Poison Waters: The California Flood

Revolutionary Worker #891, January 26, 1997

A Report from the RW Correspondent in the San Francisco Bay Area:

Torrential flooding hit a vast area of Central California starting on the first of this year. Melting snow from mountains on all four sides of the Central Valley poured into the region, and then into the Pacific Ocean at the San Francisco Bay. At one point, the total area under water was ten times the size of San Francisco.

The California floods were part of a much larger flooding disaster that hit the whole northwestern corner of the country--from Idaho to Nevada and down to the center of California. Even within California, it's hard to get a picture of just how much devastation there is.

I went out to check out the affected area, to see what people were going through. This is far from the whole story, but from what I saw, and from coverage in the mainstream newspapers, it's clear that there is tremendous damage and suffering now in large areas of California. The papers are recording seven deaths and 13,000 homes destroyed. Almost certainly more people have died in remote areas where it is very difficult to contact them.

Everywhere there are courageous efforts by ordinary people working together to save homes and farms, and people. Stories abound of people showing up and spending hours filling sandbags to save a stranger's house or farm. And much of the risky, heavy work of shoring up levees is being done by prisoners from the state and county jails. The main activity of the authorities seems to be to keep people in the dark and on their own, and to cover up the causes of the damage, blaming it all on "nature" or even "god's will."

Between the flooding that closed many roads and even freeway ramps, and the semi-police state in effect in the area, I would have never found my way around had it not been for the assistance of a couple of RW readers in the area. Police were in a state of high alert for anyone who didn't have local ID, and neighborhoods had police checkpoints where only residents, authorities and reporters with police-issued press passes were allowed to go. So I was lucky to get into the area at all--just after I left, a major freeway was jammed for hours as flood waters lapped at the edges of the shoulder of the road.


When I first contacted an RW reader in the area by phone, she told me that the flood area was a toxic nightmare and nobody was saying anything about it. She said that every submerged farm had a stock of chemicals that was swept into the flood. When I visited the area, I found that indeed it was hard to get any real information on the risks to people from all these chemicals.

Another young woman took a day to show me around. We started out at one of the emergency centers. One couple at the center had driven from far away to find out what they could about available aid and just what was going on. They couldn't even find out if it was possible to return to their home. They were concerned about the health hazards posed by the flooding. The authorities at this emergency center had no information at all--or at least none they were giving out. After considerable prodding from this couple, and from us as well, the guy running the place told them about some people who were administering tetanus shots.

I hesitate to refer to the sludge that's covering the area as flood "waters." The guy running the emergency center acknowledged that the stuff is a chemical stew of "pesticides, herbicides and dead animals." Add in chemical fertilizers, raw sewage and industrial waste and you have a scary substance.

The competitive capitalist nature of agriculture forces each farmer to keep up with the Jones' as far as the latest and greatest pesticides and herbicides to stay productive and not get overwhelmed by weeds and bugs. So when a farm floods, tanks of these toxic chemicals are swept up along with dead animals and other dangerous stuff. On top of that, the sewage systems in many of these areas have collapsed, and cities are dumping raw, untreated sewage into these rivers that have then flooded vast areas of farmland and housing developments.

On a map of flood damage that appeared in a local paper, a farm owned by some friends of my guide had "oil slick" written on it. There was no explanation of where the slick came from and my friend was concerned about what was going to be done for this dairy farmer. How is anyone going to raise dairy cows on a farm that has been covered by an oil slick? And who wants to drink that milk?

One man at the emergency center was trying to get an answer to whether or not his well would be safe to use after being inundated with flood waters. The guy in charge there kept "reassuring" him that central water supplies would be tested, and he kept trying to tell them that he relied on a well for his drinking water. Confused and worried, this couple left to try and find another center that would be more helpful.

I later read where the coordinator of the Mantica Office of Emergency Services said, "We've been fighting rumors all the time. We get rumors from people who we know know better...we're here to subdue any situation related to panic." But the problem I saw was not rumors, panic or people who should "know better" than to try and find out what was going on. The problem was that people weren't being told what was going on. For example, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the bizarrely named "All-Pure Chemical Company" plant in Marysville was completely under water. The state Office of Emergency Services stated that "We've been assured that any chemicals they have there are in sealed containers." But then the Chronicle reported that "Officials at All-Pure, which produces a wide variety of products for agricultural use, could not be reached for comment."

Most of the relief effort we saw was just normal people helping each other out. A couple we talked to at the emergency center was staying with relatives--as were many of the people my friend knew who had been forced from homes or farms. Those who were staying in shelters were having it very rough--there was no organized government agency providing food or warm clothing. The Red Cross had some shelters set up, but many people were camped out in parking lots or other high ground--sleeping in cars, trucks and campers.

