better - does the whole bay have to rise by 20 feet to make that happen? Would blasting the Golden Gate out to twice the flow area with a nuclear bomb help? Should we be dredging it now?

But flipping out? I mean... the message seems to be don't build a house directly along the lower Sacramento River, but communities grew up around farms, which like flood plains more than houses hate them. I also seem to believe that the effects of rivers on their surrounding geography is almost completely the result of what happens during floods (increased sediment transport!), but we don't like floods so dam stuff off, and as a result are fucked even if there's not a trend toward more variable weather.

I dunno. I read stuff about the nasty undersea earthquakes on the East Coast, or about how little we know about the population of Atens and Apollos, and I think that people just can't think above a certain scale.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

The bed of the Sacramento River and the Bay beds were raised then, from sediment from hydraulic mining. But that is still A LOT of water.

11:56 AM  
Anonymous bill said...

Sometimes people just have to learn the hard way where not to build. See, e.g., Pompeii. And yes, your post combines the greatest hits of Mother Nature On A Rampage and Malthus. But this is exactly why there are water engineers, and civil engineers, and planners, and politicians, and even well-informed voters. All we can do is to try to understand the probabilities, have national/state/local debates about priorities, and prepare accordingly. We'll get it wrong - you know we'll get it wrong. The question is, in what way, and how wrong?

12:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would blasting the Golden Gate out to twice the flow area with a nuclear bomb help?

That would be like dealing with a case of athlete's foot by cutting your leg off.

Peter
Iron Rails & Iron Weights

12:55 PM  
Anonymous Rob M said...

yes Peter but you would never have athlete's foot again and you would save on shoes. so there is a plus. Not saying I would, I'm just saying.

Of course in my state we are one failed earthen levee away from a 15-20 foot wall of water running through 3 million homes in Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. Ah the everglades, always good times.

1:50 PM  
Anonymous NCN Staff said...

Thanks for your attention to the timely and important matters that face California. Your comment about the levy system caught my attention because, quite frankly, that issue is something everyone needs to be concerned about, and something on which the government needs to take action.
Well, if you haven’t heard already there is a new organization creating dialogue about the infrastructure of our state. New California Network (NCN) is an organization devoted to improving the performance, transparency and accountability of the government pertaining to the current crises. NCN is guided by a few principles that define the needed improvements:
1. State leaders need to set priorities and live within the state’s means.
2. State and local governments need to work together.
3. California needs a 21st century tax system for a 21st century economy.
4. Public dollars need to be better managed.
5. We need to build and protect the infrastructure of California.

visit http://www.newcalnet.org

2:06 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Dude, NewCalNet, what was that all about? I just looked at your site. The concepts aren't bad, and you chose nice colors, but there isn't a lot of substance there. What are your actual structural reforms? What are the actual impediments to governing California efficiently? Term limits? The proposition system? Prop 13? How, specifically, would you change them?

And, you have an entirely male Board of Directors and two male staff. You have two female advisors, out of seven? How did that ratio come about? Is it something that concerns you?

How long have you existed and what flood management strategies are you proposing (since you showed up on a post about floods)?

Are you seriously spamming my blog to draw attention to your vague proposals for better governance? Sign your name when you do that, James or Toby.

4:43 PM  
Anonymous sasha said...

I'm pretty sure we'd be f*cked in Northern California as well, since most of our drinking water comes from the East part of the state, unless I'm totally confused about the geography of the stuff you're talking about.

And the New California Network people are all Big Biz types, as far as I can tell. Which isn't surprising, given their reasonable-sounding, but totally free of content positions.

5:13 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

A Sac Valley flood shouldn't take out your supply in SF, which is piped from south of Sacramento.

Honestly, I think we'd spend big money to restore drinking water pretty fast. (LA could tap the Friant, in an emergency. There are interties that could move the water.)

Glad to see you, Sasha. I liked your blog.

5:28 PM  
Anonymous sasha said...

Ah, Excellent.

Then everyone to my house for sweet, clean, pure water we destroyed an entire valley in the Sierras to have!

I just discovered this blog, too. I have long (and with significant tedium) badgered my friends and acquaintances about the importance of water in the 21st century. Everyone now agrees with me, and we still have no idea what the hell we're going to do about it.

5:43 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I wrote about Hetch Hetchy last summer. There'll be a quiz on the archives tomorrow.

DUDE! I should totally write up a quiz on the archives.

6:11 PM  
Anonymous sasha said...

Ah, yes, well, perhaps a little harshly, I wrote this about Hetch Hetchy.

The upshot being that the short term danger from removing the dam is more the lost power than the lost water. With, like, harsher words and stuff.

10:01 PM  
Anonymous eb said...

How come you guys aren't wigging out about the 1891-1892 floods?

Don't you mean 1861-1862?

11:52 PM  
Anonymous eb said...

And it's mostly Mokelumne for the east bay, I think. I never did like that Hetch Hetchy water, anyway.

11:56 PM  
Anonymous ptm said...

"DUDE! I should totally write up a quiz on the archives. "

I was just trying to remember what was the big story in Los Osos. All I remembered was that it sounded nuts. Then wikipedia saved me.

6:14 PM  

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