Aug 25 2011

The Next New Orleans? (Part 2)


Is Sacramento and the Central Valley of California the next potential New Orleans? The “Inland Sea” definitely had its flooding problems early on in its development. The flooding and failed disjointed levees of the 1850s and 1860s left the Central Valley of California at an impasse in their flood control problems.

The issue was straightforward: who should be listened to in this matter, the experts of the new national engineering priesthood, or those who lived in the Valley and, self-taught and on the basis of actual observations, developed their own ideas about what needed to be done?

It was a significant moment in the Sacramento Valley, therefore, when in the early 1870s a new player, in the form of high-level engineering expertise, national in its networks and origins, entered the flood control dialogue. It made its appearance in the large and self-assured person of a general in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Barton S. Alexander. – Robert Kelley, “Battling the Inland Sea”

The wrestling with how to combat the flooding now had a national influence on it and the debate raged. The Corps initial plan, based on a study on the Mississippi River, was a levee-only system, forcing all of the flow of the Sacramento River into a single channel. The thought was that the single high velocity channel would carve enough depth to hold all of the flow within high enough levees. The counter to that was the argument that the single channel was nowhere near large enough to contain the Sacramento River and that side canals and bypasses were necessary to relieve the flood flows.

After a long and complex process, in which the state and federal interests actually stepped out until 1880s, the first river restoration and flood control projects began in 1902 and led to about 90% of the current system completed by the 1940s. As we move forward in this series, you’ll see the system is actually a good (and complex) mix of levees and bypasses. This system would be severely tested in 1986 and 1987.

1986 Flooding

We were at the Pay ‘N Save standing back near the pharmacy… There was a line of people filling their prescriptions when we heard someone running down the aisle… saying, “Everybody out of the mall! The levee has broken behind us!” I told my two kids to run as fast as they could to our car. – Harold Kruger, Marysville Appeal-Democrat, February 25, 1986. (from Battling the Inland Sea)


In the flood of 1986, levee breaks occurred at Olivehurst, Linda, Thornton, and 4 delta islands. Lake Tahoe actually rose 6 inches alone from the storm that caused all of this.


Thirteen people lost their lives and 50,000 were evacuated. In some areas, the rainfall equated to a 1,000 year event!

Afterwards, if one were to take statistical probability as a guide, there was every reason to believe we would not see another flood of that magnitude [the 1986 flood] for many years… – David Kennedy, former Director of California Department of Water Resources, from his forward to Battling the Inland Sea

As we’ll see, the 1986 flood would easily be eclipsed in an another major flood event just over 10 years later.

To be continued…

3 pings

  1. » Moving in the Right Direction: The 2012 Central Valley Flood Protection Plan Public Draft Hydraulically Inclined

    […] along with $70 billion of assets in an area that already saw more than $3 billion in damages in 1986 and 1997. The Sacramento metro area is particularly vulnerable, not even protected up to the […]

  2. » The Next New Orleans? (Part 5) Hydraulically Inclined

    […] Part 2: History of Central Valley flooding to 1940s, the 1986 Flood […]

  3. The Next New Orleans? (Part 1) » Hydraulically Inclined

    […] The Next New Orleans? (Part 2) » […]

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