The sky has been raining sweet water across our landscape. What happens once that precious water hits the ground? Is rainwater welcome where it flows and where it ends up? Our collective actions make a big difference about how to answer these questions.
Stormy Times and Mud
For a while in the recent past, the ocean has been stormy with massive wind-blown, white capped waves. We get outdoors when we can and gaze out to sea from the bluffs, noticing bands of brown water coloring the otherwise steel gray ocean. Even streams draining relatively pristine watersheds are pulsing sediment now, providing the sand that will replenish beaches. Our mountains are naturally erosive, but humans have been adding to that erosive potential to our own detriment for far too long.
Do We Need Reminders?
Most years, winter storms remind us of certain places that routinely make the news. Suddenly, people remember that they live in drainage basins also known as “watersheds.” As winter rains commence, more people recall more often the names of rivers and streams. It is flooding time. The flooding San Lorenzo River often threatens Felton Grove and Paradise Park, causing mandatory evacuations. The Pajaro River, Corralitos Creek, and Salsipuedues likewise often pose flooding threats in Watsonville.
Floods: Non-Natural Disasters
Government and the media have trained us to call flooding a “natural disaster.” As with most disinformation, such “fake news” coalesces on grains of truth. Rain is natural. Atmospheric rivers are normal. Flooding happens naturally. Landslides and debris flows occur without human mistakes. If we didn’t have a deep geological history of erosion, some say that the Santa Cruz Mountains would be as tall as the Sierra Nevada. And yet, the frequency, severity, and impacts of damaging flooding is nearly entirely the fault of humans, resulting from poor decisions, often due to greed exercised through political power.
US Flooding History
For the USA, the best documented history linking damaging flooding to greed and political power has been focused on the floods along the Mississippi River. No one should unquestionably call floods ‘natural disasters’ after the investigations and media about Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. I am disappointed by the cultural amnesia of the import of George W Bush’s admission that the sole book he recalled reading was John Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. That book documented how the Mississippi’s 1927 flood propelled popular sentiment to supporting federal assistance programs for flood-ravaged communities. And so, was it any coincidence that decisions at the highest level of that Bush administration delayed federal assistance for Hurricane Katrina preparation, creating predictable levels of death, destruction, and suffering? Did these officieals actually think this was a good way to drive home the Republican party’s political message that Americans should not depend on federal governmental assistance? To shirk collective responsibility of such human-caused disasters, we must be trained to look past the decisions that ‘We the People’ made that are responsible for flood suffering. Our third-rate democracy allows greed-driven political decisions to create unsustainable levees to support short-term profits for commerce and real estate, benefiting the very few with disastrous long-term impacts disproportionately borne by the poorest, most marginalized communities. For this economic model and democratic structure to keep some semblance of function, some in power recognize that governmental assistance disaster recovery programs are important. I urge you to think about the lessons from Mississippi’s floods and national politics when thinking about local flooding and the political and media messages that entertain us during such disasters.
Recent Watsonville Flooding
Low-income housing areas in Watsonville recently experienced ‘unexpected’ flooding after levee failures. Why weren’t the residents notified? To believe the media, the fault was theirs: some hadn’t signed up for reverse 911…there was a warning! We pride ourselves with our disaster management systems. The Federal National Weather Service office in Monterey has highly skilled personnel who turn their full attention to flood monitoring, drawing data from radar, real-time rain, stream, and river gauges, and powerful computing. Flood watches come first then flood warnings. Interagency cooperation allows reverse 911 messages to be broadcast via cell phones and land lines, dedicated weather radio channels create alarms, and social media and web posts get regularly updated including pickup locations for sandbags. Emergency personnel deploy quickly to close off flooded neighborhoods.
Recent Rural Road Collapses
Landslides and trees fell across roads, blocking transportation routes for rural communities. Sometimes, the downslope side of the road collapsed. First cracks appeared, running parallel to the slope; then the side of the road slumped lower than the rest; after that, the section of road slid down the hill. Two lane roads will now have only one lane sections until The County can afford expensive repairs. Other times, the hill above the road slid down onto the roadbed, sometimes right across the road. Soil, gravel, rocks, and boulders blocked roads. You might be able to see the top of the landslide, bare rock or dirt scalloped away, a boundary of precarious bared roots now reaching into the air. Somewhere, someone in the County is mapping the obstructions and prioritizing the deployment of detour signs and earth moving equipment while road closure maps are posted online. Meanwhile, rural residents tap into reserved groceries and try to figure out how to get to town for their jobs and supplies.
What Do We Ask?
The questions we ask about how these flood or landslide disasters occurred says a lot. Do we ask why people chose to live in such disaster-prone areas? Do we ask what history made such areas disaster prone? Do we ask how we can make people safer in the future? Do we ask how we can avoid repeating poor historical decisions that lead to such disasters? How do we prioritize which questions to focus upon? Who should be asking which questions? All these questions have answers including economic, political, and social dimensions.
By law, real estate sales must disclose known disasters, so peoples’ choices about where to live should be well informed, but are they? It would be interesting to examine the history of the Watsonville levee failure: who built the levee – how and why? Did decision makers ask levee engineers to propose designs that accounted for historic flooding, maintenance expenses, and upstream development/land management constraints? If historical decision making was faulty, how has current decision making improved? As we recover from disasters, do we ask our elected officials to prioritize not only emergency response but also improved resilience?
As old, poorly designed levees fail across California and locally, we should be thinking about floodplain restoration wherever possible. Why do we continue pouring money into developing flood prone areas with real estate improvements that benefit the very few? I have been reflecting on the upswing in development of downtown Santa Cruz, which clearly is unsustainable both from river flooding and sea level rise…there are other town centers to develop that are safer! Instead, the City is pursuing treating the San Lorenzo like a big flood conveyance culvert instead of the river it is…as short-term ‘fix.’ To our south, the Pajaro and Salinas River floodplains could be restored to provide more flood protection for surrounding communities: there are many farmers willing to sell their land, but who should pay?
As we develop new roads, trails, and other infrastructure, we should be mindful of their contribution to flooding. Is the City of Santa Cruz integrating rainwater catchment with their new developments? I see no evidence of flood mitigation with the ongoing, endless Highway 1 ‘improvements’ near Santa Cruz. The rail trail developments certainly don’t adequately address hydrological impacts. In our natural lands, there is no consistent approach to trail use to assure recreational impacts address flooding. Meanwhile, at Cotoni Coast Dairies, BLM bulldozed acres of bare soil just before this winter’s rains without any erosion control – slurries of mud and debris are flowing into streams and wetlands.
We can do better. Previously, I urged everyone to be involved with rain gardens – either as volunteers in public spaces or on their own lands. Cry out to the right people when you see bare soil – on farmlands or in construction zones. Only support trails groups like the Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Stewardship if/when they create soils saturation and trail use indexes that inform conservation lands managers to close and then re-open trails as appropriate and according to their purported mission to create ‘responsible outdoor recreation.’ Hold elected officials responsible to improve the resilience of infrastructure repairs/construction, enforce adequate disclosure notifications during real estate sales, and shunt new development to better areas. Together, we can be effective land stewards by fighting the greed that would otherwise cause un-natural flooding and landslide disasters in the future. We should never be cursing the rain.
-this column originally published by our County’s preminant journalist Bruce Bratton at his BrattonOnline.com weekly blog