What #Stormageddon Means for the Bay

Stormwater pollution storm drains rain water drought
As much as recent rainstorms have been a boon for parched landscapes across California, there is a dark side to all the wet stuff – trash and other pollution that collects in gutters, and in many cases, ends up flowing directly to creeks, rivers, and the Bay. Photo by Patrick Band

Although last week’s storm wasn’t quite all it was hyped up to be, it was still an impressive showing from Mother Nature. Some of the worst flooding occurred in the North Bay town of Healdsburg, where the Russian River jumped from a bucolic 700 cubic feet per second to a raging 40,000 cubic feet per second. Nevertheless, the flooding – which inundated downtown businesses – wasn’t caused by the river jumping its banks (it didn’t), but rather by smaller creeks and detention ponds becoming inundated so quickly. With over 6 inches of rain falling within 12-14 hours, there simply wasn’t anywhere for the water to go.

With forecasts calling for a series of smaller storms in coming days, it’s worth recapping what all the wet stuff means for California and the Bay in particular.

Trash

You’ve probably heard of First Flush – just as early season storms make roads treacherous because of all the accumulated oil and grime, big rains wash all of the plastic wrappers, cigarette butts, and random trash that accumulate in our urban environment and carry them in to the storm water system. With an estimated 3 billion cigarette butts littered around the Bay each year, that’s a whole lot of toxic trash!

We’ll be keeping an eye out during this weekend’s King Tides to see what washes up on the shores, and share out any interesting finds.

Water Supply

Despite the estimated 10 trillion gallons of water that fell across the state last week, most major reservoirs are barely above the half-way mark for the year. The state’s three largest reservoirs – Shasta, Oroville, and Trinity – are all below 55% of average storage for the year, and at roughly 30% of total capacity.

Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California and well-regarded expert on climate and water issues put it well when speaking with KQED earlier in the week:

“Thursday it’ll rain, and people will say, ‘Oh, I’m very excited,’ and Saturday it’ll rain, and ‘Oh, drought’s over.’ Not even close. It’s going to take a lot of rain to break this drought.”

Sediment

It goes by all sorts of names – mud, silt, sand, gunk, soil, dirt. It’s both a bane to water quality that can ultimately lead to massive die-offs of species, and a necessary element to systems like the Bay where sediment accumulates along the shoreline and helps wetlands keep up with rising tides.

While the short-term increase in sediment may not make news in the Bay Area, statewide, there are some surprising results. Just an hour or so away in the Bay Delta, sediment loads are forcing pumping reductions of water to Central Valley farmers and Southern California. Turns out, the endangered Delta Smelt really enjoy muddy water, because it provides them a level of protection against predators. So paradoxically, Delta pump operators are cutting back at the exact time when flows are higher than they’ve been for years.

That spells good news for the Delta Smelt, and for the Bay.

Wonky Wednesday | Wetlands, Barrier Islands, and Oyster Reefs: Buffering the Next Superstorm

Long Island Barrier Island
This image was taken crossing over Fire Island from the Atlantic Ocean and approaching MacArthur Airport, Long Island, NY. Photo: Ken Konrad bluesguy682000@yahoo.com

Less than a day after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, Gov. Chris Christie tweeted to his fellow New Jersey residents, “We will rebuild the Shore. It may not be the same, but we will rebuild.” Reality TV icon Snooki and her fellow cast members from “Jersey Shore” followed suit, joining a large fundraising effort to rebuild the boardwalks and amusement parks that define New Jersey’s coastal communities. Christie’s firm pledge and Snooki’s fundraising efforts are evidence of the human capacity to be resilient in the wake of Sandy.

Yet we must look to the causes of the disaster and adapt to the changing conditions of our climate and our rising oceans. Are there places that just don’t make sense for development?

Rewind human history a couple hundred years and we find that the New Jersey shoreline, now filled to the ocean’s edge with beach bungalows, theme parks, and mansions with oceanfront views, was once void of development and rimmed with vast acres of wetlands, strings of small barrier islands, and offshore oyster reefs. These ecological gems are nature’s solution to storm events, protecting the mainland from erosion and flooding.

Wetlands are the lungs of the ocean, absorbing large volumes of water runoff during rainstorms and tidal inflow. Barrier islands act as flexible walls that separate the mainland from the sea, changing shape in response to storms, tides, and winds as they minimize the force of these natural events. Oyster reefs attenuate storm energy, slowing down waves before they hit land. While these ecological barriers have slowly disappeared over the past two centuries due to fill, water pollutants, and large-scale developments, their value has only increased.

In New Jersey, along with so many heavily-urbanized coastal regions – such as the San Francisco Bay Area – the lack of sufficient natural barriers to storm surges is in need of serious attention.  New Jersey is the country’s most densely populated state, with 60% of its 8.6 million residents living along its coastline – including more than 236,000 people within 5 feet of the high-tide line. With sea levels expected to rise by 15 inches by 2050, the number of people that are impacted by heavy storms – not to mention large scale disasters like Sandy – will increase exponentially.

Hurricane Sandy is our second loud wake-up call, coming only 7 years after Hurricane Katrina. If we are to survive the future of rising seas and intense storms, our relationship to Mother Nature must change from coercion and command to adaption and flexibility. Preserving and restoring our natural buffers – wetlands, barrier islands, coral reefs and more – is one of the best tools we have available.