The Swarm

Mix it up with The Bee's editorial board.

July 8, 2011
Could Sacramento become a 'modern-day Atlantis'?

SNN2005JJatlantisNE_737370a.jpgHaving advanced my career by writing about the perils of floods and other natural disasters, I understand the desire of a journalist to grab readers by the collar and scream at them: Be scared. Be very scared!

Even so, I winced reading Alex Prud'homme's piece Sunday in the New York Times Magazine, with its alarming headline: 'California's Next Nightmare: How a failing levee system could turn Sacramento into a modern-day Atlantis.'

Atlantis? Really?

To begin with, Atlantis was an island, and it sank into the sea - a large body of saltwater - in a single day, according to Plato's account.

Secondly, scholars are unsure if this mythical island ever existed.

So could Sacramento become a modern-day Atlantis? Sure, and we could also become a modern-day Elysian Fields, final resting place of the heroic and virtuous.

Beyond that, there's the problem of how Prud'homme - and whoever edited his piece - handles the science of Sacramento's flood risk. In a paragraph that describes Sacramento as "the most flood-prone city in the nation," we see these sentences: "Experts warn that there are two events that could destroy the levees and set off a megaflood. One is an earthquake; the second is a violent Pacific superstorm."

This is about half right. Sacramento's big threat is a Pineapple Express that dumps massive volumes of precipitation simultaneously into the watersheds of the American and Feather rivers, the latter of which flows into the Sacramento River upstream of the city.

But earthquakes?

That is a serious threat only to levees far downstream of Sacramento, in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Quake-punctured levees could inundate hundreds of square miles of Delta farmland and disrupt the water system of much of California. But Sacramento is too far upstream to be affected.

Along those same lines, the article suggests a megaflood in the Delta could shut down water exports. "Saltwater would be sucked from the (San Francisco) Bay (in what is known as a big gulp) and impelled into the delta, contaminating drinking supplies for 25 million people."

Again, the science is a bit off. An earthquake in dry times could indeed destroy Delta levees and flood the land they protect, resulting in saltwater being sucked from the Bay. But a megaflood? It would break levees but also bring behind it a continuous and large flow of freshwater, keeping saltwater at bay.

The basic point of Prud'homme's piece - that a megaflood in Delta may be inevitable - can't be disputed.

But why no mention of the mega-levee being built in Natomas? Or the new spillway on Folsom Dam? Is Sacramento really doing nothing to avoid becoming "a modern-day Atlantis?"

Given that Prud'homme just came out with a highly praised book on water - "The Ripple Effect" - and previously collaborated with Julia Child on her best-selling autobiography, "My Life in France," I had expected more.

But enough of this rant.

Given that the New York Times has now declared that Sacramento has no future, I need to go home and tie my canoe to a second-floor window.

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About The Swarm

The Swarm is written by members of The Sacramento Bee's editorial board. They meet daily and are separate from the newsroom. Views included here are those of individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect those of a majority of the board or the positions expressed in The Bee's editorials.

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