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El Niño officially arrives: Rising rivers bring flood warnings to Sacramento, Yolo

As El Niño officially arrived in California, rivers continued rising Thursday and portions of the Sacramento Valley experienced flooding.

Rain and strong winds pounded the region through mid-day, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared that an El Niño weather pattern had officially taken hold in the West. The weather phenomenon is marked by unusually warm water in the Pacific and can sometimes bring wetter-than-usual winters.

“El Niño conditions across the equatorial Pacific have come together, and we can now announce its arrival,” said Mike Halpert of NOAA’s climate prediction center, in a prepared statement. He added that it’s believed that this winter’s El Niño pattern will be relatively weak, however.

The last El Niño in 2016 brought only average rains.

The storm brought respectable amounts of rain to the Sacramento area for the second day, most of it in the overnight hours Wednesday morning. According to the National Weather Service, Sacramento received .79-inch of rain over 24 hours ending 4 p.m. Thursday while Sacramento International Airport received 1.07 inches. Areas north of the capital region received more, NWS said, with Oroville getting 1.90 inches and Paradise seeing 3.09 inches of rain during the same period.

Officially, Sacramento Executive Airport received .34 inches of rain from midnight to 4 p.m. Thursday, well below the 2.11 inches of rain it received Wednesday, which was close to double the previous record of 1.22 inches set Feb. 13, 1979.

In the Sacramento area, the National Weather Service said its flood warning for much of the Sacramento Valley would remain in effect at least until Thursday night. Flash flood warnings were issued early in the day for parts of El Dorado, Calaveras and Amador counties.

Alan Haynes, of the federal government’s California Nevada River Forecast Center, said Discovery Park north of downtown Sacramento was expected to flood — a typical occurrence during significant rainstorms. He said the Fremont Weir — the concrete safety valve built nearly a century ago to protect the city — would probably be topped, flooding the Yolo Bypass.

“It’ll be a fair amount of water but nothing too extraordinary,” he said.

One potential trouble spot, though, was Cache Creek, which hit flood stage at Rumsey early Thursday, according to the forecast center’s gauges.

“It could be a little dangerous,” he said.

Dana Carey, the Yolo County emergency services coordinator, said crews were monitoring the levees and were in communication with Woodland city officials.

“We have teams out there checking the water heights,” she said. “We will deal with whatever we have in front of us.”

Yolo’s community services website said portions of Interstate 505, which runs through the western part of the county, were closed, along with some county roads.

In eastern Sacramento County, where the Cosumnes River frequently causes problems in winter, Sacramento Metro Fire tweeted a video of fire crews rescuing a motorist trapped by flood waters on Kiefer Boulevard, north of Jackson Road. The department said the motorist was unhurt.

Colusa County experienced a fair amount of flooding. Caltrans said a segment of southbound Interstate 5 was closed for several hours between Maxwell Road and Highway 16 in the area around Williams. Several other roads in the area were closed for part of the day as well.

Hazardous conditions persisted in the upper Sacramento Valley, a day after a rare snowstorm in Redding. Flooding forced the closure of a stretch of Highway 99 just south of Red Bluff, in Tehama County.

In Butte County, the Sheriff’s Department issued an evacuation order for the area around Hamilton Nord Cana Highway, between the Sacramento River and Highway 99, where a levee holding back Rock Creek experienced “a small breach.” In Paradise, bad weather prompted FEMA to shut down the disaster recovery center serving survivors of November’s Camp Fire.

Northern California’s major reservoirs, including Folsom, Shasta and Oroville, continued to have ample empty space for flood control. Folsom has been releasing water at 20,000 cubic feet per second since Wednesday morning, said spokeswoman Erin Curtis of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

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Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.