Weekend storm brings floods to state

Issue Date: January 11, 2017
By Kevin Hecteman
Napa County farmer Tom Gamble’s dog Koa wades through floodwaters Jan. 9 at one of Gamble Family Vineyards’ properties between Yountville and Oakville. A “pineapple express” rainstorm drenched most of California over the weekend, with many rivers exceeding flood stage. Gamble reported minor damage and debris at his vineyard, but nothing on the scale of the flood that devastated his property in 2005.
Photo/Tom Gamble
The Mokelumne River was running fast and high past the Acampo vineyards of LangeTwins, where some of the property was flooded.
Photo/Aaron Lange
Scott Bauer’s family ranch in Alexander Valley just north of Healdsburg was among many flooded areas in Sonoma County.
Photo/Scott Bauer

California in general, and Northern California in particular, are looking pretty soggy in the wake of last weekend's storm. While it wasn't the unmitigated disaster some feared it might be, reports of flooding, trees down and mudslides were still widespread.

"We're swimming," said Kim Vail, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. He said he'd seen photos and reports of inundated vineyards. Winegrapes are by far Sonoma County's top crop.

"We've had significant flooding, especially in low-lying areas," Vail said. "The Russian River area is still under a flood warning. It's supposed to crest at 38 feet (Monday), which is 4 to 6 feet above flood stage."

Vail said damage was still being assessed. His bureau is to have a board meeting Thursday, after which the picture would be clearer.

National Weather Service forecaster Idamis Del Valle, based in Sacramento, said the weekend's storm brought 2 to 4 inches of rain in the valley, 3 to 8 inches in the foothills and 4 to 10 inches in the Sierra Nevada. All of it was rain.

"This was a warm system, so snow levels were high," Del Valle said. "We were expecting all rain."

In Napa County, Tom Gamble saw minor damage at Gamble Family Vineyards.

"I inspected this morning along Conn Creek at the confluence with Rector less than a mile up from merge with the Napa River," Gamble wrote in an email. He found about 20 acres of flooded sauvignon blanc vines with debris in the drip wires.

"No more than a nuisance," he said, estimating he had a few days' cleanup ahead.

That stands in stark contrast to a decade ago, when a major storm and flood led to widespread damage in the valley, with Gamble's vines being a major casualty.

"Because of vineyard owners working on the Napa River restoration project over the last decade, increasing river capacity and habitat throughout the valley, not only are salmon spawning again in Calistoga, but flood intensity and damage are much less severe than in 2005," Gamble wrote.

Indeed, the new bypass along the Napa River in downtown Napa was used for the first time last weekend, according to the Napa Valley Register, as the river neared a crest of 26.5 feet Sunday night. Flood stage is 25 feet.

"We've gotten through the first main storm," said Lauren Hersh, a public information officer at the state Department of Water Resources. "Having rain on top of snow caused a lot of additional water coming down the mountains into the creeks. We're looking at a possible second storm coming through beginning (Tuesday)."

Napa and Cosumnes were two of many rivers exceeding the flood stage in places Sunday. Others, according to Hersh, included the Sacramento, Russian, Navarro, Eel, Merced, Truckee and East Fork Carson rivers. Additional forecast peaks beyond flood stage were expected along the Sacramento, Pit and Middle Fork Feather rivers.

As this issue of Ag Alert® went to press, another storm with colder temperatures, high winds and plenty of snow was taking aim at Northern California. This one was expected to pack wind gusts of 40-60 mph in the valley and 5 to 7 feet of snow along the crest of the Sierra Nevada, Del Valle said. Two to 3 feet of snow was expected as low as 4,500 feet. Rain was forecast at 1 to 2 inches in the valley and as much as 9 inches at higher elevations.

Don't celebrate the end of the drought just yet, experts say.

"We started this water year with some locations above normal precipitation, and we are on a good start," Del Valle said. "But it's also dependent on (groundwater) supply, too.

"We're still in a drought, even though that improved our situation," Del Valle said. "Conservation efforts should continue."

Del Valle said Southern California is still in a severe drought with below-average precipitation.

At DWR, Hersh was thinking about groundwater as well.

"We have issues with subsidence in the Central Valley, and the San Joaquin in particular," Hersh said. "When that happens, you've got less water storage. You get less groundwater storage. And so that water just seeps into other places and runs off instead of replenishing that aquifer.

"Over the long term, if we keep getting wet winters and we keep getting more than our normal amount of precip, than it's obviously a good sign," Hersh said.

As to the drought: "It's too soon to say that we're out of the drought," Hersh said. "It took a long time to get where we are—six years of very dry weather. We just don't know at this point whether we can make that declaration. It's premature.

"I think we need to recognize that for all intents and purposes, despite a lot of precip in a very short time, we're still officially in a drought," he said.

Water was being released from dams around the state to keep up with the runoff. At Nimbus Dam, below Folsom Lake, water was flowing at 30,000 cubic feet per second on Monday morning, Hersh said; this was to double to 60,000 cfs by 5 p.m. Monday.

A decision as to when to open the Sacramento Weir, which sends excess Sacramento River water into the Yolo Bypass, had not been made as of 3 p.m. Monday. The National Weather Service had previously warned farmers in the area to move equipment and livestock to safety in the event the weir opens. Del Valle said the weir is opened when the Sacramento River at the I Street Bridge reaches 29.87 feet. As of 3 p.m. Monday, the river was at 27.7 feet, according to DWR.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.