Mother Nature sent a memo to California’s leaders: Flood control must be a priority | Opinion

Shawn Jansen/Sun-Star file

California is starting to dry out after its weeks-long deluge caused by atmospheric rivers, and nowhere in the San Joaquin Valley is that needed more than Merced County.

The Merced River runs north of the city bearing the name Merced. And yet an estimated 1,600 people were displaced due to flooding of not the river, but Bear Creek, the main waterway coursing through the city. About 26 businesses were also shut down when the creek overflowed its banks and water rolled into the establishments.

Farther east, outside of Merced, a different creek caused problems for the community of Planada. Miles Creek overflowed into the town, and left neighborhoods underwater. About 5,000 residents at one point were told to evacuate.

Thankfully, there have not yet been reports of anyone dying in the flooding.

“Obviously there is still a lot of tragedy, a lot of bad things that happened, but you are all to be applauded, especially the Public Works Department, for just an immense amount of work and good work getting out ahead of it and really just working tirelessly to mitigate this unprecedented flood, ” Merced Mayor Matthew Serratto said at a City Council meeting Tuesday.

Merced Fire Chief Derek Parker told the council that Bear Creek rose to a depth of 26 feet in the early morning of Jan. 10, three feet above flood stage. Describing the flooding in the creek area of Montana and Glen avenues, Parker, who grew up in Merced, said he never imagined Bear Creek overflowing onto local roads. “It was an insane amount of water,” he said.


President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in Merced County, making federal assistance available. That aid can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster. The city can also apply for reimbursement from the flood damage.

While dry weather is forecast for the next week or so, the storms this winter have served up yet another warning about the changing climate. Atmospheric river events, in which storm clouds off the Pacific Ocean funnel like a hose and engulf California, are expected to become more frequent. They could recur this winter.

Flood control work needed

As reported by The Sacramento Bee, a UCLA study this year found that climate change already doubled the likelihood of devastating floods, and powerful atmospheric rivers could produce up to four times as much rain than any storm ever recorded in California.

Climate scientists have forecast a doomsday flood scenario in the Central Valley, particularly in Sacramento, Modesto, Stockton, and Fresno as a result of rising temperatures. They predict a single event could kill untold numbers of people, displace millions, devastate infrastructure, and close major highways for weeks.

In response, the Central Valley Flood Protection Board last month approved a blueprint to fortify the Valley against catastrophic flooding.

A megaflood of the kind scientists say is possible could cause up to $1 trillion in damages in the state. Under the flood plan, more than $3 billion needs to be spent in the next five years and $35 billion over the next 30 years for infrastructure upgrades, emergency preparation and floodplain restoration.

Clearly, more work is needed on Bear and Miles creeks in Merced County to ensure the flooding of the past several weeks does not repeat.

Planada resident Maria Zaragoza was one of those evacuated. She came home to carpets completely soaked with floodwater.

Zaragoza has flood insurance, but she’s worried it’s going to be difficult to cover all of the costs. “The garage, everything is destroyed,” Zaragoza said. “It’s going to cost a lot.”

Getting the creeks re-established so they can handle greater flows must be a priority for county and state leaders. Money cannot be a reason not to do the work as soon as possible. Floods really are “pay me now, or pay me later” events.

Elected leaders, please be wise and pay now to avoid future floods like those forecast in the sobering blueprint of coming calamity.