SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – In the heart of Silicon Valley, two agencies are battling over the slow response to widespread flooding due to a series of monster storms that struck California during one of the wettest winters on record.
Nearly 14,000 San Jose residents were forced to flee their homes this past week as Coyote Creek, typically a stream that trickles through the heart of the city, broke free of its banks and exceeded flood stage by more than four feet on Feb. 21 – breaking a record that stood for nearly a century.
In the aftermath, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo blamed the Santa Clara Valley Water District for releasing bad information that led to a hasty evacuation of residents in the afflicted neighborhoods.
“If the first time that a resident is aware that they need to get out of a home is when they see a firefighter in a boat, then clearly something went wrong,” Liccardo said a day after the flooding began, as the city began dealing with the aftermath.
Liccardo said the district’s assessment that the Coyote Creek’s banks could hold about 7,400 cubic per second turned out to be wrong, and by the time it figured major flooding could occur in the Rock Springs area of the city it was too late.
The district hit back, saying “our concern that the Rock Springs area would likely experience very high flows by 6-7 a.m. on Tuesday was communicated to city of San Jose staff at 2:47 a.m. (on Tuesday) so that the community could be warned by the city” – indicating the slow response to the flood was due to a lack of communication by the city after it was warned about severe flooding upstream.
Whatever the cause of the slow response, the results were catastrophic. However, San Jose’s flooding represents only a sliver of the damage California has seen as five years of sustained drought have morphed into one of the wettest seasons on record.
According to the 8-station index, which measures precipitation totals throughout the Northern Sierra, 76.3 inches of precipitation have fallen in California’s northern mountains in the 2016-2017 water year, which began in October.
California saw its all-time wettest year in 1982-82, when 88.5 inches fell. But this year is on pace to top that record.
“We’re still only in February here,” said Mark Strudley, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Monterey.
San Jose has seen 15.19 inches of rain so far this year. While that is well short of the record of 32.57 inches set in 1982, it is almost an inch more than the area’s mean annual rainfall of 14.66 inches – with two more possibly wet months ahead.
Precipitation in California typically tapers off after April, with negligible amounts of rain through the summer.
The culprit behind last week’s flooding in San Jose was Anderson Reservoir, Strudley said.
“We had so many storms on top of one another that they couldn’t release water quickly enough to have the reservoir function as a flood control feature,” he said.
Essentially, the rain just flowed right over the reservoir as though it were not there, flooding the banks of the creek along its trajectory and particularly downstream as it flows through the heart of downtown San Jose.
As of Friday, 3,800 residents remained unable to return to their homes.
The large-scale flooding isn’t the only natural disaster that’s befallen the Golden State in February. Hundreds of thousands of residents beneath the Oroville Dam were evacuated as officials feared an emergency spillway could fail and cause in three Sacramento Valley towns — Oroville, Yuba City and Marysville.
A large section of Highway 50, one of the main arteries connecting South Lake Tahoe to the Central Valley, buckled. Caltrans has since reopened the highway, though only with a single lane each way while repairs continue.
A large bridge connecting Monterey to Big Sur crumbled and Caltrans deemed it beyond repair. A new bridge will take at least a year to build, and motorists visiting Big Sur this summer will only be able to do so through the south.
In the Santa Cruz Mountains just west of San Jose, the roads have taken a pounding. Many of the mountain byways closed indefinitely due to sinkholes and landslides.
Storms across the state have wrecked more than 350 roads, shutting down traffic on at least 35 that must either be rebuilt or shored up because stretches were washed out, sunk or covered in mud and rocks, according to Caltrans officials.
The total cost of battery of storms slamming the state already exceeds $1 billion, with more storms possible in March and April, Gov. Jerry Brown’s finance director Michael Cohen told the Associated Press on Friday.
Brown said the state may have to explore taxes and other means to fund the repairs and the backlog of infrastructure-related needs exposed by storms that have followed a prolonged drought.
According to the National Weather Service’s Strudley, the drought news is the silver lining that can be extracted from the costly mayhem.
“In the Bay Area, the drought is completely gone,” he said.
While much of the state was in either exceptional or extreme drought at this point last year, only a couple swaths of California are categorized as in a mild drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The area around Santa Barbara is still categorized as moderate drought, however.
Whether to declare the drought over is Gov. Brown’s responsibility, and the pressure is mounting on officials to ease emergency water restrictions on residents. But the State Water Resources Control Board has been hesitant to relax the restrictions until the water year ends.