The Napoleon House

Hurricane Katrina devastation - August 29, 2005

Roland strolled back to Napoleon House. He liked that bar. It got its name from Nicholas Girod, mayor of New Orleans from 1812-1815, who made his home available to Napoleon should he need a place to escape. The name stuck to this day. As Roland entered some guys recognized him and waved him on. Surprised he walked over. “You were here a few nights ago,” one of the guys said. 

“Yes, I was,” Roland replied, “how did you recognize me?” 

“You are not one of the locals here. Where are you from?”  Roland joined them as another guy pulled up a chair. 

“I’m from the Netherlands, on my way to visit my brother in California. I want to see how Katrina affected New Orleans and how it is now, five years later.”

“Hmm, the Netherlands hey, you have your own flooding problems there, don’t you? I am referring to the 1953 flood.”

“Wow, good memory! You know your history well.”

“I am Joe, by the way, that is Tom, Mark, and John.” 

“Nice to know you, I am Roland.”

Roland had traveled the area, observing the dikes, dams, and water management projects in the area. He noticed that a lot of the damage could have been prevented, and a bit of his Dutch pride about how water management is handled different in Holland, kicked in. He wondered why a lot of houses were built in marginally protected areas of the delta. He wondered if technology about water management was more advanced in Holland. He became more interested in the “why’s” of flooding, because he realized that American and Dutch technologically about water management were not that different. Engineers in both countries have a good idea of the conditions and risks that exist at any time. Didn’t they manage to not have such a high density populated and expensive businesses, in flood prone areas?

“Yeah, Katrina was a disaster,” Tom chimed in, “not something we are very proud of, the way it happened and how we responded.” Tom went on to explain how hurricanes are pretty common, but how the New Orleans city fathers cut corners when it comes to controlling disasters, which are inevitable. The levees are not very strong, just consisting of sand. The population assumes those levees will hold, and water flowing over them is limited and only will happen for a few hours at the peak of the hurricane, flooding some places, but those are manageable.  Height of the levees does not matter when they fail without water rising to their tops - like what happened in 2005. Floodplain mapping in the New Orleans area historically has been based on an assumption that the area was protected by the USACE-certified (US Corps of Engineers) levee system, which was developed over several decades beginning in the 1920’s. This assumption led to floodplain regulations that allowed building construction to occur at or below sea level with no accommodations made for the possibility of river- or coastal flooding. 

Flooding in most places within the river / flood wall protected area in and around New Orleans was due to breaches in levees and canals. Pump systems that would normally have removed floodwaters were non-operational due to inundation or from a loss of primary and backup power. In Metairie, flooding was caused by high water from Lake Pontchartrain surcharging the drainage system with pumps off. Local officials decided to evacuate pump personnel on August 28, before the storm hit, according to The Times Picayune, and first-hand accounts given by the New Orleans Flood Team.   

Early in the morning on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States. When the storm made landfall, it had a Category 3 rating on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale–it brought sustained winds of 100–140 miles per hour–and stretched some 400 miles across. The storm itself did a great deal of damage, but its aftermath was catastrophic. Levee breaches led to massive flooding, and many people charged that the federal government was slow to meet the needs of the people affected by the storm. Hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were displaced from their homes, and experts estimate that Katrina caused more than $100 billion in damage. What those many people failed to realize, is that their own laid-back attitude, and that of their city fathers, about hurricanes contributed to the situation. They had seen so many hurricanes that Katrina also would pass. 

New Orleans was at particular risk. Though about half the city actually lies above sea level, its average elevation is about six feet below sea level–and it is completely surrounded by water. Over the course of the 20th century, the Army Corps of Engineers had built a system of levees and seawalls to keep the city from flooding. The levees along the Mississippi River were strong and sturdy, but the ones built to hold back Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Borgne and the waterlogged swamps and marshes to the city’s east and west were much less reliable. Even before the storm, officials worried that those levees, jerry-built atop sandy, porous, erodible soil, might not withstand a massive storm surge. Neighborhoods that sat below sea level, many of which housed the city’s poorest and most vulnerable people, were at great risk of flooding.  (from: HISTORY article, "New Orleans after 10 years.")

“So you have levees instead of dikes?” Roland asked. 

“Well, yea, so what is the difference?” Mark replied. 

