Saturday, January 7, 2017

High Water 2017

I am quite impressed with NPS preparations for anticipated flooding in the next couple of days; this is much different from the surprises of 1997's flood. Forecasting has been honed and there's institutional memory of the last big one.

As of last evening, all visitors have been evacuated from the Valley. Staff housing in the Half Dome Village area has been evacuated and all other locals are being told to stay put as of tonight. Peak flow is expected late in the day on Sunday. Projections are for about 17,000 cfs at Pohono Bridge, where the Merced exits the Valley. Average river flow for this time of year is about 100 cfs, and because of this week's rain the river is carrying 572 cfs right now. Again, that projection is for the river to increase to 30 times the current flow by tomorrow evening. We had a flood warning in mid-December but the river didn't quite reach 5000 cfs; it needs to get to about 7000 cfs before the water comes up on to a road in the Valley. The river would first gently back up on to pavement at Wosky Pond on Northside Drive.

If we do get to 17,000, this'd make it the 6th biggest recorded volume for the Pohono gauging station. The bigger events were the floods of 1937, 1950, 1955, 1964 and 1997. Five 'big' floods in a century averages to every other decade or so. What some locals parochially call 'The Flood' of twenty years ago was only a little bit bigger than those other four were, and such floods affect far more than just Yosemite. There was no gauging station in 1862, when the Merced surely exceeded its 1997 size in a mega-flood that wrecked the whole state.

All these high water events happen December-February and are due to warm storms, which bring rain to high elevation instead of snow. There's a persistent myth that the 1997 flood was due to rain melting recent snows, but the science says that rain doesn't melt very much snow. The floods happen simply by high snowline causing tens of thousands more acres of watershed to receive rain. Especially in higher terrain with thinner soils and vast expanses of bare granite, that rain just runs off right away and swells the rivers downstream.

I share Muir's enthusiasm for such events; he witnessed and wrote about the flood of December 1871. While I shelter in place, I look forward to seeing the video record collected by the professionals.


  1. River volume projection just changed, 9am 7 Jan: up to about 19,000 cfs = fifth place for the history of Pohono gauge.

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