About the Barlow

Tuesday, February 26, 2019, the Barlow, a relatively new shopping district in Sebastopol, flooded badly, closing businesses for several days, some maybe permanently. Many other parts of the west county flooded too, like Guerneville and Rio Nido. It was a reminder that, in a wet cycle, many of us live in the lowlands, close to sources of water, and those are areas that flood.

The Barlow is largely reopened, with merchants springing back, showing the kind of resiliency we’re getting used to seeing in Sonoma County. But what happened there was pretty dramatic. How did it happen? I’m not an expert, but I have some thoughts about the contributing factors.

Slow moving storm.  The storm that caused the flooding hovered over Sonoma and Mendocino counties for several hours, dropping tons of water. With a faster-moving storm, possibly some of the volume would have run off or been absorbed. With it parked, the water could not sink in faster than it was falling from the sky.

A silted-up laguna. The Laguna de Santa Rosa is a meandering waterway and wetlands system that provides drainage for a large area. Over the past several years, natural silting has taken place. The fires of 2017 meant more runoff in the winter of 2017/2018, accelerating the silting process. And it’s possible that the proliferation of vineyards dumped more dirt into the waterway.

The fires. Fires took trees whose roots usually hold only soil and water during the wet season. Those trees are gone; nothing holds the water or the dirt in place.

The Barlow was built in a flood plain. The Barlow was built in a lowland area bordering the laguna. Many years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers built up the west bank of the laguna along Morris Street to Bodega Highway, and, a bit farther north, they built up the other side of the street. The area where the Community Center is, and the eastern approach to the Barlow, was left at the original low level. Basically, this creates a broad channel for the water to follow. That low spot, that channel, leads right into the Barlow.

Several original buildings in the Barlow district did not flood. This is because they are built up higher than the newer buildings. Back when these were cannery and warehouse spaces, the locals all knew the flood risk and took steps to mitigate it. The developer who created the Barlow either could not afford or did not care to build up the foundations for the new buildings and the City Council did not require it.

The flood doors weren’t accessible. The City Council approved a plan that involved merchants attaching waterproof “flood doors” to their own doors if flooding was likely. According to the Press Democrat, the Council approved a plan that took 50 people 12 hours to fully “flood-proof” the complex. This is a completely non-scientific calculation; I think that means it would take two people 12 hours to correctly install the doors on one storefront.

During last month’s flood, by the time some merchants realized they needed to be installing flood doors, the area where their doors were stored was already inaccessible because of flooding. You will notice I said “their doors.” With these flood doors, one size does not fit all. Merchants had to be able to identify, retrieve and install their specific doors, and this was not possible. In a couple of cases, the particular merchant could get into the storage room, but their doors were blocked behind several other sets of doors.

We’ve forgotten about floods. I think this is an actual factor. We had six years of drought. Many folks just forgot how frequently certain areas in Sonoma County flood. When the Barlow was being built, I had a man in a local store tell me that area “had never flooded,” so clearly he wasn’t here in, for example, 1986, when the water rose all the way onto Main Street. But, to be fair, 1986 was a long time ago.

I never liked the Barlow project. I thought it was ill-conceived and badly located, and while it was being pushed through, the city council was fighting tooth and nail to stop another project across the street because it was owned by a Bad Corporation Nobody Likes. Watching the “You Shall Not Pass” struggle in contrast to the red carpet, champagne and flowers approach to the project being built in a flood plain was a chance to watch the very worst of small-town politics, all the hypocrisy and favoritism we hope our hometowns can rise above. All that said, I have nothing against the merchants in the Barlow, and I like many of the shops. And good project or bad project, those merchants are part of the community now.

And many of them are back. If you live in the west county, check them out. Check out some of the really good restaurants if they’re open. There are a couple of micro-breweries, a cheese-monger and some ice cream places. There’s a toy store. Spend your money there. And let’s watch closely to see what the absentee landlords and the city council decide to do to improve the safety of that area before the next rainy season.

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