Jeff Jardine

Yeah, it’s rained in the Valley, but no future guarantees

A vehicle is stuck in Orestimba Creek where it has overflowed its banks along Jorgensen Road between Crows Landing and Newman in March 2011.
A vehicle is stuck in Orestimba Creek where it has overflowed its banks along Jorgensen Road between Crows Landing and Newman in March 2011. Modesto Bee file

So we got some rain.

It’s welcome and needed. The early storms soaked San Francisco and sent mud sliding through towns and across roadways in Los Angeles this past week.

But while it’s a wet start to the true rainy season, I haven’t heard one climatologist ready to proclaim El Niño is among us and that the end to our three-year drought is near. If anything, they’re more skeptical now than they were a few months ago. A team of researchers said the current drought is California’s worst in the past 1,200 years, using soil moisture levels and the rings of blue oak trees as their basis for their conclusion.

The current snowpack in the Central Sierra isn’t impressive yet, and unless there’s prolonged snowfall up there, the spring runoff won’t begin to replenish the water levels in the reservoirs. Irrigation and fish flow drawdowns in the spring likely will begin from lower lake levels in 2015 than in 2014.

True, it’s only the first week of December and really just the beginning of the rainfall season. So why the skepticism?

Three years of watching the skies, hoping and praying for a strong winter, only to be teased by storm after storm that breaks up and misses us, simply wears on everyone. If the water folks have learned anything, it’s to never take anything for granted. Since Jan. 1, we’ve had slightly over 2 more inches of rain than Phoenix. Phoenix is in the desert. We grow crops. They grow mesquite trees, cactus and scorpions.

If you want consistent weather, try Siberia. You won’t get it here. We get strong years that coat the Sierra with a thick layer of snow that melts and fills the reservoirs below. Or we get virtually nothing for a few years at a time, and the reservoirs become puddles.

Some years, we see both extremes. In November and December of 1996, tremendous snowstorms pounded the Sierra, knocking down power lines and water flumes. Then a warm Pineapple Express rainstorm melted all that snow, like, at once. Lake Don Pedro couldn’t handle the surge of water, and around New Year’s Day 1997, it spilled for the first time. The Tuolumne River flooded south and west Modesto. It backed up Dry Creek and put the La Loma bridge at Morton Way several feet under. Then the Tuolumne and the Stanislaus joined with San Joaquin to flood parts of the Valley all the way to Tracy.

When you see mobile homes afloat or walk into a home within the flood plain and see an armoire that had floated from a back bedroom into the kitchen, that indeed is serious weather. It was horrible to those affected.

But the weirdness didn’t end there. After raining nearly 13 inches from Oct. 1, 1996, through Jan. 31, 1997, it stopped. From Feb. 1 through June 30, Modesto received just over one-half inch of rain.

This time around, the only consistency has been drought. That is why, said Chris Brady of Stanislaus County Public Works, creeks that usually flood and cause road closures after soaking rains aren’t even close to flooding at this point.

“It’s been so dry for so long that the hills (on the west side) are soaking it up,” Brady said.

They’ll probably drink even more water before Orestimba and other creeks start running hard enough to flood roads and force closures.

“There’s a lot of water that will come down Del Puerto Canyon,” he said. “But it takes a few days.”

No matter: There always will be people willing to drive across a road that’s become a stream, risking not only their vehicles but their lives.

For years in Tuolumne County, road officials closed Bell Mooney Road west of Jamestown whenever it appeared Woods Creek would rise over the culvert pipe and pavement. You knew if the road was closed, the water was high. But they rebuilt the ford several years ago. Water still gets across it on occasion, but road officials up there are more concerned with water causing hazards by freezing after it is tracked up either side of the gully by vehicles.

In Modesto, where solid rains and plugged drains can flood streets in a matter of minutes, police were pleasantly surprised at the lack of crashes they could attribute to the recent storms.

“They didn’t bring out as much stupid as we expected,” Modesto police spokeswoman Heather Graves said. “Maybe (the bad drivers) were on vacation, or driving somewhere else.”

But, as I pointed out above, it’s still early. The climate watchers could be in for a pleasant surprise and maybe we’ll get three times the rain they project, which still won’t be enough to end the drought. That will take several good rain/snow years, not just one.

Which is why it’s easy to remain skeptical until you’re up to your knees in it.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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