River rises as rain and snow comes and goes

PHOTO CAPTION: An aerial view of the peak flows on the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River on Wednesday, March 6. At about 7 am that day, the water was flowing at 7,200 cubic feet per second, the highest of the season. Compare this with the December 1955 flood that had flows of an estimated 80,000 to 85,000 cfs, causing mass destruction in Three Rivers. That season, there was already an accumulation of 10 feet of snow at 10,000 feet elevation in the Southern Sierra, and the snow level was down to 4,000 feet. On December 22, as residents were preparing for the holidays, a warm storm system brought 12 inches of rain to an elevation of 9,000 feet in 12 hours. That warm rain on snow caused a quick meltdown. Most bridges in Three Rivers were washed away, leaving hundreds stranded along the various forks of the Kaweah and the entire town cut off from the Valley and Sequoia National Park. There was no way in and no way out. Houses washed away, businesses were flooded, and several residents narrowly escaped death while trying to flee the flood waters or protect property. Miraculously, no one was killed during that historic event.   

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WEATHER WATCH: That 70 degrees that was originally forecast for last week never arrived as unstable weather dominated. This coming week will be chilly again with lows in the 30s. But the long-range forecast is showing spring-like temperatures arriving just in time for, well, spring! The wildflowers are blooming, the grass is St. Patrick’s Day green, the frogs are singing, the tributaries are gushing, and the Kaweah River is roaring. Wet winters make for splendid springs.

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The storms that peppered Kaweah Country with some intense but widely scattered downpours this past week brought two more inches of rain at 1,000 feet and delivered one to two feet of new snow at elevations above 7,500 feet. The lightning and thunder displays on Tuesday night were an epic battle of warm air colliding with the remnants of the cold. 

By Wednesday, daytime temperatures were in the 60s and it appeared that some sort of meltdown was ready to test the mettle of riverfront property owners. The County of Tulare’s Office of Emergency Services stationed a crew of four Porterville firefighters in Three Rivers just in case. They were standing by in case trees toppled in saturated ground or the river and its seasonal streams became too much for the channels.  

The heavy downpours that occurred as the bands of moisture were uplifted into the high country created a dramatic rise in the flow levels in the Kaweah River and all its major tributaries. The peak inflow of the Middle Fork was 7,200 cfs and that occurred at about 7 a.m. on Wednesday, March 6.

It snowed intermittently Wednesday at 7,000 feet mostly pooling up in puddles on top of the existing pack. As temperatures dropped overnight, another foot of wet, heavy snow was recorded at Lodgepole and Wuksachi. 

Currently at the snow stake in the Mineral King valley, there is nine feet of snow.

As of Thursday afternoon, all main roads were wet but clear.   Those with low-lying driveways along the North and South forks were stranded Wednesday, but the Thursday storminess, which could have wreaked havoc, never materialized. Trees that fell — Alta Acres Drive, South Fork Drive — were quickly cleared. 

The next round of storms is scheduled for Monday. This system should be colder with less rain but the prospects are good for more powdery snow.

Three Rivers has surpassed 15 inches of rainfall for the season. By the middle of the month, Kaweah Country will begin a week-long run of temperatures in the 70s.

As of Thursday, March 7, Lake Kaweah is on the rise: 

Current elevation— 
627.86 feet amsl (87.14 feet below the spillway)

Storage— 43,333 acre-feet (23.3% of capacity)

Mean inflow— 5,778 cfs

Outflow— 1,140 cfs

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