Friday, February 24, 2006

The Floods of 1986, A Sober Reminder

This story in last Sunday’s Bee, for one who remembers making regular trips to the river and the top of Folsom Dam, (you could still get there in 1986) and chewing off more of our fingernails each time we saw the raging and rising waters, this article is a scary and sober reminder of how close we came, and an even stronger message, we hope, to our public leadership, who really needs to get its act together to protect the public, that’s us, from getting washed down to the Golden Gate some dark, rainy night.

Here is an excerpt.

Tom Philp: Against the flow
In 1986, three forward-thinking flood control experts threw out the rulebook and kept The Big One from getting worse
By Tom PhilpPublished 2:15 am PST Sunday, February 19, 2006

Twenty years ago today, three Sacramento flood officials were dreading the choice they were about to make. A series of ferocious storms were testing the limits of Northern California's dams and rivers. The threat of flooding throughout Sacramento was the greatest in modern history.

To keep the city above water, these three officials had to pick one of two options . They could release more water than the rulebook considered safe down the American River, the waterway threatening the city. Or they could stick to the rulebook and gamble that, upstream, a rapidly filling Folsom Dam could keep holding the water back.

The three men - Joe Countryman of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Dave Houston of the federal Bureau of Reclamation and David Kennedy of the California Department of Water Resources - made a gutsy decision on Feb. 19, 1986. They began releasing more water than the river had seen since the dam's construction, and they shared the responsibility if their decision proved wrong. Starting at 8 a.m., they increased releases from Folsom Dam from the official safe limit - 115,000 cubic feet per second - to 130,000 cubic feet per second. Actually, the flow was even greater. The spillway gates opened a little wider than intended. The flow was 134,000 cubic feet per second.

How much water is that? Here is another way to put it. More than a million gallons of water raged down the American River every second. And Sacramento held its breath, praying that levees along the river would hold.

When flood control decisions become the most difficult, no computer takes over. In 1986, and today, those decisions are a very human exercise.

In the 1986 flood, many things went wrong. But some things went right. The three leaders easily could have retreated inside their respective agencies: Countryman was the Corps' local leader on flood operations; Houston ran Folsom Dam; Kennedy led flood planning for the state. Each could have waited for another to step forward and make the ugly choice. Instead, they united in conference call after conference call.

"Because of the enormity of what was happening," said Countryman, "as far as we could tell, we always assumed it was going to be a consensus decision."

A few weeks ago, the trio agreed to get together to recount what almost happened to Sacramento. None is still in government. Countryman is a private flood control consultant. Houston works in water-bond financing. Kennedy is retired, having run the state water department for 16 years under Govs. George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson. But Kennedy clearly remembered a breathless warning from a deputy director one morning in the second week of February.

"The Big One is coming," the deputy director told Kennedy. "I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'We got a great big storm coming here later in the week. And it's going to be a big flood control problem.'"

Looking outside, the warning seemed far-fetched. There was no winter fog, no clouds, just a brilliant sun. In fact, water officials had been preparing for the possibility of a drought. "It was a beautiful week," said Kennedy.

But not for long. Out in the Pacific, a dangerous weather pattern was fast developing - a moisture machine that some call a Pineapple Express. Clouds were sucking up moisture off the Hawaiian Islands. The jet stream was shifting to send this band of moisture directly to California. Pilots to and from Hawaii reported the jet stream's wind speeds exceeded 200 miles per hour. One computer model, according to a state report, "confirmed fears of a truly extraordinary rainfall event."

Meanwhile, at the Bureau of Reclamation, Houston relied on different predictions about the storm. Talk wasn't of The Big One. The initial forecast from the U.S. Weather Service suggested a modest flow from the Sierra into Folsom Dam by dawn Feb. 17. So at first, Houston remained in drought mode. He did not increase releases from Folsom Dam. He did not know just how wrong that initial forecast would prove to be. It was going to be off - way off - by a multiple of 10.

By Feb. 17, 1986, the Sierra was in the middle of a monstrous series of storms. At Bucks Lake in Plumas County, for example, 49.44 inches of rain fell in 10 days. The flow into Folsom Dam was 200,000 cubic feet per second.