Life in the Flood Plain

January 17, 1995

The sympathy of the nation goes out to millions of Californians made miserable by the fury of nature. El Nino, the warm waters of the Pacific Equator, caused the two weeks of torrent that tore away at the structure of the West Coast.

With President Clinton due there today, and Gov. Pete Wilson calling a special session of the California legislature, the disaster that has taken at least 11 lives and done at least $300 million damage does not go unnoticed.

Drought has been California's problem in recent years. It promotes devastating brush fires, changes too easily to flood, punctuated by earthquake. The truth is that, even as Soviet engineers in mindless arrogance messed up Russian lands and lakes, so have Americans failed to tame nature. California had 31.4 million people as of July 1, up 214,000 for the year. Americans still think of it as paradise -- if they don't get burned out, rocked by earthquake, up-ended by mudslide or flooded out.

But while all emergency efforts must be taken to get lives and communities functioning, this episode like the Mississippi flood of 1993 calls for long-range rethinking of federal flood policy. Do taxpayers subsidize folks to endure the same thing again soon? Does flood control make flooding worse?

A federal committee last year reported affirmative answers to those questions and suggested moving people out of flood plains, allowing wetlands to perform their natural sponge function in flood. Although a small amount of disaster aid after the Mississippi flooding went to relocating some 7,000 people, a bill to move policy in that direction failed in Congress last year.

The Sacramento River system is the second-most controlled in the country. The Russian River has two large dams. The Los Angeles River has concrete walls for 58 miles. None of this curbed the excesses of El Nino last week. Some construction in California flood plains is as unwise as our own particular East Coast folly, the building of high-rises on naturally shifting sandbars. Both should be discouraged by public policy.

Now is not the time to argue. The first job is to get folks back to their homes. But as this country fills up with people, we all have to learn to work better with the land and not against it, before the terrain again gets its revenge.

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