“Levees are built where the water level is about the same as the adjoining land, but six feet below sea level? That would require a dike, which is much firmer, has a wider base and is constructed of various materials; not just sand,” Roland explained. 

“Are you a water engineer, or something?”

“Yes, I am a water engineer calculating dam constructions. I did that for the last section of the Delta Works in Holland after the 1953 flood, and for potassium extraction ponds along the Dead Sea in Israel.” 

Silence for a few moments, as they were impressed, then Mark continued: “So, why are the most expensive industries and heaviest population increases concentrated in the lowest part of the Netherlands?”  To that, Roland did not have an immediate answer… 

What are we learning?

In 1997 the Dutch designed a policy called: Ruimte voor de Rivier, in English: Room for the River. The old policy and way of thinking had changed. The 1953 flood re-emphasized the old idea: we should capture all the land possible from the water, and re-inforce dikes where necessary, as global warming makes its entry and the consistent rising of the sea level mandates making the dikes higher and higher. When the Noord-Oost polder was laid dry in 1943, the land adjacent to the new polder was drying out, because the polder was lower so drew out the water from under the farms on the old land. The adjacent polders laid dry in 1956 and 1960 were separated from the old land, with a slice of water of the IJssel Meer so the groundwater would not be extracted. These bodies of water are now recreation areas. Not only the water engineers, but also the politicians and population became educated about water management. Building new polders automatically, was not the answer. The last polder, the Markerwaard was never pumped dry. It still forms part of the IJssel Meer with two dikes running through it. The existing rivers were restructured. Their old river beds were shaped so that the water would twist and turn through the landscape again, instead of having straight canals with high dikes and businesses right along those dikes. Most rivers have two dikes in case the first one breaks. What were the lessons? First of all, letting the river meander slows down the speed of the water allowing water to seep back into the ground. Second, less water would end up in the ocean and become salt water again. Break through the first dike so in winter water can have a place to go. Make it a pasture in the Spring and Summer. 

The story goes that the solid concrete in the canalized rivers of Los Angeles should be removed so water can seep back into the ground, instead of all that water going out to sea. That is also the main reason why the two tunnels Governor Brown wants to build to provide Southern California with more water is a flawed concept. Even if there was enough water to redirect, it is a basic error. Slow down the speed of the water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers so more water can permeate the soil again. The Indians had it right: go to the water, don’t redirect water to us. The river never formed a border, but always ran through the middle. Redirecting water looks good in the short-term, but is paid for later. 

The TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) became the model for the Missouri Valley Authority and the Columbia River Authority. When the Kentucky Dam was built (as part of the TVA) it flooded 300,000 acres of rich farm land which had produced $21,000,000 / yr. TVA boasts that this dam produces $3,000,000 worth of hydro power or 1/7 as much. TVA shows an expense of $2,000,000 on its books for operating navigation facilities, but it seems to be purely a bookkeeping item, because the actual work was done by the Army Engineers. For the fiscal year that cost was $433,648,000 paid from army (= public treasury) funds. The actual sum in navigation facilities was $149,116,375. This investment was made possible by the Treasury Department. TVA pays no interest over that. The taxpayers pay that. Taxpayers also subsidized $6,855,997 of the fiscal year 1946 for shipping for a total of 256,465,000 ton/miles. This figures out to be 2.65 cents/ton-mile, which is about 3x as much what it would have cost by rail. TVA built enormous steam plants to subsidize the more costly hydropower. Those steam plants cost ¾ of a billion $$. That cheap electricity can help people in the immediate region but will not help the 40,000,000 people that helped pay for it.                                                           

A riparian landscape is an area with relatively high groundwater levels. It is where trees grow. It is where water ponds. In a riparian area trees contribute CO2, CH4, N and P, adding nutrients that lead to aquatic productivity, excessive growth of plants which may reduce water quality. Eventually new riparian areas develop along the new shorelines. Additional water flowing will bring down sediments to replenish the soil. So we build a dam to collect water for agricultural, industrial, and cities needs. The reservoirs entrap the sediment going downstream, which in turn would replenish the soils for farming. Species will die off, not getting the necessary ingredients. Riparian native species become extinct. Imported species, for whatever reason, take over and can withstand the new conditions better than the native ones. 

