When the Levee Breaks

Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Image: Formulanone.

Deluge in the Delta Amid California’s Changing Climate

by Madi Whaley

Never before have I been scared of the rain. As a child, it was always a wonderful surprise, a promise of relief from the hot dry summers of my hometown. Its infrequency coupled with its darkness evoked feelings of both awe and comfort. I grew up in Elk Grove, California: a suburb surrounded by wetlands and situated about 15 miles south of Sacramento, California’s capitol city, and 15 miles north of the Sacramento Delta. Summers there are hot, dry, and mosquito-ridden. During those hot and dry summers, I spent countless days burning my skin in the sun as I played along the Delta’s levees, which direct the flow of the Sacramento River.

Thousands of years ago, when the last Ice Age came to an end and the enormous glaciers melted, rising sea levels pushed water up onto the land, forming a giant marsh. Today, the Delta faces a similar fate.

One hundred and seventy years ago, many of the Delta’s wetlands were drained, levees were erected, soil was tilled, and houses were built, so that the land might be farmed. So now, the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet to form an estuary which stretches for 1,100 square miles, connecting Sacramento to the Bay Area through a vast network of waterways and levees.

Today, the Delta land and water are vital to Californians at large. The land is primarily agricultural, is in fact one of the most productive agricultural regions of the entire United States. Water from the Delta is sent all across the state, providing water to 23 million Californians — over half of the state’s population of 39 million people. This is the heart of many years of seemingly unending conflict in the Delta: as farmers face growing demands for productivity and as California’s population itself increases, so too do demands for Delta water. On the other hand, the Delta’s non-human inhabitants – over 50 of whom are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act – also need that water, and need it clean, in order to survive. Given that those species hold the ecosystem together, we need them if the delta ecosystem is going to survive and continue supplying our food and water.

Those levees fashion 57 small islands, which house more residents than the city of Sacramento itself. As a child, I would walk or skip across bridges between those Delta islands, eating boysenberry ice cream on the edge of one island, jumping from trees and into the river on the edge of another.

I reveled in these sweet summer days, yet as I grew older I found that in the midst of so many dry months, I always craved winter.

Winter brought with it the storms, a marvelous spectacle of nature that seemed to swallow me and all my surroundings. The storms could control the electrical grid, leaving school powerless for hours and enabling games of “Heads Up, Seven Up.” The storms were a fantastic time for mystery, during which I would spend hours alone reading and daydreaming in my room, covered in blankets, the sound of rainfall insulating my mind from the outside world.

Perhaps best of all, though in the early years I did not know it, the storms meant that California would have enough water again. This was always good news: California has a long history of drought, and its water levels pay no mind to the millions of people who live here, or to its millions of acres of agricultural land. The storms brought the water that the Delta so badly needed in order for its complex ecosystem to thrive.

But these days, I am scared of the rain.

Last winter, after four years of extreme drought, the rain fell hard and often. Last winter, a levee broke. Twenty households were evacuated from Tyler Island in the Sacramento Delta. Surrounding towns were put on evacuation warnings as well. Places of my childhood, torn to bits by the storms I once longed for.

Though we the creatures of California are so glad to drink our fill of water once again, a frightening uncertainty lies in the future storms of a changing climate.

Sacramento’s 200-year floodplain map. Click for greater detail.

In 2011, the New York Times reported that the Delta’s levee system was the worst in the nation. Some experts predicted that it was only a matter of time until Sacramento became the next Katrina. They said that if the levees broke, downtown Sacramento would be inundated with 20 feet of water, and people in the San Francisco Bay area could lose access to drinking water for weeks.

Now in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, we are warned again. The chief of flood planning for California’s Water Resources Department, Mike Miwerza, told the Washington Post that climate change, coupled with Sacramento’s increasing population, means we are in for “one big flood that will lead to thousands of lives lost.” Meanwhile, he reported that on average, cities around the Delta are providing less than one-third of the funding required for annual levee repairs.

During the same week that the Tyler Island levees broke, a spillage in the Oroville dam, about 80 miles north of Sacramento, caused the evacuation of 180,000 people. Two acquaintances voluntarily evacuated, though one turned back after he was caught in traffic moving to the evacuation center in Chico. He thought that he would be safer in his house than in a car on the crowded street.

Also that week, Highway 17, which runs through the Santa Cruz mountains, experienced flooding and a major mudslide due to the storms. My mother drove by it on her way home from Santa Cruz, and later told me, “I don’t even know how the mountain’s gonna stay up.” Two workers were run over by a dump truck while cleaning up the landslide — one dead, one injured.

A week later, in Southern California, mudslides caused the evacuation of about 180 people. Meanwhile, the Sierra experienced its greatest snowfall ever recorded, resulting in months of highway closures and snowed-in homes.

