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November 21, 2005

And Now, For Some Good News

Man, California's future is a bit of a downer:

The scenario is as simple as what unfolded in New Orleans. The
Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is below sea level. It is protected by a
network of earthen levees dating to the frontier era, many built by
Chinese laborers following completion of the trans-Sierra railroad.
Through this delta flow the waters of Northern California, which are
channeled southward to the semi-arid reaches of Central and Southern
California via a network of aqueducts and pipelines representing a
multibillion-dollar investment by state and federal government across
75 years of construction.
Ringing the delta is a rich empire
of agriculture and suburban development. Should a magnitude 6.5
earthquake strike the San Francisco Bay Area — almost a certainty by
mid-century, though it could happen today — about 30 major failures can
be expected in the earthen levees.
About 3,000 homes and
85,000 acres of cropland would be submerged. Saltwater from San
Francisco Bay would invade the system, forcing engineers to shut down
the pumps that ship water to Central and Southern California while the
levees were being repaired. This would cut off water to the State Water
Project and the federal Central Valley Project.

Keep in mind that FEMA, a few years back, released a report arguing the three most likely catastrophes in America were terrorism in New York, a hurricane in New Orleans, and a quake in San Francisco.  Given the uncanny accuracy of their predictions, we're really in a two-down-one-to-go situation.  In other words, we're waiting.  How much sounder a strategy, then, if we spent the time preparing instead.  Maybe Arnold can offer a proposition on that next year.

November 21, 2005 | Permalink


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Ezra, over at Grist we recently put up a nifty map showing the next likely disaster spots. Suffice to say, none of them are preparted.

Check it out.

Posted by: Dave Roberts | Nov 21, 2005 1:04:30 PM

But the SF Bay Area had an earthquake of greater than 6.5 magnitude - on October 17, 1989, when a 7.1 temblor in the Loma Prieta mountains collapsed part of the Bay Bridge, wrecked the Santa Cruz Mall, stopped the World Series, etc. It was on all the TVs and everything.

Yet none of these frontier-era levees seems to have broken; there was no report of flooding as a result of the quake. Why should an even smaller quake in the same area today produce such heavy damage to the levees?

Posted by: Matt | Nov 21, 2005 2:24:20 PM

Too clever by half. Loma Prieta is in the Bay Area like the Delaware is in Manhattan -- not. The Loma Prieta epicenter is a good 65 miles from the city, 75 miles from Oakland. Yet it still knocked down part of the Bay Bridge and pancaked a freeway in West Oakland.

However, the Times scenario does gloss too much. A 6.5 on the San Andreas is too far from the delta levees to have that sort of effect. The wrong kind of 6.5 on the Hayward or the Greenville fault, though, dozens of miles closer than the San Andreas, might well do the trick.

I was east of the Berkeley hills for the quake in '89, and way out there not much happened. I did drive up into the hills to see the sun go down on a city without electricity with fires burning in the Marina. Even a 60+ mile distant 7.1 can do some damage on weak geology. The bayfill in the Marina was weak, and so are those levees.

Posted by: wcw | Nov 21, 2005 3:14:13 PM

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