It’s been a rare occurrence in recent years that California has had a storm system that actually receives a name. But the state is currently in the midst of Winter Storm Kori, which is spreading heavy mountain snow over the highest reaches of the Sierra Nevada and rain throughout the rest of the state. Kori has two phases, the first of which began Wednesday, Jan 18. The second phase this weekend (January 21-22) will lower the snow levels to about 2,000 feet. The region is expected to dry out for at least 10 days once Kori moves east.
The storms of January 4-9:
The storms that deluged the Coast Ranges and Northern California during January 4 to 11, causing widespread flooding and dumping tons of snow in the Tahoe region, caused several storm-related incidents in Three Rivers and Sequoia National Park, such as downed trees, mudslides, road closures, inundated bridges, and a rapid rise in the Kaweah River that occurred in the predawn hours of Monday, Jan. 9.
Less rain than forecast:
The forecast of 12 to 16 inches of rain ended up being about half that total and was spread out over several days.
New to high water:
For riverfront property owners like Richard Smith of Three Rivers, who owns a vacation rental just upstream from Heart’s Desire, the recent rapid rise in the river was scary enough and demonstrated what might be possible during the perfect Kaweah Country storm.
“I’ve only been here for four years so that water was the highest I’ve actually experienced,” Smith said.
Smith also said he has heard stories about the flood of January 1997 and that his property, which was a coffee shop in those days, was luckily unscathed by that high water too.
The fourth highest water in 20 years:
The peak flow on Monday, Jan. 9, was 19,673 cubic feet per second (cfs) on the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River. In comparison, the 1997 flood peaked at nearly 60,000 cfs.
Bill Pooley, who monitors Kaweah River flows and local weather as a resource for the rafting and kayaking community, reported that the January 9, 2017, flow ranks as the fourth highest peak flow since the 1997 event.
Technically, the January 9 high water was a flash flood as defined by the National Weather Service: “A rapid and extreme flow of high water into a normally dry area… beginning within six hours of a causative event, such as intense rainfall.”
NWS also categorized the January 9 event as: “Minor flooding and minimal property damage with possible public threat.”
Pooley said the January 9 high water ranks behind floods of 1997, 2002, and 2009.
On Sunday evening (Jan. 8) the so-called atmospheric river was flowing through Kaweah Country causing the rainfall to intensify. Pooley said a bullet was dodged when the rain stopped at 11 p.m.
If the rain had continued another six to eight hours at the intensity of earlier in the evening, Pooley said there would have been major flooding. Snow level was at 10,000 feet so more rain would have brought down the remaining high-elevation snow too.
Storage at Lake Kaweah increased from 8.7 percent or 17,000 acre feet to 63,000 acre feet after all that water made its way into the basin.
Local residents and agencies take charge:
Countless logs and downed trees and other forest debris became lodged in new and unusual places. On South Fork, local residents are credited for cleaning out the culverts at the Conley Creek crossing and farther up South Fork at Sequoia Oaks Drive.
The Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District was on patrol below Lake Kaweah’s Terminus Dam, clearing out debris in the Dry Creek channel to keep water freely flowing to the McKay Point weirs where water is diverted into the Lower Kaweah River and the St. Johns River, both as a flood control measure and irrigation storage.
Sequoia National Park:
The Generals Highway was closed at the Foothills Visitor Center on January 7 due to slides and debris on the road and didn’t reopen until January 10.
Water went over the bridges on North Fork (Bailey Bridge and Airport Bridge) and South Fork at the double bridges. It also blocked access to residents at low points on roads and driveways on both North and South forks.
Removable bridge railings weren't removed:
A decision was made by Reed Schenke, RMA assistant director of Public Works, to leave the railings on the bridges — Bailey, Airport, Conley Creek — that are actually designed to be removed so debris doesn’t back up and wash out the abutments. If the railings are removed, the road is required to be closed, so since it was determined that high water wouldn’t last long, the railings stayed on and the roads remained open except for the short period in the early-morning hours of Monday, Jan. 9, that water flowed over the roadways.
There was localized flooding on the Salt Creek bridge at the St. Anthony Retreat Center road and on North Fork Drive near Sequoia RV Ranch.
There were debris slides on Highway 198 at Lemon Hill, on the Mineral King Road, and on Highway 198 near Deer Canyon.