The Next Katrina? California's Looming Levee Catastrophe

As the Governator steps down he faces widespread criticism about the economic and environmental condition of California, but there is one particular issue that hasn't seen a whole lot of attention—and it should.

California levee

As the Governator steps down he faces widespread criticism about the economic and environmental condition of California, but there is one particular issue that hasn't seen a whole lot of attention—its levees.

Thirteen hundred miles of weakened levees are on the brink of breaking, potentially leading to a Katrina-sized disaster in central California, reports Paul Tullis in the Jan. 3 edition of Miller-McCune. It would leave 520,000 acres of farmland and 515,000 residents in immediate danger, and there seems to be a real probability of it happening in the next two decades.

The threat to the levees stems from the very real fact that California is due for a large earthquake—one that could rattle the levees to their core. According to one report, there is a 63% chance that an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.7 or greater could hit the state's infamous Hayward fault in the next 25 years.

The levees were built mostly by the Chinese in the mid-1800s and haven't been attended to as well as they should mainly due to rivaling, fractious groups spread throughout the state. The majority of organized groups see the danger—much like climate change—as imminent and real, but some are unconcerned and just want to leave the levees alone. With severe budget deficits like the state currently has, scaring up cash for long-term planning can be painful and difficult. (Getting an exact figure on current repair costs is tricky—one estimate puts the price tag at $750 million; another has it jacked up to $53 billion.)

But costs cut both ways—and human costs can't be so easily calculated. If undeterred by earthquakes and flooding threats, the anti-rebuilding groups might be swayed by the fiscal damage that would be inflicted by such a disaster—a single levee break previously cost the state $450 million in damages and in a separate instance, when a beaver got busy with his digging in the wrong place, it took $90 million to fix the damaged levee.

There are solutions—namely building a peripheral canal or blocking water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta—but discussions remain held up by bureaucratic insider debates.

So will central California see its own Katrina? Or will the powers that be (hello, new/old governor!) respond before it's too late? Only time will tell. The clock is ticking.

Follow me, Jenara Nerenberg, on Twitter.

[NASA images]

[Rotator image by Nate Mandos]

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