From Drought to Downpour

 

An artist’s rendition of California’s flooded State Capitol circa 1862
An artist’s rendition of California’s flooded State Capitol circa 1862

“Extreme river and creek flooding has broken many records, and swept away hundreds of homes”  -CNN, May 2014

“The frequent sight of houses floating, air-like, along the swift current was novel indeed, some of them being upright, some bottom up” -Union Democrat, December 1861

Two similar quotes that strangely tie events from today into our roots from the past. The first quote is from present day Texas, where millions of dollars in infrastructure damage has lead the President to declare the event a major disaster. The second is a piece from our own state’s history, an event not often mentioned in the textbooks or the classroom.

If you grew up in Northern California you’ll undoubtedly remember being given a small pan filled with rocks and soil to sift through in search of that infamous, luminous element known as gold. But how many of you remember being told the stories of our state capitol underwater just a decade after we discovered gold, our own governor having to be rowed from his house to the capitol building for his inauguration, or of the thousands that lost their possessions, property, or even their lives because of a torrential downpour that lasted 43 days straight?

History of a hundred year storm

The flood of 1861-1862 started off as a welcomed rain after a major drought throughout the state. While Native Americans of the Delta and Bay Area warned the post-gold rush era settlers of the floods that were about to ensue, many newly established citizens and towns were ill-prepared for such an event. What started as a quenching relief for many farmers soon turned into their worst nightmare, as the Central Valley turned into an inland lake and swelling rivers took down entire towns, a quarter of the state’s livestock, and thousands of lives.

The floods were so bad that, after attempting to run the state from underwater, legislatures decided to move the capitol from Sacramento to San Francisco until it could recover. While San Francisco was in better shape that the inundated Central Valley, most of the low lying areas around the Bay were covered in water. During the peak of the storm, so much water poured in from the Delta that our Bay shorelines didn’t experience low tide for a week.

Haven’t heard of the 1861-1862 flood before? It’s OK, neither had I until I caught one of Joel Pomerantz’s natural history lectures, but surely this is something we Bay Area residents should be aware of considering this was not some freak event but rather a natural occurrence.

Due for another downpour

Every 100-200 years we get a visit from the deceptively named “Pineapple Express”, or stream of warm air and moisture that starts at the equator and makes its way up the West Coast. What most meteorologists refer to as Atmospheric Rivers, these streams of warm air and moisture are important in the global water cycle and can bring up to four times the annual rainfall amount to areas of California.

A deluge of rain may sound like relief given our current dry state, but the reality would be overwhelmingly damaging. Today one of these great storms is estimated to wrack up $10.4 billion dollars in damages, almost the cost of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.  What’s worse is that many of these damages would likely be to our shoreline infrastructure and low lying cities on the Bay.

A recent study calls for large scale restoration of San Francisco Bay’s wetlands to help prepare our communities for the next big storm. You see, wetlands act as natural buffers for our communities. One acre of wetlands can hold a million gallons of water – water that would otherwise be in our streets and at our doorsteps if these wetlands didn’t exist. Save The Bay has been working on restoration projects that further help protect our cities from the negative impacts of flooding and support clean Bay water.

While we can’t stop these large storms from occurring, we can educate and better prepare ourselves for when they do arrive. To learn more about the flood of 1861-1862 and what you can do to help support the Bay join us for a restoration event.

Reflecting on Sandy… Can it Happen Here? Healthy Tidal Marsh Can Protect Bay Area Communities from Extreme Weather

Sandy flooding
Healthy tidal marsh can protect Bay Area communities from flooding during extreme storms like Sandy. Photo of taxis in Hoboken, New Jersey via flickr.com/ThatHartfordGuy

One year after Sandy, New York continues to rebuild while planning for the future. City planners are weighing strategies to protect their shores from future storms and sea level rise; natural solutions such as wetland restoration may figure prominently into their plans. While wetland restoration holds promise, the New York shoreline is so developed that there are currently few large expanses of wetlands to buffer storms.

The Bay Area too is at risk of flooding from sea level rise, yet we are lucky to live in a place with tens of thousands of acres of restorable wetlands around the Bay shoreline. We’re working hard to restore 100,000 acres of wetlands to protect our communities from sea level rise. As we reflect on the anniversary of Sandy, let’s also recognize how lucky we are as a region to have solutions within our grasp. Please share this post with a friend or leave a comment with your reflections on Sandy.

Here in the Bay Area, we have experienced the devastation of earthquakes.  And severe flooding during the rainy season impacts some communities around the Bay.  But as the climate change warming trends continue, many scientists are saying that extreme weather events are here to stay. Unfortunately, it is probably not a matter of if, but when the Bay Area will be faced with widespread and severe flooding from an event like Sandy or Hurricane Katrina.

