The West awakes to 'weird' weather

  • New Year's floodwaters swept away Christmas lights in downtown Reno

    Kit Miller
 

Christmas brought some of the strangest weather Westerners can remember.

First came snow and ice in Idaho so heavy that power poles snapped like twigs and a gymnasium roof collapsed. Then the "pineapple express' arrived, a blast of warm air from Hawaii that sent temperatures soaring into the 70s. That sent melting snow crashing into the West's already swollen rivers.

By New Year's Eve, inmates from Nevada's jails were filling sandbags as revelers in Reno's casinos clinked champagne glasses. Less than 24 hours later, the Truckee River had broken its banks, swamping the city's casinos, wedding chapels and hotels with more than a foot of water. Similar flooding and mudslides deluged California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

By Jan. 4, officials had reported more than 20 weather-related deaths and declared a state of emergency in more than 90 counties. Property damage is estimated in the billions of dollars.

Freak storm, yes. But coming on the heels of last winter's flooding in the Northwest, and mudslides just two months ago that killed eight people in Oregon, many people are finding the soggy weather hard to dismiss.

Some meteorologists say the region is now in a 15- to 20-year wet cycle that began in 1994. Disasters are to be expected, but environmentalists warn that urban sprawl, logging and roads have made the land less able to cope.

"Because of the previous dry cycle, a lot of people have gotten very complacent," says Oregon state meteorologist Craig Schmidt. "A lot of people are waking up now."

Andrea Lawrence, president of the Sierra Nevada Alliance and a county commissioner in Mono County, Calif., says planners should use these extraordinary weather events to "get smarter." People should avoid building where it floods, she says. She points to one canyon road in her own county that road crews have already rebuilt three times.

"These rivers didn't do anything they haven't done since water existed," says Lawrence. "We keep blaming natural phenomenon. We need to understand where we live and be more responsible."

What that means is open to debate. In northern California, where some of the worst flooding forced the evacuation of more than 100,000 people, politicians are already calling for the construction of the proposed Auburn Dam near Sacramento. Lawrence disagrees: She agrees that levees along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers need repair but says that existing dams are sufficient.

Rivers need to have fewer constraints, not more, say many environmentalists. "Right now you can see what (Reno) used to be like," says Glenn Switkes of the International Rivers Network, who happened to get stranded in Nevada during the New Year's flood. "Flooding is part of a natural cycle. But when they build dikes and deepen the channel to try to control the river, the flooding is much quicker and affects a larger area."

Activists in the Northwest are also blaming logging and roads for some of the mudslides. In the wake of the Oregon deaths, conservationists have called for a ban on road-building and clearcutting on steep slopes (HCN, 12/23/96).

"The fact that clearcutting increases the chance of landslides is not the news," says David Bayles of Pacific Rivers, one of the groups asking for the moratorium. "The news is that agencies have failed to protect people and the environment."

Meanwhile, the rains have slowed, and life is returning to normal. In downtown Reno, bridges have come back into view, and crews are at work clearing mud and debris, including trees washed down from the mountains. But in many places throughout the West, reservoirs and streams are still at maximum capacity. Anita Fante of California's Flood Center says there have already been a dozen levee breaks along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, and there could be more: "It's just kind of nip and tuck right now."

Jon Christensen contributed to this report from Carson City, Nev.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • MS ACCESS DATABASE PROGRAMER
    Looking for an access programmer. Contract position. Send resume with references and rates to: [email protected] www.prospace.biz
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.