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Preparing for El Nio
Preparing for El Nino pic
Dennis Salvadori of the University Facilities Services Department uses a scraper rig to clear sludge in the Reflecting Pond at Stanislaus State. - photo by Photo Contributed

With anticipation of a wet El Niño winter at its peak, many local entities are taking precautionary measures to ensure that they will be ready if—and when—the rainy forecast materializes.

One such organization is Stanislaus State, which acknowledged that while El Niño winters are never certain, they have begun to complete annual preparations “as if a deluge was guaranteed.” 

 “We have winter preparations every year, but this year we’ve been able to do things above and beyond those,” said Louie Oliveira, chief operating engineer in the University’s Facilities Services Department.

For those on campus, the most visible project completed in preparation for an El Niño involves the draining and cleaning of the Reflecting Pond. Oliveira said that the pond hadn’t been dredged for several years, which resulted in more than 12 inches of sludge in some areas when the pond was finally cleaned in 2014. Since then, cleaning has been added to the annual schedule and this year’s draining revealed only three to four inches of sludge through most of the pond.

“We’re cleaning up the pond and assuring that all the pumps are in shape and ready to handle all the water that will be coming in, and this year the sludge is like nothing like before,” said Oliveira. “We’ll be cleaning it every year at this time, and it also increases the capacity when we do it.

“We’re hoping that as soon as the pond is clean, the rain will start,” continued Oliveira.

One thing that Oliveira said the campus won’t be seeing this year is flooding in and around the Geer Road entrances resulting from moderate showers after the university completed the biggest weather-related project months ago.

“East campus entrance drains have been enlarged so that we have the ability to take-in all the water from the west side of Geer,” said Oliveira. “The intakes were small and that area usually flooded in heavy rain.”

Stanislaus State has also brought in a new street sweeper, which will help the facilities department stay ahead of the never-ending task of keeping gutters and inlets clear of leaves and debris. The department will also utilize a commercial drain vacuum to rid the opening of debris ahead of any coming storms.

These efforts and more that help the campus store and reuse water are just part of the reason the Stanislaus State was recognized by Building Operating Management magazine, a national publication based in Milwaukee. The university’s water retrieval system is so advanced that through the first 10 days of December, when Turlock Irrigation District reported only 0.32 inches of rain fell on campus, the campus was able to retrieve more than a half-million gallons of water.

“You think it hardly ever rained, but there’s a lot of surface on our campus that needs to drain,” said Oliveira. “We take on a lot of water. We hope we have to roll up our pants one of these days—not too much but we’re ready.”

Over at the Don Pedro Recreation Agency, Division Manager of Campground Operations Chris Collett is hoping that an El Niño winter will help reverse the damage done to Don Pedro Reservoir after he watched the reservoir drop to its lowest level in decades after four years of drought.

The amount of precipitation experienced by the region so far has stopped the decline and the lake—which is fed by the Tuolumne River west of Yosemite National Park—is slowly starting to rise once again.

“We’ve bottomed out and we’re starting to see water levels increase now,” said Collett.

Collett said that water that flows in the Don Pedro Reservoir is not only good news for water suppliers, but also for recreation as the 29-mile long reservoir and adjacent campgrounds are popular destinations for water ski and wakeboard enthusiasts.

“After you have fun with the snow in the mountains, you can have fun with the runoff in the lakes,” said Collett.

Additionally, DPRA has also widened a section of the Fleming Meadows boat launch ramp from 24 feet to 54 feet in preparation for a busy spring and summer. Instead of launching in a single file formation, Collett said that visitors can now launch “three wide with ample room on either side.”

While Collett said that he is hoping for a wet El Niño winter, he is also aware of the effect heavy rainfall has on runoff into the lower reaches of the reservoir, especially following the devastating Rim Fire in 2013.  

“After the Rim Fire, we have concerns about woody debris coming down into the lake,” said Collette. “We already have the upper reservoir boomed off to stop driftwood from coming into the lake. We want to make sure the reservoir continues to be as free of driftwood as possible to create optimal conditions for water skiers and wake boarders next season.”

While some organizations are making special arrangements in the event of an El Niño, TID spokesperson Calvin Curtin said that the irrigation district plans for all types of weather conditions—extremely wet to normal, dry and extremely dry—in the course of normal operations.

“Four years of historic drought has left Don Pedro with the capacity to capture significant flows from the watershed above it,” said Curtin. “In addition, we are currently operating Turlock Lake at around 5,000 acre-feet to minimize seepage and evaporation of the water stored there. This lowered lake level leaves some space to capture high flows should the need arise.”