Northern California digs out, as another ‘atmospheric river’ takes shape

From broken levees south of Sacramento to snowbound streets in the mountains, Northern Californians tried to mop up from this week’s storms on Friday – while bracing for another “atmospheric river” set to hit Tuesday.

As the sun came out in Sacramento, the National Weather Service said the region should have four days to dry out before the next big storm system moves in. The dry weather will give swollen rivers and streams a chance to recede, and allow work crews to inspect and shore up levees strained by increased water flows. Still, the weather service said the next storm could be substantial, with up to 3 inches of rain possible in the Sacramento area.

Conditions remained precarious in rural south Sacramento County, where the Cosumnes River continued to cause pockets of mayhem. County emergency officials issued an alert warning of a possible levee breach on Snodgrass Slough, in what could become the third breach in the area in three days.

Residents around Snodgrass were told to make sure pets and livestock were safe, and to consider evacuating. The problem section was in an agricultural area just west of I-5 and a half mile north of Twin Cities Road.

As of Friday afternoon, the levee “is still holding, but better to be safe than sorry,” said Matt Robinson of the county Department of Water Resources.

The area already was dealing with levee breaks at Grizzly Slough and Lost Slough. Portions of Twin Cities Road, Franklin Boulevard and other roads in the area were still underwater, and officials were urging caution. Emergency crews rescued a motorist trapped in heavy waters in the Point Pleasant Road area during the early-morning fog Friday, said Tracey Hansen, chief of the Cosumnes Community Services District Fire Department.

Hansen said officials were working to determine how many homes in the area flooded.

Sierra Nevada businesses, meanwhile, were preparing for a massive influx of skiers and snowboarders eager to take advantage of the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend and the biggest snowfall in years.

They will have to be patient getting there. Although Interstate 80 and Highway 50 have been cleared, some secondary roads were closed or under chain controls Friday. Much of Highway 89 was under chain controls along the west shore of Lake Tahoe. Caltrans advised motorists heading to the mountains to carry chains – even if they have all-wheel drive– to pack food and water, and to be prepared for slow going.

“It’s going to be nuts,” said Caltrans spokeswoman Liza Whitmore. She said a holiday weekend, coupled with roads partially covered with snow or ice, could make for trying times.

Thursday night a Tahoe City motorist on Highway 89 was killed when a tree fell on her car near Squaw Valley ski resort. The accident prompted closure of the road for two hours.

Other roads were reduced to one lane, with snow mounds causing visibility problems. Jennifer Merchant, a deputy Placer County executive stationed at Tahoe, said some travelers may have trouble getting to their cabins or vacation rentals because plows had created snow piles that blocked their driveways.

Richard and Jackie Newsom of San Rafael arrived at their family’s A-frame cabin in Soda Springs to find the walk-up to their mountain getaway buried in snow.

“This is pretty extreme,” said Richard Newsom as he shoveled. “I have been shoveling for the last hour. I shoveled out snow 8 feet high just to get to the cabin. And that was after I had to climb over it all to get to the shovel.”

Ski resorts, most of which closed during the blizzard, were back open and eager to greet visitors. Squaw Valley got 15 feet of snow this week, its largest snowfall in 45 years.

“We are looking forward to people enjoying fresh tracks this weekend,” said spokeswoman Missy Frey at Homewood Mountain Resort on the west shore, which got more than 7 feet.

Placer County officials were working with rescue officials to make “welfare checks” on the hundreds of homes that lost power during the storm. In one case, emergency crews found an elderly woman living in Tahoma, on the west shore of Lake Tahoe, who had lost power and couldn’t get to her firewood because of the snow.

“She was running out of food,” said Beth Kenna of the North Tahoe Fire Protection District. Friends arranged to have the woman fly to Southern California to stay with relatives.

The popular Safeway store in Truckee, which had to dispose of some perishables during a power outage earlier this week, “is stocking up and getting ready for the weekend shoppers,” said spokeswoman Wendy Gutshall in an email.

Tony Lashbrook, the Truckee town manager, said snowblower vehicles were working on streets in the Davos and Ski Slope areas of the Tahoe Donner residential development. Much of Tahoe Donner sits at 6,800 feet or higher.

“It’s a 24/7 operation,” Lashbrook said.

He added that crews were still plowing streets in downtown Truckee, a center of shops and restaurants. “We’re going to be ready,” he said. “Parking may be at a premium, but we’ll be ready.”

The four-day lull in snow and rain is expected to end with a bang late Tuesday. Although the next big storm might not measure up to this week’s mayhem, it won’t be a gentle rainfall, either.

“The next storm system will arrive sometime Tuesday night,” said Courtney Obergfell, meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “The heaviest of it would be Wednesday and Thursday with another maybe 1 to 3 inches (of rain) possible in the Sacramento area.”

Snow levels will start out high, at 7,000 feet or above, then drop to lower elevations at the tail end of the storm.

Will there be substantial flooding? Obergfell said there will be risk of rising streams and localized flooding, but the four days of dry weather will help prepare the system for the rains.

“It should be a nice weekend for people to enjoy the snow. Just get back down here before the next storm,” she said with a laugh.

Northern California has escaped the drought. Can it carry the state?

Bee staff writer Jessica Hice contributed to this report. Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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