Thursday, May 16, 2024

The Next Flood In California Could Wipe Out One Of The State’s Most Interesting Cities. Will Lawmakers Try To Help It?

A storm in California at the beginning of 1862 was like something out of the Bible. It lasted two months and left the State with more than 120 inches of rain and snow. The whole State was flooded, but the Central Valley, a strip of fertile land in the middle of the State between two mountain ranges, was hit the hardest. One observer said that the spring’s melting snow and heavy rain turned the valley into “a perfect sea.” The Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers brought enough water to fill the valley to a depth of 30 feet. People rowed canoes through the town’s streets. A quarter of the cows in the State drowned. It took months for the water to go away.

Scientists who study the weather say that a storm like the one that hit the State more than 150 years ago is due to happen again. Researchers are finding more and more proof that global warming is making it more likely that a monster storm will flood the Central Valley again. UCLA and the National Atmospheric Center found that the area had “surface runoff that has never been seen before in history.” This runoff would destroy tens of thousands of homes and the country’s most important agricultural area. The study found that the global warming has already made this kind of storm 234% more likely.

The Next Flood In California Could Wipe Out One Of The State’s Most Interesting Cities. Will Lawmakers Try To Help It?

Stockton metro area is right in the middle of that storm. It is at the mouth of the San Joaquin River. About 800,000 people live in Stockton and its surrounding suburbs. Some of the poorest places in California are also some of the most diverse places in the country. Because the city has not put any money into it for decades, the only things keeping it from flooding are old levees leaking. If a big rainstorm brought enough water down from the mountains and north along the San Joaquin, it could break through the levees and flood the city and tens of thousands of homes. One national study found that 10 to 12 feet of water would cover most of Stockton, and the water could be twice as deep in the lowest places. This would cause a humanitarian crisis that would kill as many people and cost as much as Hurricane Katrina.

This month, the “atmospheric river” rainstorms from the Pacific Ocean into California showed how vulnerable the Golden State is to flooding, but experts say Stockton won’t be destroyed for sure. Local leaders know how to deal with water on the San Joaquin River, just as they do in other parts of the country prone to flooding. But getting money for Stockton and other poor cities along the river has been challenging. In the past few years, California lawmakers have spent a lot of money on drought relief. Still, they have yet to do much about flooding, and the federal government has been slow to pay for significant improvements.

Mike Machado, former California state senator who has long fought for better flood management in the Central Valley, said, “Areas like Stockton that don’t have political clout are often overlooked when it comes to funding.” “Even if there is money, Stockton is usually at the bottom of the list.”

Even though Stockton’s infrastructure is falling apart, climate change is making the city more likely to flood. This is because climate change will make it rain harder in the San Joaquin Valley, putting even more pressure on the levees around the city. The city has grown quickly in the last 20 years, but state and local leaders have been more worried about protecting farmers from drought than city residents from flooding. When the next big storm hits, more than 80% of Stockton’s people live in communities of color, which will take the most damage.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, who runs the environmental nonprofit Restore the Delta out of Stockton, said, “We are at the bottom of the bowl.” “We’re useless. We don’t matter to them.”

The Central Valley has never had better flood protection than it does now. Farmers and ranchers built a variety of levees along rivers like the San Joaquin in the 1800s and early 1900s. They piled up sand just enough so that the water would flood someone else’s land instead of theirs. The levees were owned and taken care of by local districts, not the government. This meant that defenses were stronger in places with more money.

As the area’s system for stopping floods grew, the San Joaquin area fell behind. In the 1920s, the Yolo Bypass, a system that moves water away from Sacramento, the state capital, was built by the federal Army Corps of Engineers. On the other hand, Stockton received a different kind of investment. Local leaders couldn’t raise as much money to fix levees as their counterparts in Sacramento, and the state and federal governments never sent enough money to make the difference.

Jane Dolan, who is in charge of flood management at a state agency called the Central Valley Flood Protection Board, says this is partly because lawmakers have forgotten about the most vulnerable people in Stockton. But Dolan says that the difference exists because, for a long time, people in charge along the San Joaquin River focused more on getting water to water crops than managing the rivers. Because of this, it has been hard to get enough help to make significant flood improvements.

She told Grist, “They don’t agree on how to handle floodwaters and let the river flow.” “All politicians, from city councils to Congress, are thinking about water supply.”

The San Joaquin has the worst infrastructure to prevent flooding, and climate-driven storms are most likely to happen there. The UCLA study and a separate study done by Dolan’s group found that a warmer climate will increase runoff the San Joaquin watershed more than in the Sacramento watershed. This is because the snow that used to fall will turn into rain when the temperature increases. Also, Stockton is at risk of flooding from all sides: When it rains, the San Joaquin River and the Calaveras River, which is north of the city, flood. At high tide, water from the Pacific Ocean could move across the Delta, an extended, flat area, and flood the city from the west.

Dolan said, “Science about climate shows that the San Joaquin Valley will get less snow and more rain.” This means that big floods are most likely to happen in the area. She also said that the river’s levee system was built for a slow snowmelt, not an all-at-once flood. This means that more significant storms in the atmosphere will probably be too much for it to handle.

