Aug 30 2011

The Next New Orleans? (Part 5)


In the past 6 years since Hurricane Katrina caused levee breaches and flooded New Orleans, a lot of steps have been taken in the Central Valley to alleviate risk. Over 70 critical sites along the levees have been repaired in the Sacramento Valley alone. Multiple agencies are working together better than before between the USACE, DWR, and other resource agencies. The USACE made it a goal to repair at least 10,000 linear feet of levee every year and seem to have stuck to that. Budget cuts may hinder that moving forward, but great strides have been made. Below is video put out by the USACE Sacramento District and it’s pretty well done, covering some of the issues that I have previously covered in this series and helps visualize the levee system in place.



As they state in the clip, the Central Valley Levee system is still highly vulnerable. I know that the situation is even being looked at systemically, not merely weak point by weak point. All the bank protection work that has been done to repair critical sites is great; but it’s ultimately a band aid, and doesn’t solve bigger picture issues. A 500 year event would still likely swamp the Sacramento  metro area, not even accounting for any potential levee breaches. That’s an extreme event, but with flooding it’s usually just a matter of time.

Jeffrey Mount, a geologist at the University of California, Davis, predicts that there is a 64 percent chance of a catastrophic levee failure in the delta in the next 50 years. – Alex Prud’homme (NY Times)

The article in the NY Times goes on:

Experts warn that there are two events that could destroy the levees and set off a megaflood. One is an earthquake; the second is a violent Pacific superstorm, like the one called the Pineapple Express, which sweeps water off the ocean around Hawaii and dumps it on the mainland with firehose intensity while battering the coast with high wind and waves.

A “Pineapple Express” storm is actually what drove the flooding in 1997 with a high rainfall intensity over snow (it occurred around New Year’s Day). One of the other things the article mentions is the potential for the water supply to be affected in the delta. This was something I had not even thought of before.


The hope is that program will be in the black by the time a super soaker hits Sacramento (the 1860s flood came after 45 days of rain) and that the local levees, often 100 years old and built with mud and rocks, and insurance policies hold up under the deluge.

“These efforts are a way to ensure people are protected in the event of a disaster,” [Mara] Lee [Rep. Doris Matsui Staffer] said. “We have been lucky we haven’t had a major flood in several years.”  – Hugh Biggar (newsreview.com)

I’ve seen estimates that it would take about $42 billion more to get the levee system to where it needs to be for reasonable protection of Sacramento and the Central Valley. As bleak as the articles paint the picture, much has been done, including the repairs mentioned above, the work on the ring levee around Marysville, the improvements of the Natomas levees along the Sacramento, Feather River levee improvements and the work beginning in West Sacramento as well.

The protocol in America is that politics can and will get in the way of what really needs to get done until an actual catastrophe happens. This seems especially true when it comes to infrastructure needs lately. I hope and pray that is not the case with California’s Central Valley and the City of Sacramento.


Flood Future by Hugh Biggar (newsreview.com)

California’s Next Nightmare by Alex Prud’homme (NY Times)

Recommended Resource

Battling the Inland Sea by Robert Kelley

The Next New Orleans? (Full Series Links)

Part 1: History of Central Valley flooding to 1860s

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

Part 3: The 1997 Flood and its impact

Part 4: Hurricane Katrina and the resulting actions in the Central Valley

Part 5: The current status of the Central Valley System, the lurking dangers (This post)

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