SQUEAKY WHEEL: The Gods are Angry

Toni Mester
Friday September 08, 2017 - 01:10:00 PM
Toni Mester

The Mayan god Huracan is hugely pissed at the way we humans are messing up the planet, and he’s letting us know by throwing wads of wind, rain, and fire our way. The great one-legged deity of ancient mythology is said to have destroyed mankind once before, and now that Donald Trump is threatening Huracan’s progeny with deportation, we can expect even more extreme weather conditions. The President had better wise up and allow “the dreamers” to stay or see Mar-a-Lago washed away. Vengeance belongs to the gods.

Just as Texas is drying out from the ravages of hurricane Harvey, the successor storm Irma is wrecking havoc in the Caribbean on its way to Florida. Human activity doesn’t cause cyclones but the effects of climate change - rising ocean temperatures and sea level - ramps them up. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture and powers a storm like Irma, one of the most destructive hurricanes ever.

We got a whiff of heat last weekend with the thermometer hitting 100ºF in Berkeley and higher inland, the record-breaking temperatures drying forests into tinder, while millions of trees have already died due to the ravages of a bark beetle infestation, adding fuel to the infernos. In California 10,000 are fighting 25 fires, the worst being the Eclipse and Salmon fires in the Klamath National Forest and the Pier fires in Sequoia.

Nature is looking pretty apocalyptic; meanwhile back in the nation’s capital, the climate change deniers fiddle while California burns and the southeast drowns, hoping that a kinder god will make America’s weather great again.

The Lessons of Houston 

As the waters recede, the eyes of Texas are upon clean-up efforts and the failure of the infrastructure that was supposed to provide flood control. Houston is built around 22 bayou systems that drain the low-lying city, only 50 feet above sea level and sinking. Two federal dams filled above capacity, forcing the Corps of Engineers to release water to prevent catastrophic collapse, reminiscent of the situation at the Oroville Dam following torrential downpours in February. 

Over 30,000 homes have been destroyed in Houston, many more damaged, while a shortage of construction workers threatens to stall rebuilding. Deporting thousands of hard-working immigrants isn’t going to help that situation. More than a million vehicles have also been ruined in a sprawling city that requires a car for commuting to work and such daily activities as shopping. 

The assessment of failure has already begun with most observers faulting extreme weather due to climate change, and a society living by indefensible habits and denial. Houston is a special case, a population of approximately 2.3 million spread over an area of 600 square miles for a density of only 3830 people per square mile, an extremely low density for a major city, the nation’s fourth largest. Compare that with San Francisco’s density of 18,440 per square mile or Berkeley at 11,583, the densest city in the East Bay, way more crowded than Oakland’s metric of 7500 people per square mile. What can a spread out urban landscape like Houston teach a tightly packed community like Berkeley? 

First, we need to limit the urban hardscape and stop paving over the earth with impermeable asphalt and concrete, says Margo Schueler, a retired civil engineer with EBMUD and Chair of the Public Works Commission. Berkeley has 216 miles of as streets and 300 miles of sidewalk for a total area of 1.9 square miles of impervious surface or 17% of our land area of 11 square miles, and that’s just the paved public area. Add to that, private driveways, parking and building coverage, and she estimates that over 50% of Berkeley’s total area is impermeable to rain, all of which whooshes from the roofs and driveways into the gutters and storm drains mapped in the Watershed Management Plan

Rain waters are collected in ten basins and funneled into storm drains; the largest being Potter, Strawberry, Codornices, and Schoolhouse, in that order, ancient creeks that drain into San Francisco Bay. Most of them are now culverted with the exception of Strawberry Creek, which is day-lighted in the UC Botanical Garden and downstream at Strawberry Creek Park in West Berkeley. All of them drain into the Bay, but some of the Strawberry and Potter waters are diverted into Aquatic Park. 

