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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

California: Of Future Floods

Air Date: Week of

Fritz Faerber reports from California where the recent winter floods have prompted state officials to reconsider the future of an increasingly stressed and aging water management system.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Heavy storms hit much of the west coast in January, causing widespread flooding from California to Washington State. In northern California the rains melted a heavy snow pack in the mountains, overwhelmed the state's flood prevention system, and immersed almost 300 square miles. Eight people died, and some 16,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. More than a month later, state officials are still trying to repair levees and drain reservoirs to be ready for the next storms. The disaster shows the limits of an aging water system that has to cope with competing interests. Fritz Faerber explains.


FAERBER: A stream of trucks dumps loads of rock and gravel into the muddy water off the end of a levee near the town of Meridian, in California's central valley. Crews have been working around the clock since the levee broke, flooding fields and homes in the rural area about 60 miles north of Sacramento. Within sight of the levee, C.R. Skelton stands at the edge of a muddy brown lake. His house and mobile home are in the middle of it.

SKELTON: Well I have 2 pieces; I have a mobile in the back and then a small house in the front that I just remodeled, the boy's going to move into. And it had some feet of water. The mobile had right at 43 inches.

FAERBER: Is there anything left?

SKELTON: Uh, yeah. It's all outside the mobile in a pile.

FAERBER: Like many of his neighbors, Mr. Skelton lost everything. He has no flood insurance and says he isn't likely to rebuild. He and many victims blame their losses on southern California's thirst for water. He says dam operators court disaster by keeping reservoirs dangerously full in the rainy season to ensure adequate water supplies during the dry summers. When heavy storms hit, he says the reservoirs quickly overflow, often overwhelming levees downstream.

SKELTON: I think if Southern California wants water, then they should pay to fix the levee system so that they can get the water and we don't get drowned.

FAERBER: This dilemma is at the heart of California's water troubles. The same system that provides water to a $22 billion farming industry and the millions of people living in the arid southern half of the state must also protect against flooding in the north. It's often a zero sum game. The more flood protection, the less water supply. Tom Stein lost about $100,000 worth of dried beans when his warehouse flooded. He says it might not have happened in the dams had been able to hold more water.

STEIN: They should be used for flood control and they were 70% full, with a large snow pack and they had predictions of warm rains. If the dams would have been down around 50% or less, we probably could have saved all these losses.

FAERBER: But officials say it's impossible to prevent every flood. Federal guidelines already require lower reservoir levels during the winter, creating a sort of reserve tank where storm runoff can be stored and gradually released later. But at least in the case of the New Year's storm, State Water Resources Director David Kennedy says increasing the reserve space still further wouldn't have helped much.

KENNEDY: Waterville Reservoir, some of the folks downstream of that, they came in afterward and they thought this was happening because water was being held back for southern California. We demonstrated to them that even if we had had the reservoir drawn down quite bit before, there was so much water that came in during that 3 days it wouldn't have made any difference.

FAERBER: In fact, the dam released some 1.4 million acre feet of water in 3 days of the storm. That's more than it sends to southern California in an entire year. If flood control were the only priority, California could just empty its reservoirs before the rainy season. But it's not that simple. Dam operators hold the impossible task of balancing California's competing water interests. They must keep flood plains dry and keep deserts wet. They have to keep reservoirs full enough to draw tourism while feeding rivers and streams enough water to support fish and wildlife. There are also hydroelectric needs. They even have to worry about the salinity of the San Francisco Bay, where most of the state's rivers meet the ocean. Jim Spence, who operates the Oroville Dam, says water managers have to coax an aging system into meeting needs its designers couldn't have imagined. California's changing climate compounds the difficulty. The system was designed for the weather of the first half of this century, which was much less volatile than the past 40 years.

SPENCE: In a moderately wet or average year, maybe we can operate the project to only make a moderate number of people angry at us. But when it's very wet or very dry, essentially everyone is critical because you just can't meet, just plain can't even come close to meeting everybody's interests.

FAERBER: Mr. Spence says he was heavily criticized for releasing too much water before the storms. Then a few days later, when levees broke downstream, came the criticism for not releasing enough.

(A torrent of water)

GUIDE: (Shouting over the water) The entire American river flows through these 3 pinstock pipes. These pinstock pipes are 15 and a half feet in diameter. So if you could imagine these pipes are big enough for a school bus to actually fit through.

FAERBER: Just outside Sacramento a group tours the Folsom dam. This is one place a community's flood worries have led to changes in water management. After major floods 10 years ago, the downstream city of Sacramento actually bought extra space in the reservoir, increasing the flood reserve by 50%. In the wake of January's disaster, other communities are discussing following Sacramento's lead. There's also a scramble to repair and upgrade the levee system. But some say these are only minor changes that don't solve the basic dilemma. Californians can't expect their dams to both protect and provide.

MOUNT: We are operating our reservoirs at cross purposes. They can't be both a water supply and flood control reservoir. So we may see a revision of the operating procedures in a number of reservoirs.

FAERBER: Jeffrey Mount is chair of the University of California, Davis, Geology Department.

MOUNT: Rather than flood prevention, let's actually look at flood promotion. And this is where you turn the paradigm of flood control absolutely on its head. That you start making conscious decisions to flood some areas in order to save others.

FAERBER: Allow the rivers to flood sparsely populated farmland, says Professor Mount, and you can often protect residential areas. He isn't the only one supporting this option. David Kennedy, the state's Water Resources Director, also supports using farmland as a safety valve to protect cities. But this of course will require tough decisions about where people will live in the rapidly growing central valley. While there's little talk of moving existing communities, there is an emerging view that future development must stay out of harm's way. For Living on Earth, I'm Fritz Faerber.



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