Oakland’s future flood problems, or: How I learned to stop worrying and watch downtown Oakland turn into a stinky mud-puddle

Dinosaur enthusiasts get to ponder one of geology’s great mysteries; what was the cataclysmic event which began the end of the dinosaurs? Was it a giant meteor hitting the Earth? A build-up of so much air-borne volcanic ash from seismic activity, that the world was in darkness for years? Was it a plague or a new kind of pest? Was it an ice age? People in Oakland may now get to enjoy the dubious honor of watching the single cataclysmic event which turns their city from a charming bayside metropolis into a pollution-ridden traffic hellhole with frequent floods and a noticeable stench.

Sea levels rose by 7 inches in the last century. The last four inches of increase happened after the year 2000 and scientists have measured a trend that sea levels are continuing to rise faster than they ever have before.

“According to data assembled by Climate Central from NOAA and peer-reviewed scientific papers, melting is on track to produce a sea level rise of 1 to 8 inches by the year 2030 — that’s 14 years from now — and up to 19 inches by 2050. Climate Central also states “Rising seas dramatically increase the odds of damaging floods from storm surges,” doubling the odds of a “century” or worse flood occurring in the next 16 years. Century floods are defined as “floods so high they would historically be expected just once per century.” Locally it would be a surge of three feet above the Bay’s mean high tide.”  – Barbara Grady

Here is a visual model of where we are likely to see flooding when there is a three foot (one meter) sea level rise. Source: http://geology.com/sea-level-rise/san-francisco.shtml

3 foot sea level rise

“Because the flatlands are the lowest part of the city, they’ll receive the backflow from a storm drainage system that relies on gravity when it overflows, and when a sewer system that planners expect will be overwhelmed by sustained high waters malfunctions. Water, and whatever industrial runoff or sewage is mixed with it, would flow back out of storm sewers onto streets, yards and basements.” – Barbary Grady, oaklandlocal.com

It’s obvious when you consider the flood map that east bay communities need to begin work on not just one, but many wetlands creation and restoration projects as soon as possible to prevent some very stinky catastrophes. Wetlands act as a sponge to soak up extra water, and help both with buffering high tides and creek drainage. The  wetlands which our communities need to develop to survive will also be a beautiful and tranquil enhancement to stressful, industrial city landscapes. I’m writing today about a proposed wetlands project which has been shut down by the Oakland city council already; but determined local residents are opposed to the enormous planned development in a spot which is clearly best suited to be a wetlands flood-prevention zone, not a spiffy new mega-mall and luxury condo complex which will see flooding in the next fifty years.

20-year-old photo of Oakland. The land mass in the foreground is the 5th Avenue peninsula, a site which will either be turned into a 22-story mall and condominium complex; or into a wetlands flood-prevention zone. The location’s keystone function as the drainage point for Lake Merritt makes it an important location for a wetlands project.

egret beach for blog

The second photo shows the view from the ground at the tip of the 5th Ave. peninsula, which has been designated as a bird sanctuary thanks to the efforts of local activist Patty St. Louis. (Approximate location of the bird photo is the stretch of land over the “d” in Oakland in the first photo.) This natural area is also a dog-friendly zone with a beach at the tip. The entrance to this area is difficult to find because of the construction zone in front of it along Embarcadero Avenue; but there is an access at 5th Avenue and Embarcadero.

To go against the city council’s wishes, and present a legal case for the wetlands restoration of this peninsula would cost an estimated $75,000 to $100,000 in legal fees on the low end. My source for this information is local Oakland resident Daniel Franco, who has been spearheading the push to develop this area into wetlands for the last few years. Everybody knows the bay is rising. Everybody knows that traffic on the I-880 through downtown Oakland slows to a crawl daily during rush hour. But, the response of the city planning commission is to build roughly 3,000 new condo units and a mega mall right at one of the worst bottleneck points for I-880 traffic, at this spot where the Lake Merritt Estuary opens up into the bay.

Local residents are just shaking their heads. They can already imagine the insane traffic problems which will be created by the 7-year construction project at this backed-up freeway intersection. They can already smell the extra carbon monoxide in the air. They are already mourning the bird population which will be unhomed when the bulldozers strip the land flat. And, they can already imagine the mess which downtown Oakland will smell like if the sewage mains get damaged by the extra water flowing into the region. Up-flushing toilets might be the least of Oakland’s stinky problems if things play out this way.

Signature Development Group is already aware of the rising water levels and so they are planning to raise the level of the ground on the 5th avenue peninsula under their skyscrapers to account for king tides and massive storms. But, what about the rest of downtown Oakland? How will the city recover after sacrificing its best chance to create a buffer zone for future flooding from the five waterways which flow into Lake Merritt and massive tidal surges? The Oakland city council has been provided with the facts, and their answer is to ignore the problem, and talk about the exciting new job creation which the mega-development will bring.

Local residents are looking for help to combat Signature Development Group’s 1.5 billion dollar Brooklyn Basin project in favor of a wetlands zone which the city so desperately needs. If you can lend us support, or you want to stay informed on our email list, please send an email to me at squeezeboxgoddess@gmail.com. I am happy to connect you with the small group of local residents who are demanding wetlands restoration for Oakland’s sake. If enough people care, if enough people speak, we can make a difference; and maybe we’ll never have to smell what it’s like to have our entire city’s sewage system disgorged onto the streets during a storm swell.

-Renee de la Prade

Musician, activist, Editor of the Accordion Babes Pin-Up Calendar



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