Another term to know is watershed. That word has kind of a dual meaning. In the original British term it means a ridge separating one watershed from another. Water flows differently in two adjoining watersheds. It is also explained as an area drained by a river, which includes an area larger than a riparian landscape. Drastic human interference will upset the balance. It may still be a healthy watershed, but deteriorating a riparian area, such as a dam construction. In general, it is least likely to have healthy riparian areas in poor watersheds. That can be temporarily restored somewhat by the exclusion of livestock grazing. 

In Pisek, Czech Republic is an old but still operating water mill, producing energy for the street lighting.  František Križík, a contemporary of Edison also was searching for the electric light bulb, but Edison beat him to it.  František designed the first electric generator in the town of Pisek, about 100 km south of Prague. It now is also has a museum. A six ft. dam was built across the Otava river in Pisek and water re-directed through the water wheels furnishing power for the generator. Later, a second station was built half a mile downstream. There were many of these generators installed in towns throughout South-West Czech. Rivers come down from the Šumava mountains, with the Vltava River going through Prague, called the Moldau as it goes through Germany to the North, being the biggest one. These local generators barely affected the watersheds of the rivers, yet provide energy. 

So, the Dutch and many other countries, including the USA, have come to the conclusion that re-directing water damages the environment. What now, and how do we educate the general population?

Katrina, Harvey, and Irma.

Image result for hurricane katrina

"They’re a family but they won’t go to dinner together? No. Two women sitting together and a man? No, that’s not it either. It’s an ingenious system of names, arranged alphabetically depicting a sequence of hurricanes coming through the Caribbean." Ben was trying to follow Tim’s logic.

“Ok,” Tim said, “Each year hurricanes coming from the Atlantic, and frequently move into the Caribbean, are named alphabetically. So when we are at Irma, we know that one has been preceded by 8 hurricanes that year.”

“What’s with the male and female names?” Ben asked.

“ The male ones are stronger, but I don’t know by how much.”

Katrina was the hurricane in 2005, which damaged New Orleans.

Harvey created havoc in Houston and Irma in Florida; both in 2017, following right after each other. It is not just the strength of the wind, but also the potential water damage. In the case of Katrina and Irma, it was the ocean water that was pushed into the land. Harvey came with an extreme amount of rain over Houston.

“If there are so many hurricanes in a year, you can expect a lot of damage, right?” Ben asked.

“You would think so, but many die down before reaching land, or peter out. Just because you know where all the back roads are, doesn’t mean it is safer in one spot than another. Hurricanes will change direction as they move over land. Like Irma, expected to pass right over Miami, moved a bit West-ward.”   

All of them have one thing in common: people build houses and companies where they have no business doing so. Those places are just tragedy waiting to happen. Unfortunately, hurricanes don’t come over the same areas frequently enough so people forget. Katrina was seen as just another hurricane in which the New Orleaners would have plenty of time to act. This one might just be a bit worse, and it was! Harvey brought so much water, which Houston could not handle, because everything was concrete. Building regulations were not adhered to, or inspectors looked the other way because of the boon that construction created, so water could not go anywhere. And Irma? Well, Florida could not really do much about it, being so close to sea level.

Expanding where Water will not Flow

As aptly titled: “Cadillac Desert”, Norris Hundley contends that in the long run, California is going to run out of water. His book came out in the late 1980’s. California went through a severe drought from 2009-2016. The seven year period was pretty standard, but the severity pretty extreme. What made it more so, was the greater demand on water in that period. Groundwater is depleted at an excessive rate, causing the Central Valley to sink from the crumbling of cavities where once water was stored. California has an abundance of groundwater, relative to its surface water capacity, but the consistent depletion, and draining of the Central Valley wetlands, changed the landscape, dramatically reduced the salmon population and other wild-life species. Theo asked the Water Commissioner once: 

“How long does it take water to percolate into the ground, get “cleaned” through the layers, and become accessible for pumping up?”  

“Twenty years,” the commissioner replied. 

“So the wet winter of 2016-17 is merely a drop in the bucket?” Theo asked.

“That is right! It will be enough for the next few years, but does not answer the question about the long-term effect. California, through Governor Brown, is trying to manage groundwater, as are riparian rights, but it will take years before those laws take effect. Meanwhile, groundwater will be pumped up at an excellerating rate, pushing the replenishing date out twenty years by each year before the laws take effect!”   

