Fresno, Tulare County stay wary amid El Niño advisory

(Rigo Moran)

State and county agencies prepare for another wet winter as El Niño conditions observed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lead to potential flooding probability in Fresno, Tulare County

SACRAMENTO – With another wetter-than-average winter and spring likely on the horizon, state and local agencies are preparing flood response teams while still recovering from the previous season. San Joaquin Valley communities, seeing minor relief from the state, are working to learn from their responses last year and prepare residents for what may be left to come.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the availability of $95 million in funding from the 2023-24 state budget on Oct. 25, which will go toward various flood relief and preparedness efforts across the state. This includes money that will go toward the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), the State Water Resources Control Board and the University of California’s Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory located in Tulare County.

“We have the work we’re doing to repair the system from the last water year and in the long term, there is a lot of work and funding going into the flood system overall to be climate-resistant,” Jason Ince, an information officer at the DWR, said.

According to Newsom’s announcement, the state is allocating $67 million toward the DWR for levee repairs, which Ince said will be for all levees controlled by the state flood plan from the Chico area in the north, to the Fresno area. This will include the large levees that protect the major areas of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, ensuring the sites that need repairs this season will be ready to go before the next water year, Ince said.

For levees not under state jurisdiction, Ince said the DWR is working with local counties, reclamation districts and flood control districts to help them apply for grant funding and make sure they have the resources to repair levees as well.

Newsom’s announcement also reported “$14 million for the State Water Resources Control Board to support domestic wells impacted by flooding; $11.7 million in additional funding for the Storm Assistance for Immigrants project … and $2.3 million to begin the next phase of a project to repair damage to the Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory in Tulare County.” 

The DWR has also said that it has 2.4 million more sandbags to help with flood prevention this water year compared to last year and is pre-positioning flood-fighting materials at more locations.

Ince said flood-fighting materials, in addition to sandbags, include materials called a muscle wall, which are reinforced big plastic walls similar to what you might see on the side of a highway. These can temporarily raise the height of a levee to help prevent flooding.

The DWR is also preparing “hundreds and thousands of yards of plastic sheeting, which becomes really important when we get these longer rain seasons,” Ince said. He mentioned these were helpful with preventing further flooding in the city of Corcoran, where Tulare Lake reappeared in the spring; big bodies of water produce wave action, and the plastic sheeting protects levees from being worn away.

Need for further assistance

Aside from the funding provided to the DWR and the Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory in Tulare County, the state has not released information on funding for flood preparedness in local jurisdictions.

U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., and Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., recently sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers urging it to allocate resources to the state to help repair levees in the Central Valley.

According to an Oct. 31 press release from Padilla’s office, the two legislators sent the letter after Central Valley flood districts, the Central Valley Flood Control Association and the Central Valley Flood Protection Board submitted “hundreds of requests” for assistance in the Sacramento and San Joaquin basins and the Delta region.

“In light of NOAA’s projections and the already damaged state of the levees, we strongly urge the Corps to take immediate action to prioritize the necessary emergency repairs and allocate the requisite resources under the provisions of (Public Law) 84-99,” the letter said.

El Niño Advisory

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is currently under an El Niño Advisory, which means that El Niño conditions have been observed and are expected to continue. El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) conditions occur when there are departures from the expected sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, according to NOAA.

The NOAA website says that “these warmer or cooler than normal ocean temperatures can affect weather patterns around the world by influencing high and low pressure systems, winds and precipitation. ENSO may bring much-needed moisture to a region while causing extremes of too much or too little water in others.”

As NOAA predicts El Niño conditions to continue through the winter, it is possible that the San Joaquin Valley will see a wet season similar to last year’s.

NOAA’s winter outlook, released Oct. 19, predicts regions of California will experience warmer than average seasonal temperatures from December through February and higher than average seasonal precipitation.

The probability of the state experiencing warmer than average temperatures increases from south to north; southern California up to Visalia has a 33-40% chance of being warmer than average, while the area between Fresno and north of Sacramento has a 40-50% chance of being warmer than average. All of the Central Valley has a 40-50% chance of having more precipitation than average. 

NOAA breaks up its probability categories into “leaning above” and “likely above,” where anything with a less than 50% chance is “leaning above.”

Scott Handel, the lead meteorologist at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, said that in practice the “likely” areas “represent areas where the forecaster has increased confidence of a particular outcome relative to the ‘leaning’ areas.”

El Niño can be an influencing factor in whether or not total precipitation on a seasonal time scale will be above or below normal, but it is not the only factor, Handel said.

“It can also influence weather patterns making flooding events more (or less) likely depending on location and time of year,” Handel said. “It is important to note that El Niño is just one factor that drives precipitation patterns, and that there is a tremendous amount of variation in outcomes among El Niño events, particularly across California.”

Seasonal preparations

With NOAA probabilities having an element of uncertainty, and the weather always having the possibility of being different than predicted, the DWR and local agencies are preparing for all possible scenarios.

Ince said the DWR prepares every year for both extreme dry and extreme wet conditions.

“The (NOAA) outlook increase the chance, but it doesn’t eliminate the chance of extreme dry conditions,” Ince said. “We’ve seen a few El Niño years that turned out to be very below average in terms of precipitation.”

This means that while the DWR is investing in flood preparedness, it is also investing in groundwater recharge projects and drought resilience.

In Fresno County, Terri Mejorado, emergency manager for the Fresno County Office of Emergency Services (OES), said the county is in communication with the National Weather Service (NWS) for up-to-date weather predictions that help the county prepare for weather events and emergency response.

“Fresno County is working with its partners both inside and outside the county, evaluating our response from earlier this year and working with our partners to prepare for a potential rainy season,” Mejorado said.

Mejorado said some flood risks within the county exist where there are higher water levels in the rivers and ponding basins already, so any new rain would add to what is still there. She said her best advice for residents would be to prepare their families for emergency situations, keep up with changing weather patterns and be aware of your surroundings.

“What is normally a small creek can change quickly into a raging river,” Mejorado said. “Never drive or walk through standing water; you never know how deep it is or what is underneath.”

From the last wet season, Mejorado said the county came away with the notion that “it is never too early to plan, continue to coordinate with others and just because it has never happened before, does not mean it will not happen in the future.”

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