California has been thirsting for water for years in the midst of a historic drought, but recent rainfall brought newfound fears of flooding to local residents earlier this week. These fears turned into a very real threat for many along the Tuolumne River on Monday afternoon when Turlock Irrigation District opened one of three controlled spillway gates at Don Pedro Reservoir for the first time in 20 years due to the size and magnitude of the latest storm, which pushed the reservoir past its maximum capacity of 830 feet.
TID Incident Commander Jason Hicks said that a decision was made in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin spilling at 3 p.m. Monday, before the reservoir reached 830 feet. While initial water releases to the Tuolumne River began at 18,000 cubic feet per second and were projected to possibly reach 30,000 cfs over the next few days, the actual release as of Tuesday morning was 16,000 cfs.
“The spillway facility operated as planned and we have continued to inspect that facility after opening and it continues to operate as planned,” said Hicks.
Hicks said Tuesday that current weather and forecasts have TID maintaining outflows between 16,000 cfs and 17,000 cfs over the next few days. He added that TID asked for a deviation from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in order to continue this flow until the reservoir is lowered to 815 feet, a process that could take about 10 days based on current weather forecasts and inflows. As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, the reservoir was at 828.9 feet.
“TID would rather continue flows at this current level and lower the reservoir as much as possible as opposed to having to close spillway gates immediately and then risk a higher chance of opening them repeatedly over the next few weeks and months,” Hicks.
Monday’s release marks the first time that Don Pedro Reservoir controlled spillway gates have opened since 1997, when major flooding occurred. TID spokesman Herb Smart said that the projected release Monday was significantly less than the 1997 spillway release of 60,000 cfs.
“Back in 1997, flows in the river rose as high as 71 feet above mean sea level,” said Smart.
TID has been providing information to the public since Feb. 10 regarding its need to maximize Don Pedro Reservoir releases. Hicks said Monday that while the weather over the last week has been volatile, it wasn’t until mid-day Sunday that the forecast “spiked” and increased in temperature, which resulted in a significant increase of inflows to Don Pedro Reservoir.
“Late last week the forecast began to solidify and at that point we realized that the likelihood of spilling had increased significantly,” said Hicks. “At the time, we were no longer processing a slow rising spill, but now we’re looking at a really rapid spill with inflows significantly higher than anticipated.”
About 10 p.m. Sunday, the California Highway Patrol and TID closed Bonds Flat Road beyond Fleming Meadows and Blue Oaks campgrounds to ensure the safety of the public and spillway operations. On Monday morning, crews removed the roadway downstream of the spillway to minimize the amount of debris that is washed down the river.
“We were able to open a significant amount of the roadway on Bonds Flat and that allowed us to prevent a significant amount of debris from passing down through the river channel,” said Hicks.
Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said Monday that while no mandatory evacuations were ordered, his department was “strongly encouraging” residents to seek shelter and move to higher ground. Sheriff’s deputies, California Highway Patrol officers and officers from Modesto and Ceres police departments were out along the Tuolumne River notifying residents who potentially would be impacted.
“The message is simple. You’ve heard the numbers, we know the rivers are going to rise,” said Christianson. “We want to give people an opportunity to collect their belongings and move to higher ground.”
For residents who have been displaced by recent flooding, the American Red Cross opened a shelter at the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds Turf Club building on Sunday.
“The fairgrounds facility is here to help shelter anyone affected with the floods,” said Stanislaus County Fairgrounds CEO Matt Cranford. “We are working with the Red Cross to assist our community and make sure residents have a place to shelter.”
At the shelter, American Red Cross official Robert Bryan said that people are provided with a place to stay overnight, food during the day, and a place to shower and do laundry. People are also given comfort kits, which include items such as soap, shampoo and toothpaste. Grayson resident Gina Dawson has called the shelter home for almost a week after her home flooded for the first time on Valentine’s Day.
“We were trying to keep as much water out as possible when the berm broke and 40,000 gallons of water came in,” said Dawson. “I was watching the water come in and I was dumbfounded. It was overwhelming.”
Christianson issued a warning for those who may be thinking of taking advantage of residents such as Dawson who are forced to leave their homes due to flooding.
“Our number one priority is the safety and security of people here in Stanislaus County,” said Christianson. “I will tell you that if people are forced to leave their homes because of rising water, guaranteed there will be deputy sheriffs that will be watching. If you dare victimize anyone who has to leave their home, guaranteed there will be a strong response from the sheriff’s office. You will get arrested and you will be prosecuted.”
Out of an abundance of caution and in the interest of public safety, TID de-energized about 975 electrical services beginning at 10 a.m. Monday along the river in conjunction with the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department.
“The number of services does not equate to the number of people,” said Christianson. “We don’t have numbers of people.”
By Tuesday morning, Hicks said that line crews were out along the river where flows have stabilized to assess locations and possibly re-energize services that were affected.
“As you can imagine, re-energizing and inspecting is a much slower process than de-energizing,” said Hicks. “I would ask that people be patient as we make our way down the channel and inspect homes and inspect properties because we want to make sure first and foremost that our customers are safe.”
For the most up-to-date information, visit tid.org/flows. Those who had their property affected by these outages can check if they have been re-energized by calling TID’s customer service line at 883-8300.