Warm storm hits county
Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune Water can be seen flowing from Friant Dam into the San Joaquin River on Tuesday.
Milder than it could have been, an atmospheric river brought storms to the mountains in recent days, melting snow, causing minor flooding, and felling trees and rocks in mountain areas.
A large rockfall Sunday closed El Portal Road, which leads into Yosemite National Park, but officials were able to clear the highway by Tuesday. The road, also known as State Route 140, remained open through the day but was closed again at 6 p.m. out of weather and rockfall concerns. It will be reevaluated Wednesday morning.
Access to Yosemite Valley by state routes 120 and 41 have stayed open, as have valley campgrounds. Overnight accommodations and concession services inside the park were scheduled to reopen today. The Hetchy Hetch Road is closed due to a rockfall.
The Merced River in Yosemite Valley reached flood stage at Pohono Bridge on Sunday afternoon and hit a peak height of 12.7 feet at 4 a.m. Monday, according to park officials. Though no major flooding happened, park roads, infrastructure and visitor facilities were impacted.
The Madera County Sheriff’s Office issued a mandatory evacuation Monday for parts of North Fork. Yosemite employees were also evacuated Monday.
Madera Irrigation District reported 4.91 inches of rainfall thus far this season, higher than the average of 4.24 inches for this time of year but lower than last season’s 5.26 inches. But besides water, storm winds have blown trees and more into waterways.
“In our main diversion structure off of the Fresno River at Franchi Dam, there’s been significant debris coming down but our staff has been able to keep it from causing harm … Everything likes to collect in the canals,” said MID General Manager Thomas Greci. “There’s been a lot of staff time to go down there and make sure all the crossings are free for flooding. It’s taken a lot of our resources to try and stay on top of it.”
The storms have resulted in swollen rivers, such as the Fresno River that runs through Madera, as dams let loose water to avoid overflow and major flooding.
To make room for spring runoff, the Bureau of Reclamation increased Millerton Lake water releases into the San Joaquin River as well as Madera and Friant-Kern canals Thursday. From 548 cubic feet per second (CFS) of water a week ago, the outflow rose to a hefty average of 9,240 CFS as of Monday. At the same time, Millerton Lake had an average inflow of 19,499 CFS.
“Unfortunately the last storm series was very warm, so it had a lot of melting of the existing snowpack, which is why the runoff numbers are so high,” Greci said.
However, the district has been working to turn potential flood or river waters into a needed boost for local groundwater supplies instead. The district has been offering free canal water for local farmers in an effort to use active cropland to capture flood water and recharge the underground aquifer. “We are taking some flows into our system and trying work to fill our recharge basins along with any farmers willing to take in water,” Greci said.
The MID Board of Directors extended the program to Jan. 20 during a special meeting Tuesday afternoon in which the board also set rates for Jan. 20 through Feb. 28 – so long as water remains available to Friant water contractors.
“On Jan. 20, the plan is to charge a low rate, $40 per acre foot for (original district) industry growers … (and $80 per acre foot for subordinate growers.) It’s too early to know how many growers will be willing to go and recharge the water ... We’re hoping that some farmers will be willing to take advantage of the free water and spread it on their lands to keep in our district and county,” said Greci.
The National Weather Service says rain is highly likely in Madera County today, turning into showers tonight and Thursday. Friday is forecast to be mostly sunny with dense patchy fog expected on nights and mornings from Saturday through Tuesday. A flood watch remains in effect until 4 p.m. today.
For information on MID’s on-farm recharge program, call 673-3514 or visit MID at 12152 Road 28 1/4. For National Weather Service forecasts for Madera, visit https://goo.gl/tJqnDg or call 584-0312. For 24-hour road and weather conditions for Yosemite National Park, visit www.nps.gov/yose or call (209) 372-0200 and press 1.