The last time we had an El Niño or anything close to it, I got a new pair of boots out of the deal.
The New Year’s floods of January 1997 sent water over the spillway of New Don Pedro Dam and on its way to Modesto, where it fanned out and inundated the Tuolumne and San Joaquin river basins all the way to Patterson.
In between, the water engulfed parts of Modesto, including the city’s sewage treatment plant. Winning the newsroom lottery one day, I got to go out to the plant, where they were doing exactly what you’d expect after the water receded: They were using water to hose away the icky stuff. And to confirm that adage about what runs downhill, health officials deemed contaminated a Modesto neighborhood west and therefore downstream of the plant. We walked through there, too. My boots were supposedly waterproof but did have some leather on the exterior. Consequently, officials strongly recommended I throw them away as soon as possible because of the bacteria. And my contact with the bad water was minimal.
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For reasons that defy explanation beyond some producer in a dry and climate-controlled studio in Sacramento claiming it would make “good TV,” the small-screen reporters started their live shots standing knee-deep in the mucky water and then walking toward the camera like the Creature emerging from the Black Lagoon in the old horror flicks as they did their spiels.
Anyway, upon returning to the paper, the boots went into a plastic bag and into a trash bin headed for the landfill or, preferably, the garbage burner near Crows Landing. An editor told me to expense new ones.
In fact, everywhere you went, suppliers were selling rain suits, rubber boots, ponchos and the like. Umbrellas? They didn’t do much good when you were already in water up to your ankles. Or knees.
No matter. The El Niño became a Sell Niño, and this one will be no different. Climatologists are predicting that the warmer-water El Niño conditions in the Pacific Ocean could replicate the dramatic weather conditions of 1997, with the brunt of it coming in late winter or early spring.
Over the past three months, ads have flooded the spam filters of my email accounts. Am I insured for a catastrophic flood? Do I have a backup generator? Would I like to buy a backup generator? They can make me such a deal! Are my gutters clean and ready to handle the expected deluge? How am I doing on sandbags? Emergency supplies such as fresh water in stock? The chain saw in working order? And, of course, do I have the proper rain gear – such as a new pair of waterproof boots?
They stopped just short of asking if my ark is seaworthy.
Being prepared for big storms is without a doubt a smart thing to do. If the power fails, you’ll need light, food, water, blankets, a propane or butane stove for cooking – the works. We needed them a couple of times in 1997.
The difference between that year and this winter, though, lies in the near-empty reservoirs in the foothills. In 1997, heavy early season snows hit the Sierra. They were followed by warm Pineapple Express rainstorms that melted the snow at a time when Don Pedro Reservoir contained too much water to handle the unexpected early runoff. New Don Pedro Dam spilled for the first and only time. This year, the lake is only 32 percent full.
New Melones is 11 percent of capacity, or 89 percent empty depending upon your perspective. Lake McClure on the Merced River is 94 percent empty. (Really, after four years of drought, where’s the upside to calling it 6 percent full?)
As of Friday, those three reservoirs have nearly 4.3 million acre-feet of available storage combined. It would take a catastrophic winter akin to 1861-62 – when it rained 102 inches in Sonora in a 63-day span, and the runoff turned the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys into a lake 300 miles long and 20 miles wide – to bring those reservoirs back up to even their normal high-water marks, let alone threatening to spill.
No, the bigger El Niño threat for the Valley this time will be from the storm drain systems being unable to handle heavy downpours. That creates local street flooding. Expect more trees to uproot or branches to snap, knocking down power lines, much like what wreaked havoc Christmas Eve on Coffee Road in Modesto. It’s what we see during any heavy storm. If the experts are right, there simply will be more of them.
The prediction here is that Modesto’s sewer treatment plant will stay dry, the people downstream won’t have the runoff in their living rooms, and that my boots will make it through wet but otherwise unscathed.
Still, it’s best to be prepared, and the Sell Niño sales are on.