Town of Maxwell floods as worry about Oroville Dam shifts to creeks and canals

The first word on flooding came at 2 a.m. Saturday when residents of the tiny farm town of Maxwell began calling the Colusa County Sheriff’s Office.

Hours later, many homes and businesses in the town of about 1,100 people were inundated with nearly a foot of water as residents fled to drier ground. A stark image shared by the National Weather Service on social media showed buildings surrounded by murky brown water that stretched across the flat land.

Northern California was saturated Saturday despite a break in the most recent wave of storms. While the danger behind the Oroville Dam had receded by the weekend, the network of swollen canals, streams and rivers menaced homes, businesses and roadways.

As Maxwell flooded, two stretches of Interstate 5 north of Williams were barely passable because of encroaching waters. Roads throughout the region were closed from flooding and mudslides. Reclamation districts patrolled levees, monitoring boils and sandbagging. And residents nervously watching the Oroville Dam packed their bags and prepared to evacuate again if necessary.

In Colusa County, the Sheriff’s Office blamed local creeks and canals for the widespread flooding “due to the overabundance of water the last 24 hours” and announced “voluntary evacuations for those who felt their safety was at risk.”

By then, scores of residents had hastily collected their personal items and headed to Red Cross sites in Williams, about 10 miles to the south, or to Maxwell High School, on higher ground on the west side of town.

For most, it was a short stay, said Picard Robert, Red Cross shelter manager. By midafternoon most had left the evacuation centers in Williams to stay with family members or find lodging. Only a handful remained at the high school in Maxwell, he said.

Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, said he expected evacuees to be displaced “for an undetermined amount of time.”

“This is devastating for the people living here,” he said.

Locals voiced amazement at the flooding.

Prominent rice farmer Don Bransford, who lives in Colusa about 10 miles east of Maxwell, said everything “is just filled. The rice fields … are all filled with water. The ditches are filled.”

With several area roads closed, he added, “People are pretty anxious about how big this next storm is going to be. … A lot of people haven’t experienced this kind of weather or this much water. … It’s been a long time since we’ve seen this much standing water everywhere.”

Mary Wells, 71, a rancher who lives in the hills a few miles west of Maxwell, said it was the first time that “folks who’ve lived here even longer than I can remember this much water coming through town. Lot of damage.”

Wells estimated that the flooding affected “probably one-third of the town. The elementary school, lots of houses.”

Anxiety levels also were building up and down the banks of the Sacramento River watershed.

At Reclamation District 108, an agricultural district about 30 miles south of Maxwell, crews were patrolling the 90 miles of levees that protect a region stretching from Colusa to Knights Landing.

“We do have some boils we’re sandbagging,” said the district’s general manager, Lewis Bair. “We’re definitely not comfortable, but we’re managing the situation.”

Ray Long, a truck driver hauling construction materials from Southern California to Redding, reached a peak of frustration Saturday and he decided to pull off I-5 and stay the night at the Motel 6 in Williams.

Long said the trip should have taken just a day and half but, instead, will be a three- to four-day ordeal.

He was delayed Friday because of flooding along the Grapevine in Southern California, he said. Then, just before he reached Williams, he was stalled three hours in traffic because of the flooding just north of the town.

“I‘m supposed to have time off after this and spend time with my wife and kids,” he said. “Now I’m not going to be able to do that for a few days.”

Maxwell’s plight followed a week of high stress during mass evacuations from Oroville, Yuba City and Marysville.

Along the Sacramento River on Saturday morning from Bend Bridge to the Ord Ferry, weather service monitors recorded water levels that remained at or just above flood stages.

And it’s not over. A large storm is expected to dump heavy rain over Northern California and add several feet of snow to mountain passes starting Sunday night.

In the Central Valley, forecasters call for 2 inches to 3 inches of rain through Tuesday. At higher elevations, the heavy rain could reach 5 to 7.5 inches during the period, said Hannah Chandler, weather service meteorologist. She said the onslaught threatens to produce more mudslides and flooding.

Donner Pass will receive around 18 inches of snow, she said, and Carson and Ebbetts Pass in Alpine County are expected to receive 38 to 40 inches of snow.

“The storm should … hit us hard on Monday into Tuesday,” Chandler said. “So we do have a flood watch out for our entire area for that time frame.”

Writers Nashelly Chavez, Dale Kasler and Al Pierleoni contributed to this story.