 To give it some perspective: 1,000 acre/ft of water can quench the thirst and keep 16,000 jobs in the high tech sector, vs. 8 jobs in the agricultural sector. This can be countered by the fact that California has an ideal climate for agriculture. Its soils are ideal as well, but deteriorating in places like the Central Valley due to salination as a result of pumping up water, using it, and contaminating it with fertilizer salts before the remainder settles in the ground again.  Another factor are Reno and Las Vegas, which provide 95% of Nevada’s economy, but use 10% of its water. Most water is used to grow alfalfa..!  "Nevada has no business growing alfalfa," Ben concluded.

“So,” Theo surmised: “For better water management, should cattle be raised in the East and Mid-West, and ship beef out to California? California is already shipping out water to China in the form of almonds!” 

Theo and Ben were discussing the water issues for California. They figured that in the short-run, nobody in California is going to worry about water shortages. The drought, still existing in the Los Angeles area, is decreasing in size as the rains continue to come. “For California we should be talking about short-term and long-term drought,” Ben surmised. Theo could not argue with that. The short-term drought is over for 2017 through 2018. In the middle of February (2017) everybody is still concerned about levees, dams, roads flooding out, land-slides, leaks, etc. After the winter, sometime in April, when the state will take inventory, should we look at the long-term drought, which will never end for California? California is still driving the water guzzling Cadillac. It is time to look for a more efficient operating vehicle. Maybe it is time to look for the ideal operating water system. Here are some rules: 

  1. It should not reduce natural habitat any further.
  2. It should gradually do away with special water “rights” such as the Central Valley cheap water. Water costs should be more equally shared. 
  3. Identify the current rights of various water districts. Compare those to other water districts and users. 
  4. Ground water rights needs to be managed as are the riparian rights.   
  5. What needs to be done to separate water rights from money? In other words people with money should have no more rights than the less fortunate or the State and Federal governments. 

That is where Theo and Ben ended their conversation. They were not going to solve the water problems that day...

The Last Dam in California vs. Water Space in the Netherlands

The New Melones Dam was the last big dam built in California between 1976-79. It was controversial. Environmentalists would reside in the canyon of the Stanislaus River, the deepest limestone canyon in the country, in an attempt to save it. To no avail. In the winter of 1979 the rainfall was enough to fill up the whole canyon for the first time.  With the growing population, increasing industry, and increasing irrigation for cattle feed, this was another must-have project. The Army Corps of Engineers provided the final blow again. Unfortunately the water yield was lower than expected. Even in the wet 2017-18 year, when most of the reservoirs were at 75-90%, the New Melones was only at 30-50%. Most of the rainfall that year fell in Northern California, which the New Melones dam is not part of.   

“Well,” said Theo, “here we have another project, later labeled as: ‘a case study of all that can go wrong with a project’!”  

“Then what is the answer?” Ben asked. 

“Ironically, the whole idea of needing more dams went away, and even existing dams have been, and are, demolished so the salmon can travel freely between the spawning grounds and the sea instead of becoming chopped liver through the power plant pumps,” Theo surmised. 

“And, while the California population keeps expanding?” Ben asked.

“The population has been demanding an accounting of where water was going and increasingly realized that water was really cheap, courtesy of the California and American tax-payer.  If farmers would have to pay the full price, they would not grow tomatoes in the Central Valley, let alone irrigation of cattle feed, which is the most un-economical use of California water,” Theo replied.  

“That sounds like a similar development in the Netherlands,” Ben continued. “We used to see straight canals built, for the convenience of shipping routes. We would build pretty high dikes to keep the water funneled, and be able to expand industry and towns in the area around the canal. In years of extreme storms with high tides, especially during full moon, people around the canals got nervous, hoping the dikes would hold. Then around the end of the 1900’s, beginning of the 2000’s, water management philosophies changed. In places where there was a secondary dike, the main dike was broken, for the water to have an expanded area to flow into, like the Yolo Causeway, along the Sacramento River, in California. Along the big rivers, secondary dikes got reinforced and primary dikes broken for the same reason. In the winter these areas become excess water reservoirs. In the Spring and Summer it becomes grazing land for cows. In the East of Holland, rivers that had been ‘straightened out’, were allowed to meander in their prior river beds again, which allows for expansion of water flows and time for water to percolate back into the ground. This brought back wildlife, like fish and birds, plus plant species that had almost become extinct.”