HIGH WATERS, CLOSED ROADS, MORE TO COME
OFFICIALS URGE CAUTION AS NEW STORM HITS
For the second time this year, residents around the Monterey Peninsula woke up this week to the possibility of finding themselves trapped by floodwaters from above and rockfalls from below.
But once more, the infamous “Monterey Peninsula Island” did not come to fruition – at least by Monday afternoon – as a fickle Salinas River proved to be unpredictable yet again. That said, unease hasn't entirely abated, with another atmospheric river set to roll the region Monday overnight into Tuesday. For now, officials are watching and waiting on the engorged waterway, as they have since weekend forecasts warned of a rapidly rising Salinas River.
After another atmospheric storm pummeled California last week, which packed a particularly wet punch to the Central Coast, heavy rainfall over saturated soils renewed concerns that the Salinas River would inundate key roadways between the Peninsula and the rest of the county by Monday before daybreak.
While road closures mounted through the morning, major throughways – including Highway 68 (Monterey-Salinas Highway) near Spreckels and Highway 1 in Marina – remained open, as the Salinas River failed to rise quite as high as was expected.
Still, even as bottlenecks were saved from floodwaters, neighboring roads were far from dry.
Early Monday morning, the county alerted residents that floodwaters were starting to impact Spreckels Boulevard near the Monterey-Salinas Highway. By 7:15 am, the river had overtopped the road, as well as River Road at Las Palmas. Flooding forced a full closure of River Road from the Monterey-Salinas Highway to Fort Romie Road.
With the early morning road closures came calls to shelter-inplace from the Monterey County Sheriff's Office, affecting some 5,000 South County residents. That's on top of the 16,000 residents who were under an evacuation order in Monterey County Monday, officials said.
By noon, California Highway Patrol had also closed Blanco Road between Davis Road and Reservation Road from road flooding, cutting off a point of access between the Peninsula and Salinas. As of publication, people could still travel to and from the Peninsula by way of Reservation Road to the Monterey-Salinas Highway or Highway 1 through Castroville. (A stretch of Highway 1 from Salinas Road to Highway 129 remained closed Monday due to flooding near the Pajaro River).
Further south, another stretch Highway 1 along the Big Sur coastline likewise remained closed this week, as has been the case for days and, for some portions of the road, for months. Highway 1's current closure in Big Sur runs from Deetjen's Inn in Monterey County to Ragged Point in San Luis Obispo County. Since January, when back-to-back atmospheric storms battered the state, Caltrans has been working to repair and clear away persistent rock slides that have kept Highway 1 in Big Sur closed in one place or another since the beginning of the year. Recent weather systems have brought about new slides and debris flows, leaving no estimated time for reopening the road.
Though the Salinas River didn't completely cut the Peninsula off from the rest of the state, floodwaters – much like January – still scoured low-lying areas of South Monterey County, including agricultural fields.
“I can't even begin to estimate costs,” said Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau. “It's another significant hit to the ag sector here.”
In February, the County of Monterey Agricultural Commissioner's Office released estimates that the local ag industry suffered $336 million in losses and damages through January's parade of storm and flooding. The nine-figure number – drawn after a survey of farmers and ranchers by local ag leaders – reflected $324.1 million worth of crop losses and $9.6 million worth of damages to farm infrastructure and facilities. South Monterey County bore the brunt of injury.
In all, the survey found that 15,705 acres were damaged during January's storms. Groot said flooding this time around is, preliminarily, looking to be greater than what was experienced in January. According to Groot, areas that didn't experience flooding a couple months ago are now experiencing flooding for the first time.
Asked how flooding will impact the Salinas Valley's planting season, Groot said, “what we're seeing now (with flooding) in the beginning of March – when we see a lot of our fields get planted – schedules will be pushed back and delayed.”
Groot also said that crops had been planted in the field and have likely been impacted but that he didn't “have any specifics” for which crops have been affected by flooding so far.
Industry-wide, Monterey County farmworkers are feeling the pressure of floodwaters, new and already receded, which have debilitated local operations.
“These storms have impacted farmworkers to the point where they haven't been able to do their jobs,” Groot said.
Among the aftershocks of storms this month, some of the most devastating consequences have fallen over the residents and farmworkers of Pajaro, where a breached levee early Saturday morning forced thousands to flee their homes. After an initial breach of 100 feet, the Pajaro River levee breach had grown to approximately 300 feet in width as of Monday, county officials estimated.
Emergency temporary work to stabilize the breach with rocks and material started Sunday. In a county press briefing Monday afternoon, Shaunna Murray, a senior engineer with the Monterey County Water Resources Agency, said there is now a secondary breach of the Pajaro River at River Mile 1, near the mouth of the river.
“That's actually a relief valve for the community,” she said. “This is actually good news.” Murray added that work to fill the Pajaro River levee breach is ongoing.
