Planning / Land Use: January 2010 Archives


This weekend I volunteered to warn shopkeepers and officials in my San Francisco suburb about dangerous urban flooding potential during the next week.

Every Friday noon in San Anselmo the "flood siren" (not disaster siren, mind) is tested. Within fifteen minutes of the last time it blasted for real in 2005, at 3:30 a.m. on a Saturday, three to four feet of water was soon gushing down the main street (see photo above) into homes and businesses. People here are acutely sensitive to heavy rain and the level of the town's creek, since they are still trying to rise up from that cold watery blow four years ago.

Up and down the California coast, metro areas including Los Angeles and San Francisco, are experiencing a series of El Nino-generated Pacific storms. Further inland, Phoenix will also take a big hit. The forecasted 6-10 inches of rain over the next days will almost certainly bring localized flooding and mudslides. Ocean storm swells will reach 20-30 feet on some parts of the coast by Thursday, lashing roads, infrastructure and housing. (Update Jan. 22: the storms this week luckily did not flood San Anselmo, but did cause heavy rains, some flooding and infrastructure damage throughout the state and Arizona, while also reducing the region's drought).


NOAA 5-day precipitation forecast from 1/16/10: small purple circles in California represent areas expected to receive 8+ inches.

How much of this weather and its impacts can be directly attributed to global climate change, I will not venture. The coastal and tidal flooding that is expected in California, however, will be one of the hallmarks of a changing climate. Another effect will be drought---which California and the Southwest have been experiencing for three years--the flip side of climate change's growing precipitation impacts. Coastal and desert urban areas in particular need to steel themselves for such a schizophrenic future.

Leaving things up to "officials" to figure out disaster plans is not recommended; true community resilience will require research, networking and knowledge sharing within and outside one's normal sphere. In my case, I think I was able to plug a few vital holes that may have been missed.

Most store owners in San Anselmo (pop. 12,000) that I spoke with were savvy about imminent flood danger. Based on their experience with the New Year's Eve flood of 2005, a few shopkeepers had excellent information and resources: they referred me to online creek-level readings ("anything over ten feet and I'm out of here," one man said), and email alerts that can be sent to email or phones from, a national information mass customization service that localizes updates on disasters, road closures and crime.

Nixle, for instance, has newly updated postings from the San Anselmo Police Department about potential hazards for flooding and safeguards. There's even a local AM radio (1610) station dedicated to disaster updates for the area.

But none of that seemed to be enough to really prepare people. One friend, a council member from the neighboring town that was also flooded in 2005, did not know about the severity of the forecast weather when I chanced to run into him at a musical performance over the weekend. He had me send him the forecast links from NOAA showing him exactly how much precip is expected to fall. He emailed back, "We're trying to get our flood plain residents to batten down the hatches. This should help."

Other small business owners that I spoke to were new to town, including immigrants. Unlike long-time business owners who told me they were warned by the police (or that had vivid mud-damaged inventory and moldy wallboard memories), the new shopkeepers knew almost nothing about flooding dangers or where to get the free sandbags.


Those who were around in December 30, 2005, have learned that floodgates (above, white board) for each business offers the best protection. In actuality, these are just rails installed on each side of entrance door where a piece of plywood can be inserted as a barrier against the torrents of water can come crashing against and under the front shop door (usually glass). Gates work even better than sandbags, but sandbags will prevent the glass doors from being smashed open.

The town and surrounding communities, even the federal government, tried to take some larger-scale policy actions after the 2005 flood, which caused almost $100 million in property damages county-wide. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) developed a new local flood risk map based on the 2005 event, and insurers offered policies that residents within the areas were urged to purchase. An extensive engineering study of the region's watershed is being made, a $125-per-property flood fee narrowly passed a controversial vote, while creek debris clean-ups have become popular all-age volunteer events each fall before the winter rainy season arrives.

Some houses have been rebuilt and raised above the flood-prone region along San Anselmo/Corte Madera Creek. This normally placid creek empties seven miles later into San Francisco Bay. High bay tides back the creek up so that it can't empty into the bay quickly.


San Anselmo/ Corte Madera Creek Watershed: San Anselmo is in center, San Francisco Bay, on right

Unfortunately, it doesn't take much time for San Anselmo/Corte Madera Creek (watershed in brown above) to back up from San Francisco Bay and rise in the Marin communities lining its flood plain, since it is surrounded by steep canyons that channel rainfall off nearby hills. Asphalt parking lots, impermeable pavement and poorly planned development have also increased the speed by which rainwater runs off into the creek. For instance, when I checked creek levels online Sunday the 17th, the creek was 2.9 feet, but after heavy rains Sunday night and Monday morning the creek was already over 6 feet. Flood stage is 11 feet (update 1/20/10: after heavy rain, the creek level went from 4 feet to 10 feet in matter of five hours, before receeding slightly) .

The irony of California's winter storms is that they bring needed water to reservoirs and mountain snowpack, promising to reduce or temporarily end the region's ongoing drought, which has been costing the agriculture industry and some cities hundreds of millions in lost revenue and in water purchases. Marin County last year was the first in the Bay Area to approve desalination from San Francisco Bay water, despite energy and marine environmental impacts along with a hefty $100 million-plus price tag.

Not surprisingly, the state's residents have a love-hate relationship with their winter weather. To make the affair even more volatile, climate change may be swinging the status from drought to flood in a matter of a few weeks.

Indeed, California's coastal metros (along with the Gulf Coast, including Florida and New Orleans) may be the first litmus test for how to adapt to the unpredictable excesses and scarcities of a changing climate.

 Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.


About the Author

    Warren Karlenzig
Warren Karlenzig, Common Current founder and president, has worked with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (lead co-author United Nations Shanghai Manual: A Guide to Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century, 2011); United Nations Center for Regional Development (training of mayors from 13 Asian nations on city sustainable economic development and technology); provinces of Guizhou and Guangdong, China (urban sustainability master planning and green city standards); the United States White House and Environmental Protection Agency (Eco-Industrial Park planning and Industrial Ecology primer); the nation of South Korea ("New Cities Green Metrics"); The European Union ("Green and Connected Cities Initiative"); the State of California ("Comprehensive Recycling Communities" and "Sustainable Community Plans"); major cities; and the world's largest corporations developing policy, strategy, financing and critical operational capacities for 20 years.

Present and recent clients include the Guangzhou Planning Agency; the Global Forum on Human Settlements; the Shanghai 2010 World Expo Bureau; the US Department of State; the Asian Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the non-governmental organization Ecocity Builders; a major mixed-use real estate development corporation; an educational sustainability non-profit; and global corporations. Read more here.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Planning / Land Use category from January 2010.

Planning / Land Use: November 2009 is the previous archive.

Planning / Land Use: February 2010 is the next archive.

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