Snow piles up, rivers rage after Northern California storms
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
Staff writer Bill Lindelof contributed to this report.