“We are working 24/7,” she said.
But with another storm on the way, worries remained that new rainfall will make an already disastrous outcome worse, for Pajaro and beyond.
Richie Storbeck, a carrier for Monterey Peninsula Messenger, was waiting near the closure signs on Spreckels Boulevard on Monday to perform a “handoff” with another driver whose job it would be to service the areas of Spreckels, Chualar, Gonzales and King City.
“On a usual day it's not an issue,” said Storbeck.
But standing road closures and an impending atmospheric river, he was wondering what Tuesday would be like.
Looking at the flooded fields near the Scheid Vineyards executive offices just west of the Salinas River near the River/Reservation Road and Highway 68 interchange, Amy Friedrich and Jeremy Mayo were walking their dog and keeping a watchful eye on the water level.
“I expect for Highway 68 to be cut off” after this next storm, said Friedrich.
The couple live nearby in the Creekside Terrace area of Toro Park and witnessed the same issue after a number of atmospheric river storms in January swelled the Salinas River.
“It flooded, but it wasn't this high,” said Friedrich. “It was 24.6 feet high in January and it was 26.9 feet this morning.”
She said that coming out to see how high the water is in relation to Reservation Road helps settle some anxiety and deciding their next move which could include sand-bagging since their residence is backed by a field.
Though they are not in an evacuation warning or order zone, Mayo said that nearby Toro Creek feeds the river, and if the river gets too high, it will back up and flood the creek.
“We're not going to wait for an evacuation order,” said Mayo. “If we feel we need to get out before it's too late, we'll get out.”
Friedrich said they learned the importance of being ready to evacuate after the fires the last few years.
Randy Wallis of Toro Park was getting his own drone footage of the flooded fields. He said he was not too worried about his residence since “I'm high enough.” But he has an RV in storage at a facility near Spreckels that he had to move in January.
“They'll give me some warning to move it,” he said.
Wallis said the flooding is mother nature reclaiming her property … “what are you gonna do?”
“I'm glad we're getting the rain … we need it,” said Wallis. “I'm a fisherman and look forward to the lakes being filled.”
Las Palmas Ranch II resident Greg Vasquez said he's been here about 21 years and said he's ready if things get worse.
“We're ready. You put a bag together and get ready to evacuate if you need to,” said Vasquez.
He said he has packed clothes, important documents, and medication, and is ready to go if needed.
“There's nothing more you can do but just keep watching,” said Vasquez. “You just never know.”
Dial Hoang, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Monterey, said the upcoming atmospheric river will start dousing the Central Coast in full force overnight Monday into Tuesday morning. The system could bring anywhere from 0.5-1.5 inches of rain to lower elevations around the county and 8-10 inches at select peaks along the Santa Lucia Mountains.
For Pajaro in particular, Hoang said the National Weather Service is expecting to see at least 1.5 inches of rain through the next system. With saturated soils leaving little room for new rainfall to be absorbed, the National Weather Service has warned that further flooding from local rivers is a lingering concern.
The National Weather Service has issued a flood watch for much of Central and Northern California, which will remain in effect though late Tuesday night.
“Creeks and streams may rise out of their banks,” the warning reads. “Extensive street flooding and flooding of creeks and rivers is likely. Lingering impacts from last week's flooding (are) likely to get worse with this second storm.”
As of Monday at 2 p.m., the Salinas River near Spreckels was still over a moderate flood stage at 26.12 feet, though it was on the decline, according to forecasts from the California Nevada River Forecast Center. The Salinas River near Spreckels crested at 26.89 feet at around 4 a.m. Monday. In January, the Salinas River near Spreckels crested at 24.6 feet.
Looking ahead, the Salinas River near Spreckels was forecasted to continue declining through Wednesday before rising again later in the week.
“The Salinas River near Spreckels is expected to crest at around 27 feet sometime on Friday, but as we go through the next few days, we're expected to get some more information on how deep the rain is going to impact this river and its flow,” said Hoang.
At 28 feet is when the Salinas River would start inundating and inciting closure of the Monterey-Salinas Highway near Spreckels, county officials have stated.
Beyond flooding, Hoang also urged residents to prepare for the possibility of widespread power outages as winds are again expected to pick up with the approaching system. Hoang said valley areas of the county are likely to see winds reach 3040 mph, while gusts along the coast and higher elevations could potentially reach 50-55 mph. High winds and wet soil make for a dangerous mix well suited for toppled trees and downed power lines.
In last week's system, more than 38,000 Pacific Gas and Electric Co. customers lost their power. For some residents, outages lasted more than three days.
“This is your time to prepare for the system that's coming,” Hoang said. “We're encouraging people to prepare for power outages, and if they do live in flood prone areas to heed the advice of local officials (regarding) evacuation orders.”