Saturday, April 7, 2018

Liveblogging the Deluge: Merced River in Yosemite Reaches Flood Stage

This picture is a cheat. I'm not in Yosemite, this picture is from two years ago
I was supposed to be in Yosemite right now. We had scheduled a field studies class today that would have sent us up the Merced River to Yosemite Valley and back, but nature has intruded with an unusual April atmospheric river storm that is setting some daily rainfall records across Central California. San Francisco, for instance, received rain equivalent to an average April in a single day. My backyard rain gauge in the Central Valley has recorded 2.2 inches since yesterday. In 26 years of measuring, there have only been three Aprils where we've received that much in the entire month.

I had already decided to postpone the trip by last Monday when the forecasts called for flooding on the Merced River in Yosemite Valley. In short, the river jumps its banks at the 10 foot level (about 6,000 cubic feet per second). At 12 feet (9,500 cfs), the flooding river covers some of the main roads in the valley. Today's storm is expected to result in a river that crests at 14 feet, or 14,000 cubic feet per second. Even if I had decided to go ahead with the field trip, we would not have reached our goal, because the park service closed Yosemite Valley yesterday. We're going to try and make the trip tomorrow to check out any flood damage, but if the valley floor is still closed, we'll try to see Hetch Hetchy instead.
Yosemite Valley is especially prone to flooding because it is high up in the mountains close to the headwaters of the Merced River, and when rain falls, it falls on mostly barren granite. The water flows into channels very quickly, and the channels gather into the Merced River and Tenaya Creek just as quickly. There are no reservoirs upstream for flood control (nor should there ever be).

If it drives home the point, Yosemite Valley has only been closed a few times in its history, most notably in 1997 during the unprecedented floods of that year, and during a few government shutdowns. It takes a major event to convince the park administration to shut down the iconic valley.

I hope to be back tomorrow with pictures of Yosemite Valley. We'll see what happens! I will update the flood hydrograph in the space below when the river flow peaks.

UPDATE: At 1:00 PM, the river has reached 10,800 cubic feet per second (12.85 feet). If I'm reading the data right (below), this is only the fourth time the flow has reached this level since 1996.

Here is the 1:00 PM report:

Also, here is a link to video of the main road in Yosemite Valley at the moment, courtesy of the Fresno Bee.

UPDATE 2: We've reached 12,100 cubic feet per second as of 5:00PM, and 13.68 feet (10 feet is flood  level), and the flood may be peaking. The discharge only increased by 100 cfs in the last hour.

FINAL UPDATE: It looks like the flood has peaked at 12,100 cfs, as it has been there for two hours. I expect it will now start dropping. I'm hoping the valley will reopen in time for our visit tomorrow. If not, I guess we'll check out Hetch Hetchy!

WELL, OKAY, ONE MORE UPDATE: Yosemite National Park has posted pictures of the flooding today: https://www.facebook.com/pg/YosemiteNPS/photos/?tab=album&album_id=1650167855031490
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