Sunday, January 1, 2023

Dry Creek: Anatomy of a Flood (One of Many Across California Today)


After days of gloomy and wet weather, New Year's Day dawned bright and sunny, and we couldn't resist driving out into the California prairie to have a look at the beautiful landscape. The streams across the prairies east of Modesto were full and flowing in a way we haven't seen for a number of years. And that's the problem of course. 

This creek, normally dry, was just one of many dozens of tributaries to Dry Creek, which is itself an unregulated, undammed tributary to the Tuolumne River. This entire area received upwards of five inches of precipitation in the last day or two, and all the water had to go somewhere.

I included a picture of Dry Creek in my post yesterday, when it was flowing at about 600 cubic feet per second (cfs). I am including another picture below, taken at the same time, but from an angle that shows the pasture to the left. I knew that more water would be coming downstream, maybe as much as 1,500 cfs, an amount that would actually be more, by a wide margin, than the main drainage in the area, the Tuolumne River.

That's not quite what happened...

When we crossed the Dry Creek Bridge north of Waterford today, the creek was running at 6,000 cubic feet per second, more than ten times the flow of the previous day. Take a look below at what happened to the pasture (not to mention all the shrubs and brambles at the base of the oak trees).

By the time we arrived in the prairies in the afternoon today, most of the floodwaters had subsided in the upper watershed, but we could see evidence everywhere that a significant flood event had taken place. Rocks were strewn across the roadways, and every watercourse showed evidence of having been feet deeper the previous day. One bridge we crossed would have been four feet underwater during the height of the storm. 

The flood hydrograph below tells the story. The data is taken from a stream gage downstream in Modesto. The bar graph at the top shows the pattern of the rainfall in the storm up in the watershed, and the subsequent rise of Dry Creek. Notice how the rise of the creek lagged behind the precipitation. This so-called lagtime makes sense because it takes time for the water to gather into the tributaries and then to flow the twenty miles or so downstream. Lagtime represents the critical hours that residents downstream can prepare for the oncoming flood.

Wouldn't it be nice if there were a government entity that could monitor all rivers and all flood events so that when such events unfold, there could be timely warnings? Perhaps even keeping records of storms over the course of a century or more, so that specific warnings could be made about the timing and the expected intensity of the oncoming flood? Unlike earthquakes, floods can be predicted, and there are in fact government institutions that are tasked with this job, mainly the United States Geological Survey (across the entire US), and the Department of Water Resources specifically in California.

Which brings us to the handy-dandy bottom portion of the hydrograph. The blue line on the graph is what happened already. The pink line is the prediction. We have another intense storm coming on Wednesday, and after dropping to around 300 cfs, Dry Creek is going to rise again to at least 6,000 cfs and maybe more. Isn't it nice that we have several days warning? That's just one huge example of the value of science in our society.

Of course, no one is perfect, and all models and predictions can be affected by unknown and unexpected factors. The storm this week offers one tragic example. Although most streams and rivers behaved more or less as predicted, the Cosumnes River defied the predictions and produced record flooding, well beyond the predicted levels. 

What went wrong? Those who do science fully understand that errors happen, and it their goal is to understand the reason for such errors. The factors in the Cosumnes River flooding are being analyzed and may include an unexpected slowing of the storm front causing increased precipitation, two or three broken levees, and the Caldor Fire of 2021 that ravaged much of the watershed upstream. If you want to follow the analysis, check out the Weather West blog by Daniel Swain (@Weather_West on Twitter).

So, there is my science homily for the day. But we were out to explore some nature, and in any case, we need to appreciate the gifts we have been given. The day, a respite from a long series of expected storms, was beautiful. 

Mountain Bluebirds are not common on the valley floor, but we saw a small flock along the road.

An American Kestrel is a sharp-looking small member of the falcon family. This one remained perched near our car for a few moments.

Bald Eagles are not especially abundant in the region, but we found one. So had an 'unkindness' of Common Ravens, and they were making their displeasure known to the eagle.

And finally, an old horse seemed to appreciate the sunshine. The horses were brought to the continent by the Spaniards in the 1500s, but they actually have a long heritage here. They evolved in North America tens of millions of years ago! They migrated across the Bering Land Strait and spread throughout the world, but for some reason went extinct along with many other large mammal species in North America about 12,000 years ago.


Dschwartz said...

Out of curiosity do you use flooding events like this to talk to your classes about what a floodplain is and why building there is a bad idea?

Garry Hayes said...

Oh, I do, absolutely. It's pretty much the greatest geological hazard in our particular region.