Water & Drought

The worst of the storms is over. Here’s what’s next for California

Snow piles up, rivers rage after Northern California storms

In the Sierra, residents are digging out from under 6 feet of snow. In the foothills, melting snow and runoff has rivers running at high capacity. See scenes from around the region, including Kingvale, the Yuba and American rivers, and the Lake Cl
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In the Sierra, residents are digging out from under 6 feet of snow. In the foothills, melting snow and runoff has rivers running at high capacity. See scenes from around the region, including Kingvale, the Yuba and American rivers, and the Lake Cl

Northern California’s major rivers swelled and then began receding during a pause between rainstorms Monday, leaving a trail of toppled trees and damaged roadways but no major urban flooding in Sacramento or elsewhere. The weekend’s big rainfall, the most Sacramento has seen in a two-day stretch since 2000, put another dent in the drought and left precipitation totals for the season at twice the average for this time of year.

With a second storm expected to hit late Monday or early Tuesday, emergency officials remained watchful. Some rivers were expected to rise again to levels at or near flood stage, including the Cosumnes River in south Sacramento County and the Russian River near Guerneville in Sonoma County.

Four miles north of downtown Sacramento, officials planned to open the gates of the Sacramento Weir late Monday for the first time in 11 years, a move that would send water gushing into the Yolo Bypass floodplain. Although the Sacramento River was expected to remain 3 to 4 feet below flood stage, opening the century-old weir helps retain a margin of error on the river while alleviating pressure on levees.

For the first time since 2005, the floodgates of the Sacramento Weir are expected to be opened. No word on the exact time has been provided. While the Jan. 2017 storm wasn't as bad as expected, water watchers are still on alert as the Sacramento R

All told, officials said they believed the worst was over. “I think things are manageable,” said Alan Haynes of the federal government’s California Nevada River Forecast Center. “This next wave – it’s not as warm, it’s not as wet.”

Still, the danger – and the inconvenience – hadn’t completely passed. In Wilton, crews from several agencies worked with community volunteers to fortify a Cosumnes River levee with sandbags after water seeped up in a nearby field – what’s known as a “boil.” Rising waters from the Cosumnes prompted officials to close sections of Twin Cities and Dillard roads. A falling tree near Winters forced closure of a section of Highway 128 in Yolo County.

Sacramento fire boat crews rescued a 56-year-old homeless man who was stranded while camping along the American River Parkway near Northgate Boulevard.

While the second storm wasn’t expected to be as fierce as the weekend downpour, the forecast still called for plenty of moisture. Sacramentans could expect more than an inch of additional rain by Tuesday night. Heavy snow was forecast for 5,000 feet and above, with 5 feet of snow expected at Blue Canyon. Wind gusts of 40 mph or more were forecast in parts of the Valley.

“It’s still an atmospheric river,” said Michelle Mead of the National Weather Service. “There’s standing water everywhere, which means the soils are completely saturated. Any additional rainfall that comes in, especially (Tuesday) when the heaviest comes in, we’re going to see those small creeks and streams rising back.”

More than 7 inches of rain fell between Friday and Monday in Lake Wildwood, a gated golf course community of 3,000 homes in western Nevada County. Although the level of the lake is regulated by the dam's spillway, heavy runoff raised the water lev

But there were signs of things getting back to normal. A voluntary evacuation center in Elk Grove closed. Caltrans crews cleared the mudslide and low utility lines that closed I-80 in both directions Sunday night near Donner Summit, although chain controls were in effect as snow fell throughout the day in the Sierra Nevada.

Northern California rainfall

The northern Sierra has received about twice the average rainfall so far this season, and is currently outpacing the wettest year on record. But experts caution that the current wet cycle could end at any time.
Cumulative northern California rainfall 
Source: Calif. Dept. of Water Resources
The Sacramento Bee

Yosemite National Park announced it would reopen Tuesday following a weekend shutdown, but there was some sad news for nature lovers: The iconic 100-foot Pioneer Cabin “drive-thru” redwood tree at Big Trees State Park in Calaveras County toppled. Closer to home, Sacramento-area golfers lost one of the two giant cottonwoods that loomed over the third green at the Land Park golf course.

While the region was spared serious flooding, it was a big storm by any measure, adding to an increasingly wet winter. About 3.9 inches of rain fell in Sacramento over the weekend, the highest two-day rainfall since 2000. The 13 inches that fell in La Porte in Plumas County was the most in two days since 2005.

Rainfall in Northern California is at about twice the seasonal average. If it continues at the current rate, it would surpass the region’s all-time record rainfall of 88 inches in 1982-83. But officials said it’s too early to declare the drought over, and they noted that the spigot could get turned off.

“I know folks are getting pretty excited, because it does show we are above our wettest year on record,” said Mead, the weather service’s warning coordination meteorologist in Sacramento. “Keep in mind our water year goes all the way through April, and there is no guarantee that this wet cycle is going to continue.”

Rick Sorenson, owner of the Rio Ramaza Marina, wades in the Sacramento River as it begins to make its way up the levee on Garden Highway on Monday, January 9, 2017. He was securing an old paddlewheel boat on his property with the help of Ron Rudis

Still, there’s no question conditions have improved. California’s reservoirs are holding 16.6 million acre-feet of water, about average for this time of year. Shasta Lake, the state’s largest reservoir, is sitting at 20 percent above average. Lake Oroville took in 250,000 acre-feet this weekend alone and is now slightly above average, said state climatologist Michael Anderson. Folsom Lake is at average levels, despite dumping huge volumes of water for flood safety.

“For most of the state, we’re not in a surface-water storage drought,” said Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.

Perhaps most importantly, the comparatively warm storm, in which rain fell as high as 8,000 feet in the Sierra, didn’t melt much of the mountains’ all-important snowpack.

“I didn’t see much loss, poking around at different elevations,” said Frank Gehrke of the state Department of Water Resources, leader of the state’s snow surveys. The rain “didn’t really melt the snow; it kind of sank in.”

Until recently, officials were complaining about the relatively small amounts of snow California had received. The snowpack effectively has doubled in the past week and now is 26 percent above average. A thick snowpack is essential to alleviating the drought because it acts as a second set of reservoirs in helping California get through summer and fall.

Watch these birds over the fields east of the Sacramento International Airport, off West Elkhorn Boulevard near Highway 99 on Monday, January 9, 2017.

Staff writer Bill Lindelof contributed to this report.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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