Friday, June 30, 2023

#181 / Catastrophe Coverup: Arkstorms Arriving


Christopher Cox has written an extraordinary article for The New York Times Magazine. The article is titled, "The Trillion-Gallon Question," and it appeared in the Sunday, June 25, 2023, edition. There will be a paywall, I am pretty sure, but give that title a click and see if you can slip past it. If you can't, I'll provide a pretty extensive set of quotations, below, but the whole article (fourteen pages, counting full page photographs) can't really be reproduced here. You will have to track it down for yourself - and I do recommend that you do that! To the extent that Californians believe that they should plan for what they will likely have to face in the future, Cox's article might properly be denominated, "required reading."

Cox is warning Californians that future storms - the kind of storms that we should expect to occur, given the results of global warming, storms that are now officially called "ARKstorms," with a little genuflection to the Bible - will almost certainly cause at least one major dam failure in California, and probably multiple dam failures. These dam failures will directly affect both Northern California and Southern California, and will inundate many of the state's cities and urban areas (not to mention our Central Valley farmlands). If dams fail, as can be expected, an untold number of people will die in the floods. These catastrophic events - these ARKstorms - could occur at virtually any time; they are not just long-into-the-future events of a hypothetical nature.
As Cox recounts the story, those in charge of the state's dams, and dam safety, are doing their best to "cover up" the dangers that they know are ahead - and they are doing so for what might be counted as a "good reason." These dangers are just too overwhelming to contemplate, and there aren't any easy to implement, immediate solutions. Let me say, to be clear, that Cox does not use the term "cover up" himself. That's my language. I think Cox would probably agree, though, that knowledgeable state officials are going out of their way to "downplay" and to divert attention from very real dangers. Here, by way of a quotation, is the kind of language that Cox uses: 
In the mid-2000s, Cox [a different Cox, not the author of the article I'm quoting] assembled a group at the U.S.G.S. to study what would happen if the atmospheric rivers from two notable California flood years, 1969 and 1986, occurred back to back. They named the resulting scenario the Arkstorm: flooding throughout the state, water depths of up to 20 feet in the Central Valley and economic losses of $725 billion. When the report on this research was done, the authors presented it to emergency managers, municipal authorities and dam owners, including D.W.R. [the Department of Water Resources]. The response was demoralizing. “They said, ‘That’s too big, that’s ridiculous,’” says Lucy Jones, the chief scientist for the project.

The authors of the Arkstorm report had a response ready, however. Their imaginary storm was modeled on the Great Flood of 1862, which also made a lake of the Central Valley and destroyed, by one account, a quarter of all the buildings in the state. “The minute that you say this is too big, this couldn’t happen, this is unrealistic,” says Michael Dettinger, a hydrologist who worked on the report, “I can just point at 1862 and say, ‘1862 was far worse than this.’”
The original plan for the Arkstorm scenario was to have D.W.R. and other agencies translate the storms they had created into water on the ground: turning meteorology into hydrology. But according to Cox, “D.W.R. ghosted the Arkstorm project about three-quarters of the way through.” He never got a straight answer about why, but one of his contacts there told him it was “political.” (“Is that a capital P or a small p?” Cox asked.) My own reporting would eventually reveal another possible answer: The numbers were scary enough to shut down any discussion.

The best the Arkstorm team could manage for the final report was this line, buried on Page 59, which read like a statement from a hostage negotiation: “Because of the extremely sensitive nature of a dam-damage scenario, the selection of a particular dam to imagine as hypothetically damaged in such a way is left to emergency planners.”

Cox does document what would happen if "a particular dam" were to fail. In fact, Cox looks at many of the state's dams, in all parts of the state, and outlines likely outcomes. The Seven Oaks Dam, for example, is located on the Santa Ana River, in San Bernardino County. If it were to fail, Cox gives the following report. To call the results "catastrophic" would definitely be a linguistic effort to "downplay" what would happen: 

From the top of Seven Oaks, you can see the crowded valley below, home to more than four million people. If you keep following the Santa Ana, you’ll reach the hills above Anaheim and Orange County, home to millions more. The wave running down the river following a dam breach would remain high all the way to those hills. Nearly a mile from the dam, it would still be 69 feet from top to bottom. By the time it got to the San Bernardino airport, an hour later, it would have spread out and slowed down, at merely 30 feet tall.

The inundation map shows all that would be caught in its path. Red dots for fire stations, purple dots for police stations, green squares for schools: Highland Grove Elementary, Cypress Elementary, Lankershim Elementary, Warm Springs Elementary, Bing Wong Elementary, Monterey Elementary, H. Frank Dominguez Elementary, Urbita Elementary, Woodrow Wilson Elementary, Patricia Beatty Elementary, Fremont Elementary, Ina Arbuckle Elementary, West Riverside Elementary.

Houses would be knocked off their foundations, warehouses would crumple, commercial jets would be tossed about. Much of the infrastructure along the river, bridges, highways and railroads, would be washed away. Thousands of people would have minutes to evacuate. The death toll would be far higher than that of an ordinary flood. If the surge found a flaw in Prado Dam, which sits above Orange County, all of Anaheim would be added to the inundation zone, Disneyland included, before the water met the sea (emphasis added).

You can see why state officials are not going out of their way to advertise the kind of impacts that dam failures could have. There isn't any easy solution. The facilities we have in place, it seems, are simply not designed to handle the kind of storms that now seem ever more probable. 

What does Cox the reporter think? Here is how he ends his article. This is a pretty radical view of what to do!
Engineers could keep raising the levees, holding back the water as best they can. Dam owners could build more spillways like the one at Folsom or the ARC spillway planned for New Bullards Bar. And state authorities could get better at evacuations, start drilling for dam failures as we do for earthquakes.

Probably California will have to do all three. But climate change requires a different kind of adaptation. What if, rather than trying to out-engineer the weather, or evacuate and return in an endless cycle, we changed where and how we live? It would be not an administrative feat but a psychological one, an attempt to check, in John McPhee’s words, “the powerful fabric of ambition that impelled people to build towns and cities where almost any camper would be loath to pitch a tent.”

Americans aren’t good at retreating, and the ones who wound up in California, the cliché goes, are the people who didn’t stop pushing forward until they ran out of continent. The Indigenous population, though, knew a floodplain when they saw one. Is it unimaginable that we might learn that lesson as we unlearn the ones of the 20th century?
Maybe this could be California: It’s a drought year. The streams dry up. There’s barely enough water for the people and the crops and the animals, but because there aren’t too many of them, they survive. The next year it floods. The snow builds in the Sierra, storm after incredible storm, until the spring arrives and it all goes rushing out to the ocean. The people, though, live well above the rising water. The storms are intense, but after each one passes, the land around them, dun and brittle and dusty for years now, blooms with a million newborn flowers and endless gold-green grasses (emphasis added).
Cox, in other words, is suggesting that Californians should take account of what that "Two World Hypothesis" seeks to have us realize. We live, most immediately, in a world that we build ourselves. Ultimately, however, we live in the World of Nature, and to learn to live within its limits, and to configure our own designs accordingly, might well be the only way our civilization will survive. 
It is worth noting that Cox is not the only one providing such advice. An article by Raymond Zhong - an article that I first saw in the San Francisco Chronicle, but which came, originally, from The New York Times - provides a more general warning that "intensifying rains pose hidden flood risks," to quote the headline in the Chronicle.

Let's take seriously the fundamental principle that underlies my "Two Worlds Hypothesis." It is sometimes expressed this way: "Nature Bats Last."

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