The park’s three lagoons cover almost two-thirds of the 100 acre park that was created between 1935 and 1937 by the WPA, when the highway now known as I-80 was constructed, cutting off a section of the San Francisco Bay. The rump waters were connected to their mother with tide tubes under the roads, but in later years, as the freeway was widened and ramps added, the tubes have collapsed or filled with sediment and marine growth, reducing the flow of tidal waters that supply oxygen and food for the fish and the birds. 

Five central tide tubes, located mid-way at the outer edge of the main lagoon across from Parker Street, are in disrepair and danger of total collapse, degrading the ecological health of the lagoons as well as increasing flood risks to the human activities located at water’s edge: the Rowing Club, the Youth Musical Theater, the City’s animal shelter, and the Waterside Workshops, which sustained damages during last winter’s heavy rains. 

The shallow lagoons have limited capacity and were designed for recreation, not flood control. Allowing polluted run-off into a bird habitat also affects the health of many permanent and migratory species including egrets, herons, pelicans, and ducks. Over the years, the City has investigated the hydrology and ecology of Aquatic Park, including a comprehensive natural resources management study that laid the groundwork for much needed upgrades. 

Fixing the central tide tubes has become a priority for parks director Scott Ferris, who has hired civil engineer Liza McNulty to direct the repairs. She is now in the research phase of the project, which is funded by the T1 bonds passed in November 2016. 

The second lesson of the Houston flood is to increase and enhance the permeable ground area with absorbent natural planting and structures like swales, green roofs, cisterns, retention ponds, porous pavement, buffers, and filter strips: together known as green infrastructure, which collect and clean rain to prevent it from become raging and polluted torrents. A recent NPR article cites aging infrastructure and rapid growth without zoning regulations as causes of the dangerous conditions in the Houston downpours. An engineer at Texas A&M said that excessive paving “comprises the natural infrastructure…making it difficult for the water to absorb and be held by the prairie and the wetlands, and slowly release into Galveston Bay.” 

Berkeley parks and waterfront commissioner Jim McGrath echoes these warnings in his assessment of our local flood preparedness. More green infrastructure, larger culverts, better maintenance, and attention to new discharge permits are required. McGrath, a retired environmental engineer at the Port of Oakland, now serves as the vice-chair of the Regional Water Quality Control Board that oversees wastewater flow into the Bay, groundwater protection, and watershed management and issues permits to enforce the Clean Water Act and imposes fines on cities that don’t meet requirements. The unique challenges of Berkeley’s built environment derive from our high population density combined with the hills’ steep rise in elevation, on top of an aging and inadequate storm drain and sewer infrastructure. 

Growth v. Resilience 

The constant pressure to provide housing for population and economic growth can overwhelm the need to preserve a resilient natural environment including absorbent open space, green infrastructure, and vegetation. New zoning regulations can limit the footprint of buildings and require permeable pavement for driveways and parking spaces. A good example of a porous surface can be found in the parking lot of the animal shelter at the northern tip of Aquatic Park. 

The Friends of R-1A are advancing reform of the West Berkeley residential zone by limiting the height of backyard houses and the overall built floor area of lots. The allowance for two units will remain the same, but open space for gardens and family outdoor living will increase. Please sign our Move-On petition “Keep West Berkeley Affordable” regardless of where you live in Berkeley because the R-1A decision will set a trend for in-fill in the lower density neighborhoods. 

For a cogent and compelling analysis of the economic and environmental factors involved in climate change, both cause and effect, read Christian Parenti’s article “If We Fail” available on Parenti, the author of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (2011) argues that “In the near term, perhaps starting in the 2020s or 2030s, the foremost problem will probably be a new climate-driven urban crisis of disinvestment, abandonment, and depopulation caused by rising sea levels and large inundating storms that will leave rotting urban infrastructure.” It’s scary as hell and increasingly probable, as people who care to raise their heads from the sand can easily see simply by glancing at today’s headlines. 

As you probably guessed, the Mayan name Huracan, god of wind, storm and fire, is the source of the word hurricane, which came into English through Spanish and Taino, a Caribbean language. He’s been around for thousands of years, growing increasingly furious at our greed and stupidity. He needs to be appeased, and your guess on how best to do that is probably as good as mine. 


Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley.