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County, MID, city were ready for rains

Annette Nordine/The Madera Tribune

The dry riverbed of the Fresno River, taken near the Granada Drive bridge on Jan. 7, shows the results of work done to clean it out. In 2005, the water was so high it touched the bottoms of both bridges.


This time, the County of Madera, City of Madera and Madera Irrigation District were ready. In May of 2005, they weren’t.

So far this rain year, starting July 1, we’ve had 7.06 inches of rain, a lot more than we’re used to. But we’ve had no appreciable flooding. The river is sweeping through the city and adjacent farmlands leaving little damage, but also helping refill the aquifer beneath it with much-needed ground water. That wasn’t the case in 2005.

On May 6 of that year, 1.38 inches of rain fell within a few hours, and there was basically nowhere for it to go. So it flowed into businesses, and down streets, and bashed into bridges and led to flood damage throughout the city.

In the city, storm sewers were clogged and pumps meant to move that storm water into irrigation canals either didn’t work or moved the water where there was little room for it. Streets flooded.

Passing cars and trucks left wakes that pushed floodwaters into yards and in some cases into houses.

The Union Pacific Railroad had to stop its trains running because the safety of the trestle over the Fresno River was in doubt. Floodwaters were trying to pull the trestle out of the ground. Eventually that structure had to be extensively repaired.

Madera Irrigation District canals and ponds didn’t have the excess capacity to handle the floodwaters as had once been planned.

The Fresno River itself, once the highway out of town for floodwaters, was clogged with vegetation, such as arundo donax variegata and common cottonwood trees and bushes. Arundo had been planted along the banks of the river and its tributaries by the Army Corps of Engineers, whose workers apparently didn’t realize that the plant would spread quickly and block the free flow of water, creating flooding conditions.

After the flood was over, all of the agencies swore they would do something to prevent future floods, but little was done until about four years ago when County Supervisor Rick Farinelli discovered Proposition 1, which had been passed by voters a few years previously.

“There was money in there for flood control,” Farinelli said. “Nobody had looked at it. We grabbed it right away.”

He said the immediate goal was to clean the riverbed of the vegetation trash that had grown up even more since the last flood.

The job wasn’t as easy as it looked, though, he said.

“In the first year we learned what not to do with arundo.”

Just digging it out wasn’t enough. It kept coming back.

“Spraying and shredding has kept it away,” Farinelli said.

Since that first year, the county and the Madera Irrigation District have spent about $180,000 each year of Prop 1 money on flood control measures, mainly getting rid of junk in the river bed that blocks the free flow of water.

“Our crews from just three years learned how to get rid of the arundo, which was introduced by the Corps of Engineers to keep the riverbank from eroding,” Farinelli said.

He said the county crews had to work under state supervision.

“We had to have a person out there from the state all the time to tell us what we could cut down and what we couldn’t” because of environmental considerations, he said.

Cleaning out the river, and keeping it clean, isn’t just a one and it’s done process, he said.

“If the process stops, it will look how it did three years ago. The most important thing is to repair the levees with some of that money.”

He said it gets easier each time it gets done.

“The first year, it took us six months straight. The next year, it took us only four months. This year, it took us a month and a half,” he said.

He said the river now is carrying more water than it did in 2005

“What would it have done to the trestles, what would it have done to those bridges. You would have had all kinds of properly damage. The other thing is getting the water back into the ground. Who knows how much water we got back into the ground. Nobody will ever know” he said.

MID also worked to enlarge its capacity to take floodwater, and even now is shipping water to farmers who might want to store it for future use.

The city, meanwhile, has worked to improve its storm water removal system, repair its pumps and build ponding basins to hold and hopefully use floodwater to recharge the aquifer.

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