Living in harm’s way

  • A Dangerous Place: California's Unsettling Fate, Marc Reisner, Pantheon Books, 2003. 192 pages. Hardcover: $22.

  Unlike water, denial is in excess supply in California. Half the residents west of the 100th meridian live in that state, and 80 percent of them live in areas that have been rattled by major earthquakes. Northern Californians, for example, straddle 60 miles of the deadly Hayward fault; the late Marc Reisner, author of Cadillac Desert, notes that those are “sixty of the most populous, industrialized, infrastructure-dependent, economically valuable, strategically important miles in the United States.”

In his just-released book, A Dangerous Place, Reisner — who had nearly completed the manuscript when he died from cancer in 2000 — investigates why so many people now live in harm’s way, and imagines in breathtaking detail the consequences of an earthquake of 7.2 on the Richter scale along the Hayward fault. The loss of life in the San Francisco Bay area would be huge, and if levees on the Sacramento Delta were breached by the quake, salt water from the Pacific Ocean would pour into the freshwater Delta, creating an “80,000-acre extension of San Francisco Bay.” Twenty million Californians to the south would lose their water supply, as would “four million acres of the world’s richest irrigated cropland.”

In addition to this doomsday scenario, Reisner offers a short but thorough 150-year history of California’s earthquakes, heedless development and battles over imported water. This intelligent work of journalism will remind readers how large a void exists in the field of environmental writing since Reisner’s death.