Arnold and the AAAS

Last Saturday I was treated to a bit of news. While waiting for a burger to be grilled, I spied the front page article of the Sacramento Bee newspaper. See: Levee emergency declared. What the..? Why this and why now?

On Wednesday February 22, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger inspected the weak spots in the levee system for the Sacramento and San Juaquin River Delta, also known as the California Delta. Apparently it was so bad that he declared a state of emergency on Friday February 24. Critical spotsIf you’ll take a look at this map, you can see the river and levee system, with all the bad parts of the levees highlighted. In case you are not familiar with the area, downtown Sacramento is in the empty spot beneath where the American River joins the Sacramento river. The thick line of red dots is poised over a heavily populated area. Davis, where I am, is off to the West, above Putah Creek. The Delta is that fantastic mess of lines at the bottom, where I like to go boating from time to time.

The Sacramento Bee article is the first of probably severl to come, and it pointed out the fact that Gov. Schwarzenegger, upon issuing his proclamation, promptly skipped off to go to the Republican Party convention in San Jose the same night. The Bee’s Deb Kollars and Matt Weiser pointed this out as a possible reason why the state of emergency was declared right now. The governor is also seeking re-election this year. But if re-election and good press for his political party motivated him, then why all this activity last week?
Those who listened to my show know why. (And those who picked up the nuance in the title.) The American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS, met last week. This organization is the largest general science organization in the world, and it also publishes the journal Science, one of the two main journals in the world. At this year’s AAAS meeting, which I talked about in Episode 26, Sacramento was announced as the next New Orleans. (Also see flood prevention suggestions.) Now what the Sac Bee reported makes some sense:

“I don’t want to be in the situation they were in New Orleans,” he said, speaking to reporters at the Republican Party convention in San Jose on Friday evening.

The AAAS convened a week before, and Governor Schwarzenegger, Senator Feinstein, and a few other congressional leaders hopped aboard a helicopter to go take a look at what the AAAS was talking about. Two days later an emergency is declared. Why would they need to declare an emergency?

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, said he applauded the move to fix levees, but wondered why Schwarzenegger didn’t do it 10 months ago after the governor’s staff published a report sounding alarms over levee conditions and after “Senate Democrats first proposed a $1 billion bond to strengthen and improve our levees.”

Because, quite simply, the Governor did nothing for 10 months. While people were talking about the devastation in New Orleans, Democrats pushed to safeguard the huge levee system holding water at bay from 300,000 people (that’s how many are in the direct line of flooding, not the total), and Swarzenegger did nothing. The critical sites marked in the image above were surveyed last fall, so there’s been plenty of time for action, planning, and discussion.

The evidence, surveys, and proposals concerning the levee system didn’t do a thing, it took the AAAS to declare that in the next 50 years, Sacramento has a 2 out of 3 likelihood of catastrophic flooding for them to gas up the Governor’s chopper. And now that he is in such a hurry, he has decided to go forward without federal money, which maybe he could have gotten if the effort started sooner.

Politics! Arrrrrgghhh!

Additionally, something to keep a close eye on, is what political ends may be achieved through the declaration of an emergency. Schwarzenegger may be looking to side-step environmental laws in repairing the levees, such as those that protect endangered species, so we should keep a close eye on it. Granted, if there are floods, the damage that it could do to those same endangered species may be far greater than just repairing a few levees. Although the issue of toxic spills in New Orleans is not settled, I think it’s safe to say that flooding would be bad for the environment.
Anyway, when all this is over, and Sacramento averts a close flood in the future, you know who to thank. Thank the AAAS.

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Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.