California Central Valley's Biggest Threat: A Repeat of the Floods of 1861-1862

(c) 2014, Mike Barkley

On this page I am collecting internet resources that chronicle the effects on the Central Valley of the disastrous floods of 1861-62, which hit all of California and Oregon, plus parts of Washington Territory, Nevada Territory, and Utah. I also refer to my

SPECIFIC PLAN to prevent a repeat of this disaster and thereby also solve most of the Southwest's other water problems.

By one account, the floods of 1861-1862 came from approximately 30-35 MAF in additional Central Valley runoff from a number of moderate storms, plus 3 [4?, 5?] "Pineapple Express" storms in the weeks following December 8, 1861 (runoff figure is an off-the-record guess by a hydrologist), in effect 110% - 120% of the average annual Central Valley runoff in 5 or 6 weeks on top of the usual runoff.

The only real levee system in the Central Valley at the time was Sacramento and that failed repeatedly. Sacramento's failed upstream on the American and as downtown filled with water they punched holes in the levees to let the water out, at which point some of the houses in town floated out the break and downstream. The State Capitol is now on a hill - the state jacked it up into the air and built the hill underneath it after the flood [this may not be exactly correct - a quote from the State Capitol Commissioners in the 1863 Senate & Assembly Journal Appendix below mentions a change in the grade line during construction; see also the Capitol Museum reference below about raising the grade 6 feet]. There was some damage to The State Library, see the Report quoted below from the Journal Appendix. After the flood, the merchants along I and J streets brought in fill and raised the street level and made their second floors the new first floors. Riverboats making runs to Benicia stopped following the channels and cut across country. Waters west of Colusa were 20' deep. Riverboats making runs to Red Bluff navigated by the trees sticking out of the water and on their way upstream they stopped and plucked people out of those trees. People died. There was an inland sea 300 miles long and up to 30' deep. It bankrupted the state and state employees did not get paid for a year and a half.

After the floods Marysville started building on their levees.

At a workshop of the California Central Valley Flood Protection Board in the fall of 2011 I asked the panel representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Water Resources what plans they have to prevent a repeat of this disaster. The gentleman from USACE said he was unaware of that flood - this is the agency most responsible for flood prevention in this country and he is unaware of California's worst flood! The gentleman from DWR said it depends on levees and floodways - perhaps. The 1861-62 flood is credited with clearing hydraulic mining debris out of channels, but more was created since then reducing channel capacity; shipping channel dredging may have offset some of that. As urged by the Yolo County Surveyor in correspondence included in the 1863 Senate Journal Appendix (below) the Yolo Bypass has been created - from his narrative the tule lands seem to have inhibited some of the Sacramento flow producing part of the back-flood in Sacramento and Stockton (see the San Joaquin County Surveyor correspondence in the Senate Journal Appendix), but it is not clear to what extent the Yolo Bypass would alleviate a repeat of the 1862 flood. And of course "reclamation" has narrowed most channels since then. Comments that there have been 7 major ARkStorms in the past 1800 years of which 1862 was the least, are not reassuring and the inundation map in the USGS Report 2010-1312 linked below suggests that the Yolo Bypass would not alleviate flooding of this magnitude..

On 02/28/2012 I asked the Board of Modesto Irrigation District, which shares flood control responsibility on the Tuolumne, what plans they have when there is a repeat of these floods. Their attorney's response? "Not our problem". True, there was no Modesto in 1861-62 but now there is. Perhaps when water is 8' deep in their offices in downtown Modesto with floating bodies from Waterford, they might then think it's their problem.

We are not prepared for a repeat of this. We have built communities in areas that will be wiped out by a repeat, affecting millions of people. Nobody is warning the people buying homes in those communities. Some of them will die. Those of you developing those communities know who you are. This is as much a risk to you as to your customers - you should be stepping up to the responsibility to implement solutions.

We need to head off a repeat of this disaster. Warning of the threat and presenting a full solution is the purpose of this page, see SPECIFIC PLAN above..


Wikipedia Cites:

Other Sites:

More Other:

Contemporary Newspaper Articles:

Storm & Flooding Timeline

--Mike Barkley, 167 N. Sheridan Ave., Manteca, CA 95336 (H) 209/823-4817
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