Opinion: Rain! Is it suddenly a bad thing?

A few weeks ago, perhaps you read a letter to the editor of the Tribune from Tom Willey about the problem with the Central Valley’s ground water. Or perhaps you read the interview with him about a week later in which he expanded on his concerns about recurring droughts and the increasing depth of wells. And, perhaps you drew the conclusion that what we need to solve the problem is rain.

That’s a logical conclusion because the “water year,” which ended on September 30, was the second driest on record, and last year’s was the fifth driest. The net result of the drought, which I believe is a permanent condition in the Golden State, has been record low levels in some of our most important reservoirs.

Certainly, we need rain. But we need it on a consistent basis and, just as importantly, we need to store the rainwater that we get so that it can be used for food production and domestic needs. The rain that started last weekend was probably not the kind that helps more than a thimbleful in a bathtub. On its wire service, the Associated Press stated, “Recent storms have helped contain some of the nation’s largest wildfires this year. But it remains to be seen if the wet weather will make a dent in the drought that is plaguing California and the western United States.”

Bomb cyclone

Last weekend, when precipitation and wind hit Northern California, it wasn’t just rain; it was a “bomb cyclone.” It was not delivered in the preferred manner, that is gentle, consistent rain that can soak into the ground, fill aquifers, and not destroy agricultural products or cause community disasters.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the downpour was borne by an “atmospheric river” that produced drenching rain and winds that caused flooding, downed trees, collapsed structures, and mud slides. Flooding was reported throughout the San Francisco Bay Area as well as in Napa and Sonoma counties. The Oakland toll plaza for the Bay Bridge was inundated, Mt. Tamalpais endured six inches of rainfall in just 12 hours, and residents were urged to stay off the roads because of downed power poles.

The storm reached as far south as Santa Barbara County, where people in endangered areas were ordered to evacuate. Writing for the Associated Press, Jaclyn Diaz stated, “Emergency responders were concerned heavy rain … could trigger flows and flash floods that can trap residents in the hills of the area or sweep them away downstream.”

Flash flooding has caused major roads and highways to be closed. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that multiple landslides shut down SR 70 in Butte and Plumas Counties. Between 16 and 20 highways in Colusa and Yolo Counties were also closed due to flooding, debris, and mudslides.

Lost vegetation

With large sections of the state still on fire, we’d assume that the rain is welcome. And, to an extent, that’s true. But there is also a downside. In areas where fire has burned away vegetation, there is nothing to hold back the soil. So, heavy rain then causes mud slides. Debris from the fires also slides down inclines and causes further damage.

Trees and other vegetation not only help to preserve soil, they also are important components of the overall ecology. They are essential in maintaining a balance between flora and fauna. Over millions of years, that relationship has developed into a self-sustaining system. Torrential rain and its aftermath disrupt that balance and has long-term consequences.

Some consequences are of immediate concern. The Los Angeles Times reported that officials at the National Weather Service in Sacramento on Sunday advised on Twitter, “If you are near a burn scar, it may be too late to evacuate. Do not attempt to cross a debris flow. Take shelter in the highest floor of your home.”

It should be clear that California is in trouble when there is too little rain and too much rain (at least in short intervals). So,…

What can be done?

For decades in my memory, and probably even longer before I was born, we’ve been told to conserve the water that we have. As far back as the late 1960’s, I remember S.I. Hayakawa, then president of San Francisco State College (now State University) announcing during a drought that he and his wife “flush for Number 2, but not for Number 1” as a method to conserve water.

We’ve also been urged to install “low-flow” plumbing hardware, to take shorter showers, to rip out grass and replace it with drought-resistant plants, and so forth. None of those things have prevented a permanent state of drought (interrupted by very short periods of “normalcy”).

What we really need are major water projects, funding by our state and federal tax dollars. Instead of state legislators spending our money on measures to raise our consciousness with regard to whatever politically correct fad is popular or pouring billions into a ridiculous bullet train from Merced to Bakersfield, we need our tax dollars to go to improving the state hydrology.

We need to devise ways to prevent rain runoff from winding up in the Pacific Ocean. We have experts who can figure out how to save certain fish without losing whole rivers. We know where new dams can be intelligently built, creating new reservoirs.

From the federal government, we need projects similar to the ones that were created during the FDR administrations or the highway system during the Eisenhower era. For example, only the feds can construct a pipeline that can transport water from areas that have far more than they need to California. The problem is that California has 12.5 percent of the national population, but we have only 2 percent of the representatives in the U.S. Senate, where legislation is sure to fail.

Unfortunately, this will never change without a revision of the U.S. Constitution, and any attempt at making that document fair and representative will always fail for exactly the same reason.

• • •

Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.