Jeff Jardine

The wading game: Valley folks dealing with standing water for first time in years

Whenever there’s significant rain, ponds form in a north Modesto business park off Bangs Avenue. Stanislaus County Public Works Director Matt Machado said the county’s offer to help fix the problem was rejected by the business and property owners.
Whenever there’s significant rain, ponds form in a north Modesto business park off Bangs Avenue. Stanislaus County Public Works Director Matt Machado said the county’s offer to help fix the problem was rejected by the business and property owners. Stanislaus County

When Jesus walked on water, that was a miracle.

When a black Volkswagen Beetle tried to drive on it – I watched one blow through a yellow light and into a foot of standing water near Riverbank one morning last week – that was just plain stupid under any circumstances. Dangerous hydroplaning aside, it made for an impressive spray that no doubt left the other drivers it sprayed anything but impressed. And all for what? A minute’s wait for the light to turn green?

That and other examples serve as a reminder that for the past four years, aside from a few relatively exciting but isolated storms, we’ve pretty much forgotten what it is like to deal with puddles, instant ponds and street flooding. To the contrary, the declining water levels of major reservoirs including New Melones, Don Pedro and Lake McClure drew attention, as did area groundwater wells that went dry, and rightfully so at the time. This winter is different – joyously welcome, but still different than the past few.

In December 2014, we got volumes of rain that cruelly teased folks into believing the drought might just end. But January 2015 turned into a dry hole, and the rest of the season produced only a couple of inches, most of that coming during one spring storm. The kind of street and road flooding drivers experience during normal rainfall years didn’t materialize because the ground never got saturated enough to cause problems.

The pattern held true from 2011 until now. A bit of perspective: Drivers getting their first licenses in the summer of 2011 would have had to renew them in 2015 before ever having to negotiate standing water on the roads in much of the Valley. Some veteran drivers, it would seem, simply forgot what it’s like, don’t care or are on their cellphones. Whatever.

With an El Niño comes a constant string of storms that soak the ground. Some, such as those this past week, dump enough water in a short amount of time to overwhelm storm-drain systems here in the flatlands. Streets flood.

“Nutcases will plow through a mud puddle and send water 2 feet over the hoods of parked cars,” Oakdale Public Works Director Thom Clark said. Oakdale residents need to remember that on the west side of town in particular, the old storm-drain system can’t keep up with the runoff from a big cloudburst or prolonged rain. It becomes Lake Oakdale until the rain stops and the water finally dissipates. Yet some ignore it and go for the cheap thrill.

“If you’re close to a front door of a business, it will put water under their door,” Clark said. In fact, the mortuary on F Street, which doubles as Highway 108, needs sandbags to keep the water from creeping into the building at such times.

Shallow memories regarding deep puddles surfaced in south Modesto in a different way.

Last year, Stanislaus County addressed road flooding in the Parklawn neighborhood when it installed a sewer system and repaved the streets. The area includes about 328 homes that for six decades had relied on septic systems. It also is an area without sidewalks, where even light rains create substantial puddles and flood the streets, County Public Works Director Matt Machado said. The county fixed that, he said, by creating swales – sunken areas along the roads where the water puddles and percolates into the ground while keeping the streets dry.

Yet those streets are flooding again, Machado said, and he’s not happy about it.

“We did the work and people complained like crazy,” he said. They were upset that they could no longer park their cars where the swales were built. “It looked like we’d solved the drainage problem, but some of the neighbors filled in some of the swales – about a half-dozen of them.”

The residents used sand, old concrete – whatever – to level up the areas. I came across one of them, Heriberto Mena, shoveling gravel from the back of his pickup to fill in the swale in front of his home on Dover Street on Friday.

“There’s no other place to park,” Mena said. “You’d open your (pickup) and you’d put your foot into water.”

Better on the street than covering his feet, he surmised.

When it rains again, the street will flood again, Machado said.

“That’s not very neighborly,” he said.

Machado also said business owners in a north Modesto industrial park could have had drier streets. But they spurned the county’s offer to create a storm-drain district benefiting the businesses around Galaxy Way, where he said recent storms left water 2 feet deep in the low spots.

“We said ‘We’ll partner with you,’ ” Machado said. “ ‘We’ll put in some bucks, you put in some bucks and we’ll get this fixed.’ 

Except that it’s never so easy. Proposition 218 requires “all local governments, including charter cities, to get majority voter approval for new or increased general taxes.” It went to a vote.

“About 80 percent of them said no,” Machado said. “They said, ‘We can manage ourselves.’ 

Which is what they will get to do, he said.

“They’re on their own,” Machado said. “We’ll come out and close the road when its underwater by a couple of feet, but people made a choice.”

Which also means that as these storms continue to hit, they’ll be reminded of what it’s like to walk or drive through standing water.

Walking on it requires an exclusive ability.