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The Planet

Mother Nature Is Trying To Tell Us Something. But Will We Listen?

The Planet, March 1997, Volume 4, number 2

Mother Nature Is Trying to Tell Us Something. But Will We Listen?

The editorial below addresses the January flooding in California, but many of the same arguments could be made for flood control in other states.

By Barbara Boyle
Sierra Club Regional Director, California, Nevada and Hawaii

The torrential rains that poured down across California in January caused incalculable damage and heartache. The massive flooding devastated property and led to several deaths. On the North Coast, mudslides crushed entire neighborhoods.

Yet before the waters receded, the champions of concrete were already raising the cry for more dams, notably Auburn Dam, which the Sierra Club helped stop last fall.

In the Sacramento area, catastrophic flooding occurred from levee failure on the lower reaches of almost every river except the American, the river where Auburn Dam is proposed to be built. Instead of building dams, the state and federal government should focus their funding on repairing the existing levees, many of which date back to the early part of this century, and moving residents out of harm's way. Historically, much of the Central Valley near river channels was a great network of wetlands which absorbed flood waters and helped to prevent catastrophic floods. Unfortunately, over 90 percent of California's wetlands have been drained and filled and are now covered by developments or farms. We should be planning regionally to allow development only on the least flood-prone areas. We also need to look at the potential for improving human safety and ecological health through restoring wetlands in some areas and creating seasonal wetlands in others.

Mother Nature dealt a hard blow to California's North Coast, but the damage was exacerbated by human foolishness. In addition to flooding, hundreds of mudslides blocked roads and destroyed homes. Much of this was due to irresponsible timber harvests. Nevertheless, the California Department of Forestry continues to permit timber harvest plans in areas that the Division of Mines and Geology considers unstable for logging and logging roads.

Forests are not only huge sponges for rainfall; their root systems also act as webbing that keeps the soil in place. And when steep hillsides are carved with tens of thousands of logging roads, they quickly lose their ability to absorb water, which has nowhere to go but downhill. All too often, gigantic slides result.

The slides themselves are disasters, but when clearcut forests no longer absorb the rainfall, flood waters are filled with silt from logging roads, destroying not only people's homes but also the fish in the rivers. On California's coast, the once-abundant coho salmon have dwindled to 1 percent of their former numbers. The lessons are simple.

  1. Repair existing levees; don't build massive new dams.
  2. Don't develop in the floodplain.
  3. Restore the wees; don't build massive new dams.
  4. Don't develop in the floodplain.
  5. Restore the wetlands that can help prevent flooding.
  6. Don't clearcut and build logging roads on steep, unstable slopes. in the cheapest possible locations. Big timber companies want to cut trees anywhere it's profitable.

We can learn our lesson, or we can keep marching to the tune of the almighty dollar. It's our choice. Let's make a decision we can live with.

New Opportunity For Yosemite

Yosemite Valley is slowly drying out after what rangers are calling the worst flood in the park's history, leaving behind hundreds of upturned tent-cabins and acres of wrecked camp sites. But the natural process that swept away a considerable amount of the human imprint on Yosemite Valley presents an opportunity to restore the valley to a more natural state.

Many of the goals of the 1980 General Management Plan for Yosemite can be achieved as part of the restoration efforts. This includes keeping the valley's lodgings intact, but moving about one-quarter of the remaining buildings, including worker accommodations and offices, out of the valley and relocating campgrounds and outdoor facilities away from the now-receded Merced river. To take action: Contact Sierra Club Yosemite Committee Chair Linda Wallace at (916) 758-5034; e-mail: <> for information on upcoming service trips to Yosemite and letter-writing opportunities.

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