Latest storm tests Madera County
John Rieping/The Madera Tribune
Rain falls as the San Joaquin River pushes a backyard tree swing Friday at Wildwood Mobile Home Park, a retirement community in southern Madera County.
Cold rain and blustery winds blew into Madera city and county late this week, swelling rivers, flooding streets, and testing canal and creek banks that have already weathered a barrage of storms this wet winter.
As with other recent storms, the rainfall has spurred the significant release of water from local reservoirs to free up space for runoff and snowmelt.
“Currently we are approximately 9,000 cubic feet per second coming out of Millerton Lake and about 2,500 cfs goes through the Fresno River,” explained Ahmad Alkhayyat, public works director for Madera County. “Then out of Eastman Lake a total of 4,000 cfs is being dumped and this goes to Ash Slough and Berenda Slough.”
Fed by both the storm and water from Friant Dam, the San Joaquin River has risen uncomfortably close to riverside homes at Wildwood Mobile Home Park, a retirement community in southern Madera County.
“There are two things that are kind of concurrent,” said rancher Jim Cobb, who lives nearby and reports on the river to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. “One is people getting misinformation because rumor mills and that type of thing ... Number two is this is a huge storm and it’s going to go on a while. It’s bringing a lot of water in below Friant Dam. … (I believe) a lot of water is going to go down the river and it’s not at risk of flooding this weekend. I think we’re fine only because the bureau’s done such a good job of getting storage space available.”
Not all parts of the county are free of flooding however. The Madera County Road Department had closed 10 road segments due to flooding as of Friday evening. These include a washout of Road 225 near the county’s border with Fresno County, and a sink hole in Avenue 16, between roads 18 and 19, that appeared after a creek washed out a drainage pipe.
“We are around the clock here,” said Alkhayyat. “So far relatively we are doing good. We have anticipated this storm … We did clean the Fresno River and the slough. Luckily we did that. If we hadn’t, the flow would have been restricted.”
The county has been doing as best it “can with the funds available,” he said, and has kept its focus on making sure public utilities function well and don’t harm the public by failing. The weather has “absolutely” been a stress test for infrastructure.
“We do monitor levies. The road crews are constantly checking culverts. We’re on it,” Alkayyat said. “But of course when it’s actually in use you can get a better understanding of your failures and what to do next. We have a lot of pumps all around either at basins trying to convey the water elsewhere.”
Madera Irrigation District has been kept busy as well.
“It’s been raining very heavily. It’s a wonderful year but it means a lot of repair, a lot of damages to the creeks and the river,” said Madera Irrigation District engineer Sean Smith. “We’re seeing stuff everyday. Every storm event brings new challenges. So if you haven’t seen our guys out there, they’re out there pulling trash. They’re keeping their eyes open for any canal breaks or creek breaks.”
Unofficially, the water season may have already started for MID, which began running water in January and will likely continue “straight into our typical irrigation season.”
“With this volume of water, we could run clear to November maybe,” Smith said. “It’s very very strange, especially for me because I’ve been here for four years but I’ve only really experienced the drought. Now we’re seeing the other end of the spectrum and we’ve got more water than we can handle. We don’t have a place to put it all, but we’re doing our best to keep our (recharge) basins full.”
MID has had its hands full trying to keep its water network fully maintained.
“The first flood that we had we went out and worked for three days to repair everything that we could and it all washed out after the next storm unfortunately,” he said. “I mean some of the repairs held but it’s just the volume of water — it’s too much.”
That has meant the district’s water distribution system isn’t in a perfect state of repair.
“We do the best we can, but the county especially seems understaffed and unable to respond to everything. So you’re always just playing this prioritization (game) because you really don’t have all the resources to fix these floods. And so, when we get the calls, we go out and do an assessment but sometimes the flooded area is so bad or so muddy.”
While responding to the district's first big break in its water system on Jan. 23, its heavy equipment machine became stuck. A big bulldozer was brought to pull it out and also got stuck. “Then our excavator can’t even get there because it’s just too muddy, so we’re building a road to get to the hole in the creek. We’re working overtime … (three and a half days) before you could actually stop it. And that was just one, and we’ve had pretty much four major blowouts like that.”
Both the county’s Public Works and MID have been communicating with the county Sheriff’s Office, which is also the Office of Emergency Services. If cumulative costs to area structures and infrastructure reaches $650,000 the area could qualify for state and federal disaster aid. So both agencies have been keeping the office informed.
The National Weather Service forecasts a 50 percent chance of showers today and rain likely Sunday, Monday and Wednesday, with 50 percent odds Tuesday. A high wind advisory remained in effect through Friday evening, and further north in the Valley — in Kings County near Kettleman City — Caltrans closed State Route 41 due to high winds that overturned semi-tractor trailer trucks.