January 4, 1997

A report on how Stanislaus County has been impacted by the disastrous flooding this past week....

For the first time since its completion in 1971, water began spilling over the dam at Don Pedro Reservoir in western Tuolumne County on Thursday. This caused a dramatic rise of the Tuolumne River and Dry Creek in Stanislaus County. Early Friday morning, the level of the Tuolumne River in Modesto reached 55 feet, which is flood stage. Unfortunately, the river continued to rise rapidly all afternoon, reaching an astonishing 70 feet by late Friday evening. When a river rises this high above flood stage, there are bound to be serious problems.

Television news crews have reported extensively from areas along Dry Creek and the Tuolumne River in Modesto since Friday morning, relaying devastating pictures of the flood damage. One neighborhood along Dry Creek just east of downtown Modesto was under as much as 15 feet of water, as were neighborhoods along the Tuolumne River in southwest Modesto. A news helicopter which flew over Modesto on Saturday morning showed water levels at homes in the southwest portion of the city to be about two feet below the some of the eaves of some rooves.

This afternoon, I drove around Stanislaus County to take still photos and video of the raging Tuolumne River. I first crossed the Tuolumne on Route J14 northeast of the town of Hughson. When I last crossed that portion of the river on Dec 13, the Tuolumne was confined to a 500-foot wide channel. Almond orchards and a recreation area lined the floodplain. I felt I had prepared myself to witness an incredible event, I was still amazed at the sheer volume of water flowing down the Tuolumne. The river canyon, for all practical purposes, was FULL. Instead of a pristine, blue river - the Tuolumne was a muddy brown torrent about 1/2 mi wide. I could see no longer see any evidence of a campground, and only the top two feet of the almond trees were protruding from the water. Equally as alarming was how close the water was to the overpass. If the Tuolumne was two feet higher, the overcrossing would have been inundated. There were no really good places to take photos here, so I headed towards the city of Modesto.

I had originally planned to head west on State Route 132 into downtown Modesto, then turn south at the intersection with State Route 99. Upon seeing the massive gridlock on State Route 99, I headed for the only other open road over the Tuolumne River in Modesto...South 9th Street. After crossing the river, I finally found a place to pull over and take pictures. I spent about 15 minutes at the river, snapping photos and shooting video of the Tuolumne River flowing under the 9th Street bridge.

The full extent of this disaster will not be known for some time, but it is already worse than anybody could have feared. The Tuolumne River reached 70.8 feet this morning, 1.6 feet above the previous record established during Dec 1955 and Jan 1956. Few believed the river would ever surpass that level for two reasons: The construction of Don Pedro Reservoir and the dam in 1971 was thought to protect Modesto from serious flooding...and about 175,000 of the 182,000 people who currently live in Modesto did not live there during the last major flood in 1955-56 - and have never experienced any serious flood threat while living in Modesto. Most Modestans do not own flood insurance for these same reasons, including most owners of the 1000+ homes which sustained flood damage.

Fortunately, the warm and wet weather responsible for the flooding has come to and end. After a five-day string of days with MINIMA in the 50s (including 61F on New Year's Day!), today's HIGH was only 49F. Today will probably turn out being the first day since Christmas no measurable rain was recorded - ending a nine-day stretch in which 2.62 inches of rain fell (including 1.59 inches on Jan 2, 1997).