There are many ways to describe the power of a storm: monetary damages from flooding, rainfall totals, rise of reservoirs and rivers, and others. So one can argue about which particular storm was the most powerful to ever hit the state. I'm thinking especially of storms like those of 1861-62 that left much of the Central Valley as a vast lake for months, the 1997 floods that overwhelmed some reservoirs in the Sierra, or the 1969 floods that I experienced in Southern California. They were all devastating floods, and yesterday's storm won't be remembered the same way as these disasters, but in two ways this storm apparently was unique.
|The Tuolumne River at Roberts Ferry Bridge|
I headed out onto the prairies of the Great Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothills this afternoon to see what the atmospheric storm did to the grasslands. My first stop was to check out the Tuolumne River at Roberts Ferry Bridge (above). The river hadn't changed much, as it takes time for the waters to gather the storm runoff and move downstream, but the river is also controlled by the huge dam at Don Pedro Reservoir, and they'll hold onto as much water as they can. It's currently at 48% of capacity, which is bad, but not as bad as most other Northern California reservoirs (Lake Shasta is at 22% or so).
The biggest effect on the Tuolumne will be in downtown Modesto where Dry Creek joins the bigger river. Dry Creek is a normally...well...dry creek that has headwaters in the foothills north of Modesto Reservoir. It is undammed, so it can occasionally produce large floods that can back up into some residential neighborhoods. It had a minimal flow over the last few weeks of a few cubic feet per second. But I could see that a lot of water was gathering out in the prairie. The picture above shows one of the small tributaries to Dry Creek, and channels like this are present all over the region. By tomorrow Dry Creek may be flowing at close to 900 cubic feet per second.
The prairie for the most part was certainly wet, but there were few visual reminders that a vast amount of rain had fallen overnight. The vernal pools held water and creeks were flowing. But little flooding and soil loss had taken place, with one glaring exception. Tens of thousands of acres of prairie have been uprooted to be be replaced by almond groves. These groves have been planted in nice neat rows up and down the hillsides, providing a convenient avenue for floodwaters to cause intense soil erosion. I passed numerous scenes like that above where mud from the orchards had flowed down the road. It's hard to believe in this day and age that the farmers would be making the kind of mistakes that led to the Dust Bowl in the 1920s in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas.
The final thought about today's storm is knowing that after the warm rains that snow would be falling in the high country of the Sierra Nevada. In the webcam from the Yosemite Conservancy we can see that upper Yosemite Valley is now mantled with the cold white stuff. Many wishes that this could be the start of a good water year with a chance to recover somewhat from our devastating drought.