Stockton has grown quickly in the last few decades, even though this is a risk. The city has grown into a hub for the valley’s important agricultural industry. It is also close to a lot of people in the San Francisco Bay Area and has cheap land. This makes it a popular place for companies like Amazon to build new warehouses and packing facilities. During the last housing boom, builders built subdivision after subdivision along San Joaquin River to house new people, counting on the levees that had been there for decades to keep them safe.

Stockton is now one of the most diverse cities in the country, with large Mexican, Filipino, Chinese, Cambodian, and African American communities. Many of these have poverty rates much higher than state average, and they also face severe environmental justice problems: The neighborhoods in the southwest of Stockton are surrounded by highways, factories, and port infrastructure. This makes them some of the most polluted places in the State by soot and diesel.

“Many people of color and low-income people live right behind these levees because of redlining and past discrimination,” Barrigan-Parrilla said.

Mary Gómez has spent the last 50 years living in the low-income Conway Houses on the south side of Stockton. The Walker Slough, a small waterway flowing into the San Joaquin River, is next to the development. Gómez, who is 70 years old, told Grist that she worries a lot about flooding from the river and thinks that city officials don’t pay enough attention to the area.

“It’s because they think we’re poor,” she said. “We are worried because what if it is flooded upstream and they don’t tell us about it? Who will come to help us or get us out of this place? So many of us who have kids don’t have cars.”

Gómez also said that she worries about whether or not the elderly and disabled people in the neighborhood could get out in time. She said that her neighbors told her to put sandbags around her house to protect it the last time it almost flooded.

Local leaders have been trying for decades to get state and federal money for flood protection projects, but progress has been slow even though the risk of flooding has only grown. In 1995, when the federal government was deciding whether or not to say that the levees in the north and central Stockton were not good enough, the flood control authority in the area had to tax local property owners to pay for improvements to the levees. This was expensive in a room with a small tax base and a low income.

Chris Elias, who is in charge of the levees in the San Joaquin area as head of San Joaquin Area Flood Control Agency, said, “We have an impoverished community.” “We can’t give them more to do because they already have too much on their plates. So, we try these other ways to make money. But, just like everything else, we must compete with many other state priorities.”

Over the years, the State has passed several bond measures to pay for flood repairs, but officials in Stockton say they still need to get their fair share of that money. Elias noted that Stockton got only $1 for every $5 spent in Sacramento. He said that was partly because the state money went to ” shovel-ready ” projects, and officials in the Stockton area needed more money to plan projects and apply for grants.

Getting help from the government has also been problematic. In 2010, the Army Corps Engineers finally said that many of Stockton’s levees weren’t strong enough and that large parts of the city were at risk of flooding. For the next seven years, the agency looked into the problem, but in the end, it only came up with a partial answer. The Corps agreed to fix levees in the north and central Stockton for $1.3 billion, but it turned down a plan to strengthen levees in south Stockton and two nearby suburbs. These were the parts of the area where the economy was the worst, and the San Joaquin was most likely to flood. The agency said that fixing the levees in those areas would lead to more buildings, raising the risk. It has since agreed to look at that decision again, but ten years later, tens of thousands of people live in the area, and they are just as likely to flood as they were then.

Corps spokesperson from the Sacramento district said that the agency had been limited by an executive order that limits federal investments in flood-prone areas.

“By delaying decisions about the area south of Stockton, [the Corps] and its state and local partners didn’t have to wait any longer to get permission from Congress to protect Stockton from catastrophic flooding,” said a spokesperson. He also said that the agency plans to “reexamine the federal interest in the [area] and look for ways to manage flood risk and restore ecosystems.” But we don’t yet know what will come from that study.”

Another issue is that levees can’t stop flooding all by themselves. No matter how tall a levee is, a flood will always be able to knock it down. When a levee breaks, it usually causes more damage than if it had never been built. After Hurricane Katrina, this was shown in New Orleans. Many people in local government think that instead of just building more levees, State should turn the saved land into natural floodplains. The State did this near Sacramento with the Yolo Bypass.

“You can make a levee stronger and better, but it can still break,” said John Cain, conservation director at River Partners, a nonprofit that helps fund these kinds of floodplain restoration projects. “Give the system more room if you want it to be more stable.”

Cain’s group tried this method about 20 miles upstream on the San Joaquin by buying land that wasn’t being used and turning it into a natural floodplain. When it rains, water flowing down the river can spill onto the reserved ground instead of going to Stockton. This takes stress off the city’s levees. Officials in Stockton have been working on a similar plan closer to the city by building wide flood bypass called Paradise Cut on land that has been set aside for farming. The project would have made flooding in the Stockton area less likely by up to two feet, but the Army Corps turned it down in 2018 because they were curious if it would pass a cost-benefit analysis.

Also, the State has almost stopped paying for flood control, even though lawmakers are spending billions of dollars on drought relief. This means Stockton has to wait for the slow-moving Army Corps of Engineers to get project money. In his proposed budget for next year, Governor Gavin Newsom only wants to spend $135 million on flood management. This is less than  third of what Dolan’s group says the State should spend every year. In addition, the proposed budget wants to get back $40 million that was given in last year’s budget to fix up floodplains along the San Joaquin River.

Former state senator Machado hopes that the storms this month will bring attention to the risk of flooding in the State, but he is still determining if that attention will lead to more money being spent.

“After a flood, the holes get filled in, the sun comes out, and they forget.” “All of a sudden, there’s a drought or a long time when there’s no immediate threat of a flood, so it’s put on the back burner.”


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