Sunday, July 3, 2011

If you had to choose between preventing a major flood disaster and building High-Speed Rail, which would you prefer?

Sacramento is the Capital of California.  California has the eighth largest economy in the world.  California also has one of the largest debts and deficits in the US.  Sacramento is the location of the mother church of high-speed rail for this state.  

What's the point here?  The state government's majority is determined to pursue -- at a cost of over $20 BILLION to state taxpayers just for the bond issue --  the construction of a high-speed luxury train.  Meanwhile the city of Sacramento is in serious proximate danger of being underwater with a 20 ft. deep flood.  This article in today's Sunday Times tells you why.

Wouldn't you think that reasonable people would look at this situation and make a priority decision?  We better secure our levees holding back the delta waters and do so quickly.  Weather patterns have been changing; weather records are being broken with greater frequency.  It's not necessary to acknowledge or deny the human role in such climate changes. The daily weather reports are evidence enough that Sacramento is headed for a major catastrophe.

That potential catastrophe, when (not if) it happens, will adversely affect not only the city of Sacramento, but one of our major sources of water for agricultural, industrial and residential use in the state.  The economic damage will be devastating to a state that can ill afford further harm to its financial well-being.

So, why aren't more sensible decisions being made?  Because the threat of calamity to the Sacramento Delta is far less a popular political issue than that of bringing into the state the $3 billion or so for HSR from the federal Department of Transportation.  That's what gets voters interested and exited.  Never mind what those dollars are actually for or how they are being spent, just so we get them.

How would you like to be the governor or a member of the legislature when this weather calamity hits the fan? Who can Californians blame for this egregious negligence?

California is pretty good at fiddling while Rome burns. Actually, it's more a case of "what-could-possibly-go-wrong" syndrome. In this case, the Legislature is fiddling with illusions of HSR grandeur, while ignoring the monumental threat that is looming over their Capital City.

Final point here. The 'health' of the levees is only one of many major problems in California that suffer from neglect.  Our grid and power supply is maxxed out and we stand on the edge of brown- and black- outs with the next dramatic climate effect, such as unexpected higher summer heat. In short, California's infrastructure is in critical condition and should be in intensive care.

But, instead, we are determined to pursue super-expensive, foolish and useless pipe dreams like whizzy passenger trains for rich people. 

July 1, 2011

California’s Next Nightmare

People tend to underestimate the power of floods: six inches of fast-moving water can knock you down; two feet of water can float most cars away. Floods kill an average of 127 Americans a year — more than tornadoes or hurricanes — and cause more than $2 billion of property damage annually, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

This spring, the nation was riveted by images of blown levees and submerged towns in the Midwest along the Mississippi River. But an even more threatening situation looms in California, especially around the San Francisco Bay Delta. The delta is the link between two-thirds of the state’s fresh-water supply — which originates in the Sierra Nevada and the rivers of the north — and two-thirds of the state’s population, which resides in the south. Starting in the 1870s, farmers began building 1,100 miles of levees around the delta to control floodwaters and create farmland out of tule marshes. Today many of those levees are old, decrepit and leaking. Jeffrey Mount, a geologist at the University of California, Davis, predicts that there is a 64 percent chance of a catastrophic levee failure in the delta in the next 50 years.

Scientists consider Sacramento — which sits at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers and near the delta — the most flood-prone city in the nation. Experts warn that there are two events that could destroy the levees and set off a megaflood. One is an earthquake; the second is a violent Pacific superstorm, like the one called the Pineapple Express, which sweeps water off the ocean around Hawaii and dumps it on the mainland with firehose intensity while battering the coast with high wind and waves. A megaflood would not arrive as gradual seepage; it would be a rapid submerging of hundreds of square miles. Salt water would be sucked from the bay (in what is known as the big gulp) and impelled into the delta, contaminating drinking supplies for 25 million people, destroying some of the nation’s most productive farmland, washing away buildings, highways, gas lines and railroads and causing landslides. A flood in the delta could sink downtown Sacramento under as much as 20 feet of water, as well as cripple California (the eighth-largest economy in the world), hobble the nation and disrupt global trade.

Robert Bea, professor of engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, warns: “In terms of damage, deaths and long-term cost, a rupture in the delta levees would be far more destructive than what happened in Hurricane Katrina. This is a ticking bomb.”

Sacramento has flooded many times, most infamously in 1862, when a 45-day rain turned the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys into vast inland seas. Gov. Leland Stanford attended his inauguration by rowboat, and the state capital was temporarily moved to San Francisco. It was the largest deluge in state history, though geologic records indicate that six other powerful storms swamped the region before then. The chance of a megaflood inundating Sacramento again is not only plausible, predicts the U.S. Geological Survey, but “perhaps inevitable.”
Alex Prud’homme ( is the author, most recently, of ‘‘The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the 21st Century.’’ Editor: Ilena Silverman (

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