The good news is that by investing today in restoring more natural wetlands and repairing damaged levees, the Bay Area can reduce the risk of severe flooding, save money, and help keep our communities safe.

Over generations, unchecked bay fill destroyed 90 percent of San Francisco Bay’s original wetlands, or tidal marsh.   Studies have shown that healthy tidal marshes can keep pace with modest sea level rise – they build up sediment and establish vegetation, creating buffers against rising seas. They act as natural barriers to storm surge and extreme high tides, protecting wildlife and shoreline communities.  Bay wetlands also filter toxic runoff pollution to improve water quality, prevent shoreline erosion, and provide food and shelter to 500 species of wildlife including seals, sea lions and pelicans.

Today, our Bay shoreline is low-lying and heavily developed.  More than $100 billion in California homes, businesses, and crucial infrastructure is at risk from flooding: ports, airports, bridges, freeways, even entire communities are at or below sea level. And two-thirds of that risk is here in the Bay Area.

Sea level rise will worsen the impact from storms. Scientists and the State of California estimate that the sea level could rise 16 inches in the next 40 years and 55 inches by 2100.

Significant sea rise would overwhelm levees that surround San Francisco Bay. Facebook, Google, Yahoo and other major Silicon Valley corporations could be flooded, along with thousands of homes around the Bay Area. Portions of major freeways could be underwater.

Scientists recommend that at least 100,000 acres tidal marsh be re-established to support a healthy, sustainable Bay into the future.  However, only about half of that habitat exists. The Bay’s restorable wetlands will not return to tidal marsh in our lifetime without money, manpower, and political support.  Climate change makes this goal even more relevant and urgent.

Sandy… Can it Happen Here? Healthy Tidal Marsh Can Protect Bay Area Communities from Extreme Weather

Sandy flooding
Healthy tidal marsh can protect Bay Area communities from flooding during extreme storms like Sandy. Photo of taxis in Hoboken, New Jersey via flickr.com/ThatHartfordGuy

One year after Sandy, New York continues to rebuild while planning for the future. City planners are weighing strategies to protect their shores from future storms and sea level rise; natural solutions such as wetland restoration may figure prominently into their plans. While wetland restoration holds promise, the New York shoreline is so developed that there are currently few large expanses of wetlands to buffer storms.

The Bay Area too is at risk of flooding from sea level rise, yet we are lucky to live in a place with tens of thousands of acres of restorable wetlands around the Bay shoreline. We’re working hard to restore 100,000 acres of wetlands to protect our communities from sea level rise. As we reflect on the anniversary of Sandy, let’s also recognize how lucky we are as a region to have solutions within our grasp. Please share this post with a friend or leave a comment with your reflections on Sandy.

All of us at Save The Bay are sending our thoughts to the millions of people on the East Coast who are impacted by the devastating and unprecedented superstorm Sandy.

Here in the Bay Area, we have experienced the devastation of earthquakes.  And severe flooding during the rainy season impacts some communities around the Bay.  But as the climate change warming trends continue, many scientists are saying that extreme weather events are here to stay. Unfortunately, it is probably not a matter of if, but when the Bay Area will be faced with widespread and severe flooding from an event like Sandy or Hurricane Katrina.

The good news is that by investing today in restoring more natural wetlands and repairing damaged levees, the Bay Area can reduce the risk of severe flooding, save money, and help keep our communities safe.

Over generations, unchecked bay fill destroyed 90 percent of San Francisco Bay’s original wetlands, or tidal marsh.   Studies have shown that healthy tidal marshes can keep pace with modest sea level rise – they build up sediment and establish vegetation, creating buffers against rising seas. They act as natural barriers to storm surge and extreme high tides, protecting wildlife and shoreline communities.  Bay wetlands also filter toxic runoff pollution to improve water quality, prevent shoreline erosion, and provide food and shelter to 500 species of wildlife including seals, sea lions and pelicans.

Today, our Bay shoreline is low-lying and heavily developed.  More than $100 billion in California homes, businesses, and crucial infrastructure is at risk from flooding: ports, airports, bridges, freeways, even entire communities are at or below sea level. And two-thirds of that risk is here in the Bay Area.

Sea level rise will worsen the impact from storms. Scientists and the State of California estimate that the sea level could rise 16 inches in the next 40 years and 55 inches by 2100.

Significant sea rise would overwhelm levees that surround San Francisco Bay. Facebook, Google, Yahoo and other major Silicon Valley corporations could be flooded, along with thousands of homes around the Bay Area. Portions of major freeways could be underwater.

Scientists recommend that at least 100,000 acres tidal marsh be re-established to support a healthy, sustainable Bay into the future.  However, only about half of that habitat exists. The Bay’s restorable wetlands will not return to tidal marsh in our lifetime without money, manpower, and political support.  Climate change makes this goal even more relevant and urgent.