If you’ve seen the images of the devastating floods in Houston caused by Tropical Storm Harvey, you may find yourself thinking “That could never happen here.” After all, the 40-50 inches of rain they received in just a few days is as much as Northern California often gets in an entire year.
Except that a similar event, albeit California-style, happened here in 1862. That already-wet winter saw a series of atmospheric rivers — our version of tropical storms — line up and pound the state mercilessly for 43 days.
Accurate rainfall records don’t exist from that time, but the results are well-documented: the Central Valley was transformed into a 300 mile long lake, and thousands of people drowned as well as hundreds of thousands of cattle. Entire towns were washed away. Sacramento was under 10 feet of water for so long that the capitol was relocated to San Francisco. Less than a year after the rain ended, the state was bankrupt.
If and when such an “ARkstorm”, as it has been labelled, were to occur again here, the damage would be unimaginable. There are now millions of people living in the valley who would lose their homes and possibly their lives. Flooding of this magnitude would destroy much of the agriculture in the valley, washing away trees and burying fields in feet of silt and debris.
Modern flood control projects — dams, levees and bypasses — might make some of the flooding less extreme than what occurred in 1862. But the vast areas of urban development that sheet water off into storm drains might cancel those out. And none of our flood infrastructure is build for an event of such magnitude, what is referred to as a 200-year flood.
Nor is our highway system capable of evacuating millions of people in a short period of time — the Sacramento Valley has just two freeways exiting the valley to the east and a single one to the west. Both of them are built on the lowest lying areas of the valley, and have a history of flooding even during less extreme rain events.
Our town of Winters was established about ten years after the Arkstorm. But it’s not hard to imagine what might happen here were another one to hit: there’s a photo in the Post Office of the town completely engulfed in water in 1910. Aside from a few low hills surrounding it, our area is entirely flat. Everyone could quickly get to higher ground, but most of the housing and agriculture would be lost.
Getting hit by a storm that drops an entire year’s worth of rain in less than a week is not a problem that anyone has a plan to handle, nor the experience to manage, much less the ability. Were we to base our planning and development on such events, everyone in the state would live in the hills and mountains. And no orchards or vineyards would be planted in the flatlands.
In other words, our state would be doing the opposite of what it is doing now.
As a farmer, I have seen extreme weather events wipe out entire crops on our farm. But I think most people can’t really imagine powerlessness on the scale that we saw this week in Houston. The people there deserve our support, assistance and compassion. It could be us next time.