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Biden declares emergency for storm-battered California

Golden State reservoirs have plenty of room to catch more water amid a historic drought, but too much rain at once is prompting flooding fears.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — As a seemingly unending atmospheric river pummels, experts warn serious flood conditions could affect many parts of the state before dry weather returns in late January. 

The California Department of Water Resources reported Monday that nine rivers are expected to flood by Monday evening, with particular concern about the Cosumnes River, Bear Creek, Russian River, Carmel River and the Pajaro River. There are 32 other flow locations expected to exceed normal monitoring levels.

However, state reservoir capacity is still at about 78% of average for this time of year with many reservoirs reporting below historic average levels. 

"This really is, I want to say extraordinary, but I actually think it's more focused on yet another climate signal in that California's experiencing coincidentally both a drought emergency and a flood emergency,” said Department of Water Resources director Karla Nemeth. She said they will reassess later in January what this means for the drought, as there is “a lot left to go” in the typical wet season.

Michael Anderson, the department's state climatologist, said that heavy rain in steep terrain and burn scars could create landslides and debris flows. But it is also good news for capturing water to store for the season, as California remains in a fourth year of historic drought.

John Yarbrough, assistant deputy director of the State Water Project, said water exports have increased significantly at the South Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the San Luis Reservoir. He said there is still plenty of room for much more water at the project’s water capture sites.  

Anderson said after about Jan. 19, high pressure will return and send storms coming across the Pacific Ocean to the north. He said it is hard to tell how long that period without precipitation will last. 

That period will also help rivers recede, he said. 

“Once we get past the last of the storms there in the latter part of January, we’ll watch all the rivers recede and give us a sense of how much moisture was restored to the watershed subsurface,” Anderson said. 

It will also take months to know how much these storms will affect the coming fire season. Unlike last year, the rain has persisted later into January with hopes for a “very strong” snowpack, he said. However, the fire season will be affected by how quickly the snowpack starts melting and how soon the landscape grasses begin to dry out, particularly when extreme heat arrives. 

Governor seeks federal aid

On Sunday, Governor Gavin Newsom requested that the White House declare a presidential emergency declaration to support storm response and recovery efforts. President Joe Biden issued the declaration early Monday, activating the full weight of the government behind California’s storm response and immediately freeing up federal resources and personnel. 

Governor Gavin Newsom walks the Deer Creek area to survey flood conditions in California on Jan. 8, 2023. (Office of the Governor via Courthouse News Service )

The state of emergency Newsom declared last week continues. Newsom also activated the State Operations Center to its highest level, with the Flood Operations Center open to handle reservoir operations coordination and flood fighting materials like sandbags.

“It is expected that trillions of gallons of water will soak California through the course of these atmospheric river systems over the next two weeks in addition to the water which has already saturated the State,” Newsom wrote.

“The cumulative effects of all the recent precipitation to a now saturated state are a stark contrast from the extremely dry environmental conditions previously. River, creek, stream, roadway, and urban floods will be at their highest during this period. In addition to the probability of flooding, there is grave concern regarding the risk of mud and debris flows from approximately 21 burn scars due to recent wildfires across California.”

Newsom said the storms have put more than 10,000 people under evacuation orders, with 16,000 under evacuation watches. As of Sunday, 19 counties and numerous cities are under local states of emergency, with an evacuation order in Santa Cruz County and evacuation warnings for over 6,200 in three counties.

Since late December, 12 Californians have died in storm-related incidents including flooding — more than the number of people who lost their lives to wildfires in the past two years, the governor said. 

“We are in the middle of a deadly barrage of winter storms — and California is using every resource at its disposal to protect lives and limit damage,” Newsom said. “We are taking the threat from these storms seriously, and want to make sure that Californians stay vigilant as more storms head our way.”

Last year’s final state Senate budget through 2023 did not include a proposed $1 billion in flood management efforts, with only $246 million for flood risk reduction in Senate Bill 154. The governor said he will propose an additional $202 million in his budget proposal this week for new flood investments to protect urban areas, improve levees in the delta region and support projects in the Central Valley. Newsom’s administration has invested $738 million in flood protection programs in two years, including 88 flood protection projects.

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