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Monday, December 21, 2015

El Nino Begs Question: When Is Your Property Going to be Underwater?

Posted By on Mon, Dec 21, 2015 at 4:10 PM

click to enlarge Warning signs. - BAY ON THE BRINK
  • Bay on the Brink
  • Warning signs.


If you were driving northbound on US-101 toward San Mateo last week, you may have noticed a new billboard with an alarming announcement:

“IN THE NEXT SEVERE STORM, THIS FREEWAY WILL BE UNDERWATER.”

This disconcerting news is brought to you by Our Bay on the Brink, a public outreach campaign cooked up by environmental groups and big businesses anxious about the potential for devastating floods that will inflict tens of billions of dollars in damages throughout the Bay Area’s low-lying regions.

Sometime in the next couple of decades, a storm the likes of which California hasn’t seen in a century-and-a-half is going to swamp us. But this isn’t about climate change or rising sea levels (although those greatly exacerbate the risk). These kinds of storm are part of Mother Nature’s business as usual.

“We classify these things in terms of years: 100 year storms, 200 year storms, 500 year storms, and so on,” says Amy Hutzel, deputy executive director of the California Costal Conservancy.

It’s just part of the meteorological machinery of the coast that sooner or later a monster storm whips itself up. We haven’t had a 150-year storm since 1860, so we’re a touch overdue.

You can’t set your watch by these things, but they are inevitable. Every year there’s a one percent chance of a 100 year storm and a half-a-percentage chance of a 200 year storm. The longer we go without such an event, the more likely it becomes the next year.

But since 1860, we’ve built huge municipalities and key infrastructure right on the flood plains.

“Google, Facebook, Oracle, these company’s headquarters are directly in the flood zone,” says Kevin Singer, spokesman for Our Bay on the Brink.

Most of those companies have installed flood barriers on and around their land, but as that highway billboard points out, nobody is building up around the freeways, the PG&E transformers, the train tracks, or the water facilities. When a storm hits, your building might be fine, but it could be unreachable and unlivable.

Our Bay on the Brink’s website has a handy/chilling interactive map of the region’s vulnerable areas.

Oh, and of course we’ve been making the problem worse over the last 150 years by eroding most of the natural infrastructure that might have taken the edge off of floods, like damming or rerouting waterways of paving over zones of absorbent soil. For an extra touch of cosmic irony, the drought has actually exacerbated flood risks, since parched soil can’t absorb a lot of water at once and instead vomits it back out at us.

The good news is that our biggest blunder is one we can fix. The bay’s wetlands are the best natural defense against major floods. “Wetlands are like a giant sponge, soaking up storm water and releasing it very slowly,” says David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay.

We’ve drained about 85 percent of wetlands for development projects over the years—because, hey, it’s not like a giant storm is coming—and a lot of it isn’t coming back. But we are in the midst of what John Bourgeois, project manager for the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, calls a renaissance in wetlands restoration.

The Salt Pond Project is in the midst of restoring 15,000 acres of wetlands—about the size of Manhattan—right in the heart of Silicon Valley, in fact. How exactly do you restore wetlands? Well, you flood them. The last step in any restoration project is always punching a hole through some old levy and letting nature take its course.

Yes, by flooding a little now, we can prevent flooding later.

And, let’s repeat: A flood is definitely coming. It can’t be put off. “This whole time we’ve been living in a fairly unique period where the bay has been mostly stable, and we think of it as having a definite edge,” says Bourgeois. “But the fact is, that bay grows. And it moves.”

Enjoy the rain. 
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Adam Brinklow

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