Sacramento avoids major flooding, but risks remain

Trees crashed and roads flooded as small streams and ditches spilled from their banks, but the Sacramento region largely avoided any widespread flooding in Sunday’s storm.

The risks aren’t over from the atmospheric-river-fueled storm that weather forecasters had predicted could be the largest to strike California in more than a decade.

Weather forecasters and emergency personnel continued to warn of flooding through at least Tuesday.

“Streams are rising, and they’re going to continue to rise even when the rains stop,” said Johnnie Powell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sacramento. Much of Northern California and the San Joaquin Valley remains under flood watch.

The National Weather Service said Sacramento will likely see colder temperatures and rain Monday and Tuesday with a chance of showers throughout the week. Several feet of new Sierra snow could fall through Wednesday, with snow levels expected to be as low as 4,500 feet.

The largest local flood risk Sunday was in the low-lying town of Wilton in southeastern Sacramento County. Residents spent the day nervously watching the nearby Cosumnes River, which officials had warned would spill its banks by mid-afternoon. The river stayed contained to the channel to early Sunday evening.

Natalie Kellman, who owns a small ranch in the area, worked through the rains Sunday, tending to her horses and chickens and reattaching barn doors that had blown off in the wind Saturday night.

Five inches of water flooded the road leading to her property, but Kellman said that happens almost every time there’s a big storm. While some neighbors were moving their livestock to higher ground, she wasn’t too worried.

“It hasn’t been that bad,” she said. “Rain and flooding you live with out here.”

In Sacramento, rains poured steadily through Sunday. Some weather stations reported more than two inches in a 24-hour period since 4:30 p.m. Saturday. More than an inch of rain fell Saturday, breaking the downtown rainfall record for Jan. 7.

Snow levels in the Sierra Nevada remained high – over 8,000 feet. But peaks and ridges pummeled by high winds were under an avalanche warning.

The National Weather Service in Reno reported that a weather station Sunday morning in Squaw Valley recorded a gust of 159 mph. Rain-soaked Sierra snow fueled mudslides along several highways. Lanes were blocked Sunday afternoon on Highway 49 in Sierra and Nevada counties. Westbound traffic of Interstate 80 east of Donner Lake was briefly delayed by a slide. Highway 20 was closed from Nevada City to I-80 because of rising floodwaters.

Numerous reports of flooding also were reported in counties along the Central Coast and Bay Area. In Marin and Sonoma counties, several motorists were rescued from submerged vehicles. The Truckee River reached flood stages in downtown Reno. Officials in Plumas and Lassen counties and the city of Portola called a state of emergency due to flooding rivers and streams, and sewage contamination.

At Sacramento International Airport, a gust was reported as high as 36 mph by Sunday evening. Elsewhere, winds toppled trees and branches. Numerous brief outages were reported by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District throughout the day. At least one tree crushed a car in south Sacramento. A tree also fell on the Sacramento Regional Transit tracks near the Seventh and Capitol Mall station downtown, forcing light-rail service on the Blue Line to close there for a few hours.

The Sacramento and American rivers swelled substantially.

Federal dam operators said they would be dramatically increasing flows overnight and into Monday on the American River through Sacramento to make way for a massive gush of water expected to wash into Folsom Lake.

The American’s flows already were high Sunday – 30,100 cubic feet per second that morning. Officials announced they were going to double that amount – to 60,000 cfs by midday Monday. The flows will be higher than any time during California’s six-year drought, but they’re still well below record levels.

In the catastrophic floods of 1986 and 1997, the American River reached peak flows of 134,000 cfs and 115,000 cfs, respectively.

Flood-control officials said levees and water diversions that keep the Sacramento and American rivers from flooding major population centers are expected to handle the deluge. But the storm should add an impressive gush of water into the Yolo Bypass. The floodplain is engineered to spill stormwater from the Sacramento River system into a vast floodplain west of Sacramento, keeping cities like Woodland, West Sacramento and Sacramento safe from flooding.

Officials said they were likely to open the Sacramento Weir near downtown into the Yolo Bypass on Monday – the first time that’s happened since 2006.

Local steams, such as Arcade Creek, also largely stayed contained to their channels on Sunday.

At Garfield Avenue in Carmichael, a few onlookers stopped to watch Arcade Creek rise as heavy rain fell Sunday afternoon.

Dan Murphy, who rides his bicycle past the creek on his way to work, said he’s watched water levels rise significantly over the last few days, but he said so far it was underwhelming.

“I don’t think it’s as bad as they forecast, at least not here,” Murphy said, clutching an oversized umbrella.

The rains caused problems for motorists on several roads.

A 12-year-old girl was rescued from an overturned submerged car Sunday morning on Highway 49 near Rio Oso Road, Placer County officials said.

Dena Erwin, spokeswoman for the Placer County Sheriff’s Department said the girl’s mother was driving at around 10:45 a.m., when she lost control of the car and swerved into a flooded ditch.

Erwin said the driver emerged from the car screaming, “my baby is in the car” as water engulfed the vehicle. Two sheriff’s deputies and bystanders pulled the girl out and placed her in a patrol car to get warm before a medical team arrived.

Erwin said there were no serious injuries.

The Bee’s Jessica Hice and Tony Bizjak and correspondent Jane Braxton-Little contributed to this report.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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