It was clear from news coverage and from stories we heard that there are many poor people in the sparsely populated areas that have been hit by the floods, people without resources to get a motel room or buy meals in a restaurant when their homes were uninhabitable. Some are retirees living in trailer parks, and it seemed they were really on their own and fending for themselves with only help from friends and some minimal assistance from what local authorities there are. We heard stories and saw reports of people crowding into schools and other public buildings to find shelter for the night.

Some of the worst hardship from the flooding has been endured by migrant workers. In this Central Valley region, immigrants--including many from Mexico--work in walnut, peach and prune orchards. This is not a time of year when there is much work in the orchards, and some migrant workers were away from home at the time the flood hit. Some returned to find their homes damaged, others remain stranded in other parts of the state or in Mexico--not knowing what they will find when they finally get to their place. One camp on the Feather River north of Sacramento had to be evacuated, and only recently were people able to return to their homes. A social worker in the area told the San Francisco Examiner that these migrant workers "don't know where their next meal is coming from, especially with the changes in welfare, if the crops are really bad." She described the desperate, inhuman situation faced by undocumented workers--"They can't apply for assistance in any way, shape or form so they have to rely on the generosity of other migrant workers."


When we asked at the Emergency Center what people could do to help, we drew a blank stare from the guy in charge. No help needed?!? He told us that prisoners were filling sandbags nearby, but that it was "against policy" for other volunteers to mix with them. We decided to go check this site out.

Crews of prisoners were working eight-hour shifts in the cold and wet doing hard heavy work filling sandbags. Because they were under close watch from guards who were pretty much over our shoulders, it was difficult to talk. But I did promise to spread the story of what they were doing--which they all wanted me to do.

There are several groups of prisoners working under different conditions. In some cases prisoners were working side by side with non-prisoners, at least with state workers. I don't know what the deal was with other jails, but these guys had volunteered and their only "material incentive" was a "day for a day" off their sentences --and 20 days for filling sandbags is not that much time off a ten-year sentence. One guy told me, "Just because we're incarcerated doesn't make us bad people--tell people what we're doing out here. Many of us have friends and family around here and we're trying to help."

A couple of prisoners in the crew joked about how the very people whose homes were being saved were paranoid about having prisoners nearby. "People see us in jailhouse clothing and start locking their doors. They don't realize we're out here protecting them."

"They call us thugs," yelled one young brother. "Look at us out here. Look what we're doing! Tell people." I promised I would. I asked about a story the authorities had told us--that the prisoners had to be kept in separate groups to keep them from attacking each other. "Oh no, that's not it," one guy told me. "They keep us in these separate groups because they don't want us mixing together--they do it to make it easier to keep us under control."

The guards, who at first let us hang out there, had told us that the presence of a young woman would incite the prisoners. That didn't happen. As my friend described, it was like a typical day of walking through the halls at school. The prisoners appreciated the fact that there were people who wanted to know their story and also that my friend especially was expressing concern over their treatment. While I was talking to the prisoner crew, she asked the guards if the prisoners had been warned of the health hazards they were being exposed to working in the polluted waters. She asked if they had been given tetanus shots or protective gear? The prisoners did not seem to have been told about any of this and were concerned. They also told us that their jail was threatened by the flood, but there was no plan to evacuate them--even while nearby farmers were being forced to evacuate against their will. At this point, a supervisor was alerted and the guards started demanding to know who we were and why we were asking these kinds of questions. So we exchanged a quick good-bye and a promise to let people know what the prisoners were doing.


Many of the farms in this area are family farms. There are a lot of dairy farms as well as chicken farms. Some farms have some hogs, chickens, sheep and cows. When I asked my friend and guide what life was like for immigrant workers on the dairy farms, she explained to me that her friends' dairy farm is worked by the family and that if they hire workers, it is usually a small number of permanent people who live and work close to the farm owners.

This kind of farming is very different from the vast agribusiness tracts to the south where thousands of workers plant and pick strawberries, grapes or lettuce for monopoly capitalist corporations. These family farmers may have hundreds of thousands of dollars (or bank loans) tied up in livestock and machinery, but they don't mainly make their living by directly exploiting others.

The capitalist system has left them with cruel "choices." Some of the middle-class residents of this area have flood insurance, but others don't. I read in a local paper about a farm family who had to give up their flood insurance to pay for cancer surgery for the woman of the family. Like many families in the area, they gambled on when they purchased insurance--waiting until December 10 to reinsure. What they didn't know was that after the floods of 1995, the federal government extended the waiting period before coverage begins from five days to 30 days--and these folks had their farm destroyed 10 days before their insurance kicked in.

