Apr 21 2012
In a visit to Silicon Valley earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein issued a timely warning about the potentially catastrophic effects of sea-level rise throughout the Bay Area and the need to act now to control the damage. She knows that water issues are likely to dominate California politics for the next decade.
But the biggest, most immediate threat of all is one we've known about for years and could fix if we had the political will. We need to shore up the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta's deteriorating 1,300 mile levee system that protects the fresh supply of water that 65 percent of Californians drink. An earthquake could cause the utter failure of the levees in minutes, a catastrophe that could obscure other damage. A break in a strategic location would allow the salt water of the San Francisco Bay to pour into the fresh water of the Delta, destroying the fresh water that provides half of Silicon Valley's supply. This could happen any day. But the state holds the levees hostage to a broader and more controversial comprehensive water plan. It is an irresponsible gamble.
That's no reason to ignore the threat of the sea-level rise, however. Scientists estimate that the sea level in California could rise 16 inches in the next 40 years and 55 inches by 2100. As Feinstein pointed out in her San Jose visit, the impact would be huge. Many populated areas ringing the bay are below sea level.
Any significant sea rise would collapse the levees built to manage the remaining San Francisco Bay salt ponds. Major campuses such as Facebook, Google, Yahoo, DreamWorks, Cisco and Intuit would be flooded. Thousands of homes and apartments from Newark to San Jose to East Palo Alto and Foster City would be destroyed. Portions of Highways 101 and 237 would be underwater.
Steve McCormick, president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, told the Mercury News: "What we are facing is not a potential, but an inevitable catastrophe .... It's really just a matter of time before these current levees collapse.''
Feinstein, McCormack and a coalition including business leaders and environmentalists are trying to raise more than $1 billion over the next decade to build new levees and restore wetlands that would protect the Bay. Federal, state and local governments will need to step up, since the ruin of the Bay Area would be an economic disaster. The BART expansion that brought Feinstein to town provides a model for how everyone can pull together.
Homeowners and businesses that built on land below sea level helped cause this problem, but government at all levels also invested in roads and other systems to support those sites, whose development they often encouraged. Now it's time to pull together to protect these areas and the region's economy.
Three years before Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans Times-Picayune published a four-day front-page series, "Washed Away," that warned of what could happen if a major hurricane struck. It outlined how strategic levee failure could submerge the city, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. Reporters and editors who worked on the series found little satisfaction in how eerily accurate their warnings proved to be.
California and the Bay Area has had plenty of warnings. What more will it take to prevent our own Katrina?