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.

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.