AS WATERS RISE, DROUGHT RECEDES
Too much: Reservoirs spill over, raising flood worries in the South Bay Snow packed: Resorts, water officials cheer even as I-80 closes in the Sierra
Northern California continued to roar out of its prolonged drought Tuesday as yet another powerful storm blew in from the Pacific Ocean, drenching an already saturated Bay Area, filling some local reservoirs beyond capacity and creating dangerous white-out conditions in the northwestern Sierra Nevada.
Shortly after noon, water began coursing down the Lexington Reservoir spillway for the first time since March 2011. As the water surged into Los Gatos Creek, the National Weather Service issued a flash-flood warning for areas adjacent to the stream in Los Gatos and Campbell. Flood warnings also were issued for southern Santa Clara County amid reports of several feet
of standing water in Gilroy, San Martin and Morgan Hill.
The latest storm also brought the threat of more mudslides just days after Highway 17 was closed. It briefly shut Interstate 880 in the East Bay on Tuesday and toppled trees and power lines.
At higher elevations, the storm turned into a treacherous blizzard. Caltrans shut down nearly 90 miles of Interstate 80 between Colfax and the Nevada state line Monday night. It was not expected to reopen until Tuesday night.
The storm was expected to ease up late Tuesday before giving way to a weaker system that may linger into Thursday. After that, forecasters predicted several days of sunny weather, including a rain-free weekend.
Combined with last weekend’s more powerful system and some heavy rainfall in December, the latest storm put several years of punishing drought farther in the rearview window, though state officials plan to wait until the end of the season before deciding whether to end California’s emergency drought declaration.
In the northern Sierra Nevada region, the average precipitation at eight weather stations monitored by the state Department of Water Resources reached 203 percent of normal for the current water year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. That’s the highest total on record for those stations for this time of the season, putting the region on pace to exceed the wettest recorded water year of 1982-83.
“No doubt about it, that’s an encouraging sign for people concerned about the drought, which is everybody,” said Doug Carlson, spokesman for the Water Resources Department. “To be 203 percent of average as of Jan. 10 is quite encouraging. The north is where we have our major reservoirs.”
So much water is flowing up north that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced Tuesday it will increase releases from Shasta Lake, the state’s largest reservoir, from 14,000 cubic feet per second to 36,000 cubic feet per second by Thursday. The goal is to free up space in the swelling reservoir to capture more water as future storms come.
The cumulative rainfall hasn’t been quite as eyepopping in many parts of the Bay Area, but still above average. San Jose has received about 6.5 inches of rain since Oct. 1, which is 109 percent of normal, while Oakland has gotten about 11.6 inches, good for 127 percent of normal, according to the National Weather Service.
On Tuesday, Mineta San Jose International Airport got 0.31 inches of rain in the 24-hour period ending at 4 p.m. Concord soaked up 1.45 inches, Oakland International Airport received 1.15 inches, and Redwood City got 1.37 inches.
In the North Bay, San Rafael got 2.56 inches as the Russian River continued to rise and flooding worsened in the area of Guerneville. The level of the river was expected to exceed 38 feet on Wednesday, more than 6 feet above the flood stage.
The recent storms have loaded up many of the region’s reservoirs. Four of the reservoirs within the Santa Clara Valley Water District, including Lexington, were above capacity Tuesday. The reservoirs managed by the East Bay Municipal Utility District reached 82 percent of capacity on average, with Briones Reservoir in western Contra Costa County at 99 percent.
One of the state’s top environmental officials, Natural Resources Secretary John Laird, said Tuesday that, despite the welcome rain, the administration is likely to wait until March or April to decide whether to lift the emergency drought declaration that Gov. Jerry Brown signed three years ago.
Although there is flooding in Northern California, he said, some parts of the state, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, have badly overdrawn groundwater basins because of heavy pumping during recent dry years.
“That is nowhere near recovering, even with the rains,” he said.
The resources secretary did not specify what sort of recovery the Brown administration would like to see in those basins before it considers the current drought to be over.
In Los Gatos, David Quevado was happy to see Lexington Reservoir full, but the general manager of The Cats, a popular restaurant off Highway 17, wasn’t bothered by the weather conditions that have caused major headaches over the past several days in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
“It’s heavy rain,” he said, peering out of his office window, “but nothing out of the normal.”
Up in the state capital, something more unusual was afoot. For the first time in 11 years, the state Department of Water Resources opened a set of flood-control gates on the Sacramento River. Letting water course through the gates, known as the Sacramento Weir, is designed to calm the raging waters at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers.
All the water in Northern California’s rivers and streams is a welcome sign for Chinook salmon and the fishermen who catch them. Baby salmon will survive at much higher rates as they head out to the ocean over the next several months, likely delivering a bounty to coastal trawlers when the fish return to spawn in a few years.
And the snow in the Sierra Nevada will ensure a long and enjoyable ski season, said Sam Kieckhefer, spokesman for Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows near Lake Tahoe.
The resort got 27 inches of snow in a 24-hour period ending Tuesday morning, and another 10 inches or so came down by the afternoon, bringing the total for January to well above 10 feet, he said. The resort was closed Tuesday but hoped to open some chair lifts Wednesday, depending on weather conditions.
“It is dumping like I haven’t ever really seen, to be honest,” said Kieckhefer.
“We have our hands full, that’s for sure,” said Caltrans spokesman Bob Haus. “All our maintenance folks are working 12-hour days.”
Walnut Creek: Crews work to remove large trees that fell across Tice Valley Boulevard in Walnut Creek on Tuesday.
Lexington Reservoir: The Santa Clara County reservoir hit capacity, sending water over the spillway Tuesday for the first time since March 2011.
Los Gatos Creek: Storm runoff flooded parts of the creek trail.
A woman looks at a flooded section of the popular Los Gatos Creek Trail on a rainy and windy day in Los Gatos on Tuesday.
Chas Leach clears a storm drain in Guerneville on Monday as the Russian River crests above flood stage.