Both fascinated and terrified by this phenomenon, I spent hours poring over articles about the rain, snow, and cold in California and elsewhere.

I suppose I read to prepare myself for what’s coming, to make sure that I’m not too shocked when it happens.

Sacramento has flooded many times before. But I worry because I think that the experts are right: that with the changing climate, it is only a matter of time before our crumbling levees give way completely, before the floodgates open with greater force.

I’ve not lived in Sacramento for four years now. After graduating high school, I moved to the town of Arcata, in the North Coast of California, to attend university there. Here the rain is frequent, although in the past few years it has decreased substantially due to climate change. The people and the ecosystems here are accustomed to fog, storms, waterlogged landscapes—they play a constitutive role in the lives of its creatures. Indeed, it is the decrease in rain that has people feeling nervous.

Although Sacramento creatures worry about drought too, the dryness is familiar. But the storms, the inundated streets, the overflowing wetlands, the crumbling levees, and the surreal intensity of it all: this is unfamiliar territory.

Marilyn Van Schenk stands in knee-deep water as she clears a clogged storm drain in 2014 that caused her street to flood in Sacramento, Calif., after heavy rain from a powerful Pacific storm swept through California providing some relief from a three-year drought. Image: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

And so perhaps it was my inability to experience Sacramento’s winter rain firsthand, to know what it meant, to know how people were reacting, to know what I could do, that left me worried, dizzy, sometimes immobile. I’d call my mother and old friends to ask how full the wetlands were, which parts of the neighborhood were inundated with water, and whether everyone was okay. They all assured me I was more worried than I needed to be.

For a short time, my fascination with these articles verged upon obsession, with each article feeding a deep sense of dread—not just regarding the fate of Sacramento, but a broader, formless dread over The State of the World. But although I knew it would do me little good, with shaky hands and a pounding heart, I continued to read.

I’d long been told that when the effects of climate change reach the world’s wealthy and powerful, we would finally see large-scale action addressing it. When that big flood hits Sacramento, the homes of both rich and poor will be underwater. If the levees break this winter, I wonder if Governor Brown will be satisfied with his work thus far. If the floodwaters wash up to the steps of the capitol building, is our state really prepared to respond? Or will the bureaucrats simply return to their desks to work away on another aspect of their plan to move us toward renewables by 2030? California has been called the country’s leader in efforts to mitigate climate change. And so we can celebrate efforts like AB32, which is a state measure to reduce California greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. But the sense of urgency, the sense that there is so much work yet to be done, is ever-present. What can any of us do that will be enough?

The levees crumble, the rivers spill over, and all we can do is all we can do.

Writing, emergency preparedness, gardening, community-building…we can work to become more resilient.

Sacramento is working. Sacramento Climate Coalition, Organize Sacramento, Sacramento Indivisible Regional Action Network—these are just a few of many organizations that are focused on justice, resiliency, and/or mitigation of environmental harms in Sacramento. But what is “enough”? Does anyone know? The work continues, in spite of the future’s uncertainty.

For years I had strained myself, wrung myself dry, as California dried in the drought. Beyond conserving water, my comrades and I also engaged in work that, hopefully, helped mitigate environmental harms and allowed us to adapt to a changing climate. Sacramento’s dust has left what feels like a permanent film on my skin. And I have worked and worried until my skin and bones cracked, until I collapsed, parched and in need of water’s force. Now the rain has come, and now I know that I cannot stop it from coming.

So I cannot stop either, even if my movements seem futile. I attend school a few hundred miles northwest of Sacramento, and so my hands are focused on work here, and that work keeps a focus on resiliency. I know to show up: to protests and to gardening and to feeding people and to waste mitigation efforts and more. I know to write, because it helps make sense of this problem. I know to take care of myself and my friends because we each are valuable. Moreover, I know to keep moving, even if slowly. For all of us, this is what we can do: figure out ways to sustain our communities. Stay above water, no matter how deep, no matter how hard it tries to pull you under.

Know that floods may come but that you can rise above the floodwaters. Know that they may swallow you at times, but that always you can rise. Know that those you love may be swallowed too, but that you can rise together. Know that you have a job to do. You must gather yourself and your friends and learn to live with the floods. You must be strong like the levees needed to be. You allow yourself the occasional crack, but do not crumble.


Madi Whaley grew up in the Sacramento area and recently graduated from Humboldt State University with a degree in environmental studies. Her work is focused primarily on zero waste and food justice initiatives, as well as facilitating self-care and personal resiliency workshops and materials for activists and organizers. She can be contacted at

Top page image: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. “The Floods of 1927 in the Mississippi Basin”, Frankenfeld, H.C., 1927 Monthly Weather Review Supplement No. 29. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.