Water rescues and flooded bypasses: Sacramento region gets late season soaking

Watch swift water rescue of motorist

Crews from the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District and Folsom Fire Department help rescue a motorist stranded Thursday morning in swift water on Latrobe Road north of Rancho Murieta.
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Crews from the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District and Folsom Fire Department help rescue a motorist stranded Thursday morning in swift water on Latrobe Road north of Rancho Murieta.

Mudslides. Inundated flood plains. Soggy city parks. Motorists trapped on flooded rural roads. A thick blanket of white in the Sierra.

For good measure, Thursday even brought a tornado warning.

Before the sun burst through the clouds in Sacramento early Thursday afternoon, Northern California felt the effects of days of steady rain and snow as an atmospheric river storm pounded the region.

While it provided a healthy dose of relief after what has been a dry winter, it made for rough going for commuters. At least 22 crashes were reported on freeways around Sacramento during the morning commute between 6 and 7 a.m. alone.

Westbound I-80 early Thursday was closed briefly after a truck crashed and spilled diesel. Two lanes of eastbound Highway 50 near El Dorado Hills were closed for a mudslide. Several streets in Folsom flooded early Thursday afternoon and a mudslide closed one lane of Highway 16 near Sloughhouse.

Firefighters hopped in a boat late Thursday morning to rescue a driver whose car got trapped on Scott Road in southeastern Sacramento County after a small stream spilled its banks and sent door-high water cascading across the pavement.

The National Weather Service warned of flash flooding across the region. The threat was from small streams flooding from heavy localized squalls.

Among the most at risk: the Cosumnes River at Michigan Bar in southeastern Sacramento County, and the Yuba River near Marysville.

The weather service also warned of thunderstorms in the afternoon, including the possibility of tornadoes and funnel clouds in the Sacramento Valley.

Further south in Tuolumne County, officials warned of the imminent failure of Moccasin Dam, which holds back a small reservoir on a tributary of the Tuolumne River. In late afternoon, the Sheriff's Department said failure was no longer imminent but was still possible.

Local officials told The Modesto Bee there was little risk to public safety from the dam's possible failure, although employees at the Moccasin Creek fish hatchery had to be evacuated because of heavy flooding. The state's sixth largest reservoir, Don Pedro, sits just below the dam. The lake was expected to rise by less than 6 inches if Moccasin failed.

The storm brought familiar signs of a wet winter to the Sacramento region.

For the first time this year, Discovery Park in Sacramento is expected to flood in the coming days as reservoir managers release more water from Folsom Dam into the American River below to make room in the lake for storm runoff. The park normally floods when the American is high.

In another first this rainy season, commuters crossing the Yolo Bypass on Friday are going to see some water spill into the massive man-made floodplain west of Sacramento.

The Sacramento River early Friday morning is expected to spill over the Fremont Weir near Woodland and into the miles of farm fields buttressed by tall levees that make up the bypass.

In heavy storms, the bypass serves as a sort of release valve to keep swollen rivers from over-topping the levees that protect Sacramento from flooding.

But forecasters say the inundation in the Yolo Bypass won't approach anything close to the vast inland lake that hung around for much of last winter under Interstate 5 and 80 after the drought-busting storms.

“You'll probably see it, but it's going to be pretty shallow,” said Alan Haynes, a hydrologist with the federal California Nevada River Forecast Center. He said the water will likely recede over the weekend.

Sacramento’s rainfall totals received a decent bump during the storms. As of Thursday morning, the rainfall totals in Sacramento were 78 percent of normal — up from 70 percent prior to the storm.

The totals weren’t as substantial in the Sierra. While chains were required on Sierra freeways Thursday morning, the Sierra snowpack still was just 52 percent of normal. Still, some ski resorts were wrestling with too much snow: Squaw Valley shut down for the day late in the afternoon because of avalanche threats.

Jan Null of private forecaster Golden Gate Weather Services said that for most of Northern California, the month is shaping up as a “mediocre March” instead of the hoped-for “Miracle March” that would have pulled the state from a below-average wet season.

Although Sacramento has gotten well above normal rainfall for the month, most cities have received average or slightly above average rainfall totals.

The stormy weather is expected to ebb on Friday. In Sacramento, the National Weather Service says to expect partly sunny skies for most of the day, with a high near 57. Rain in the valley and snow in the Sierra is expected to return on Saturday.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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