A federal program makes insurance available. One couple we talked to at one of the Emergency Centers told me that while their flood insurance would replace their home, their chickens were not covered. Nor were their costs of finding a place to stay while they waited for the flood to subside and their place to be repaired.

Some parts of the Sacramento Delta are only about an hour and a half from the San Francisco Bay Area. Over the past ten years, the Delta region has grown tremendously. The population of Sacramento grew by 279 percent over the last 45 years. Modesto grew from 17,000 people in the '50s to 182,000 today. And in the last ten years this trend has escalated. The population of the bedroom community of Tracy grew from 18,000 to 33,000 in ten years. Other communities have grown by 500 percent and more. Much of this increase has been middle class housing developments for people lured from the San Francisco Bay Area by profit-seeking developers. Real estate developers promise three bedrooms, a two-car garage and the "safety" of being outside the urban Bay Area. I came across a pre-flood flyer from a realtor advertising "Entry level and Lakefront homes on deep water with access to the California Delta." I wondered how far under water those homes are now.

Homes in places like Mantica--60 miles from the East Bay, are about a quarter the price of a house closer to San Francisco. For youth, like the friend who showed me around the area, this can be a pretty boring life. As she drove me around some of the cul-de-sac's to see the homes she told me, "I'd rather be raised in the city than in this close-minded hellhole."

But many of these "safe" developments are in areas very vulnerable to flooding. And the increased development and "asphaltization" of the area has also made the flooding worse. While driving through the area, I saw several of these developments with their "Own a Home for $100,000" signs sticking out of a sea of flood water.


"We've clear-cut in the highlands, destroying the absorbent natural cover. We've rechanneled streams and overpaved in the lowlands, destroying runoff patterns and putting housing developments in flood plans. Impoundments fill, levees fail and long reaches of the Sacramento Valley in California are under water."

op-ed piece in the New York Times, January 10, 1997

The vast Sacramento Delta area in north-central California has an elevation of near sea level. Until 100 years ago, the area regularly flooded during part of the year. Melting snow from the mountain ranges to the east dumps a huge volume of water into the Delta. With the development of capitalist agriculture in California, laborers, mostly Chinese immigrants, working waist-deep in water, built the current system of levees that provides flood control and separates a large network of rivers from the land. Shortly after the levees were completed, a campaign of anti-Chinese laws and brutality was instigated by powerful political forces in California.

In the time since, there has been very little done to shore up or maintain this system. There are actually two tiers of levees--larger ones maintained by the federal and state government, and smaller, fragile levees maintained entirely by local governments or "levee districts," which are made up of committees of farmers who have responsibility for maintaining the levees. I read in one local paper in the area where the head of one of these local districts described their situation: "Every year we try to build up our levees but money is always a problem and the Corps of Engineers won't help us unless there is a disaster." The past several years of "belt tightening"--cynically called "getting government off the backs of the middle class," has left the farmers in this area very vulnerable to flooding. There were large floods in this area in 1995.

In 1991, residents along the Feather River sued the state for disastrous flood damage, blaming it on poor maintenance and inspection of the levee system by the state of California. During that trial, an engineer testified that large underground rivers run under the narrower surface river, and that flood control should take this into account. He testified that these larger underground rivers rise during floods, and cause the levees to be undermined by "boils" --seepage or even geysers of water that sprout up outside the levees and cause much of the flood damage. The residents won their suit, but the state has appealed the settlement, and the State Department of Water Resources refuses to make data they have on this public because they are appealing the case and don't want to "disclose important elements of the state's factual or legal case." In the meantime, areas where this engineer predicted flooding would occur have indeed been hit by broken levees and been inundated by flood waters--killing at least one person and wiping out 180 homes.

Environmentalists have also exposed how clearcutting methods used by timber companies have robbed the hillsides in some areas of trees and live roots that absorb water and stabilize the ground. The Delta region and the whole Central Valley are clearly a very complex environment. But the blind march of capitalist development hasn't stopped for a moment to consider the impact on the environment or the consequences for the people.

As the waters subside, politicians are saying something must be done to prevent continued flooding. But none of them are addressing any of the fundamental issues. Nobody's proposing the kind of massive project that would be required to dredge the rivers and rebuild the levees. But even if there was funding for that, the factors that caused this disastrous flood and made it such a human and environmental nightmare go way beyond what can be patched up by the Army Corps of Engineers.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)