Reisner's predictions should have us biting our nails

December 19, 1999
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Marc Reisner may or may not be correct in his predictions of environmental doom, but he is provocative.

A visiting professor at the UC Davis department of geology during fall quarter, he gave several public lectures designed to remind the complacent that we live in a land rich in potential disasters.

Reisner is the author of "Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water" (Penguin, 1993, $15.95), which was the subject a PBS documentary; "Game Wars: The Undercover Pursuit of Wildlife Poachers" (Viking, 1991); and "Overtapped Oasis" (1989). Reisner, a resident of Marin County north of San Francisco, said all his work involves the collision between human beings and ecosystems.

He is writing a fourth book, as yet untitled, that describes how natural and man-made disasters have shaped California.

"California is inclined toward natural disasters," he said, ticking off the examples of wildfires, earthquakes, droughts, floods, plus the invasions of exotic plant and animal species and the general vulnerability of the landscape as humans invade.

He says the book he is currently writing is half-fiction and half non-fiction.

"This is about California's earthquake history but when I write in first person I'm describing what I think it will be like when we have a major earthquake in San Francisco," he said. He describes what happens when an average guy is shaken out of his office in Sausalito and motors his small boat across the Bay to rescue his wife who works in a big downtown office building.

He describes the water traffic that will snarl the Bay as the bridges become unusable and cars and trucks are stopped in their tracks. Pleasure boats will be conscripted to move people out of San Francisco. There will be no power or gas. ATMs and banks will be closed. Helicopters and small planes will buzz overhead as they try to ferry people and supplies. All the reclaimed land around the margins of the Bay including land where the cities of Berkeley, Oakland and Richmond have been built will sustain severe damage. The stadium at UC Berkeley will split in half.

"We will experience chaos the likes of which hasn't been seen since the Civil War," Reisner predicted. The levees in the Delta will collapse all the way to Stockton, shutting off the water supply to Southern California. He estimates that 5,000 people could be killed in such an earthquake. Yet enough of the infrastructure will remain intact so that rebuilding is a foregone conclusion.

However, if you aren't directly concerned about earthquakes and can't wait for his next book, don't worry. The state's water crisis offers a variety of impending disasters to think about.

Reisner cites the ongoing fishery crisis in which the state's native fish have become endangered at a shocking rate, the inevitability of a severe longterm drought, and the real likelihood of a Delta levee failure caused by an earthquake. Reisner says an earthquake could cause a reversal of water flow, which means the Northern California water system in the Delta would be contaminated by saltwater.

"A mass levee failure could shut off water for 53 years or longer," he said.

Yet Reisner has some suggestions for avoiding the scenarios he describes and a peripheral canal is at the top of the list. "The best thing to do is to build a peripheral canal around the Delta conveying fresh water to sustain the urban economy of Southern California," he said. And Southern Californians should be made to pay for the canal.

He also says many of the state's dams should be taken down as part of an overall strategy toward protecting fish habitat and redefining water strategy.

"We should reward frugality...reuse sewage water...and meter Sacramento tomorrow. The city of Sacramento still doesn't have water metering, which is insane," he said. He also advocates building underground water storage units or water banks, an idea that was eclipsed in the country's haste to build dams. But now that the age of dams is over, he said, groundwater banking should be created.

Why aren't any of the reasonable suggestions he makes being implemented?

"Because we have allowed ourselves to be snookered by the false political god of consensus," he said. "If someone objects to something, anything loudly enough, it doesn't happen. Minority rules in California."

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books at discounted prices [ Click Here ]

To Order "Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water" from Amazon [ Click Here ]
To Order "Overtapped Oasis" from Amazon [ Click Here ]
To Order "Overtapped Oasis" from Amazon in Special Edition Paperback ($35) [ Click Here ]

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