The “Big Melt,” as coined by UCLA researcher Daniel Swain, is set to arrive in the Central Valley in the coming weeks, as a record snowpack accumulated months ago will funnel down from the mountaintops through the region’s waterways toward the sea.
At the 9 a.m. Tuesday Kern County Board of Supervisors meeting, the Kern County Fire Department informed officials of how they plan to manage the record outflows and stave intense flooding in low-lying residential areas.
“It is quite massive and is more than we’ve seen in a long time,” Kern County Fire Chief and Director of Emergency Services Aaron Duncan said of the 60-foot-deep snowpack that currently blankets the Sierra Nevada.
Statewide, snowpack is at 364% of average, equivalent to 58 feet of snow, according to recent estimates by the California Department of Water Resources. This is in stark contrast to last year, when the Sierra, which traditionally provides a third of California’s water, was at 38% capacity.
“To be clear this is not from the mountains of Piutes, this is not from the mountains around Glennville,” Duncan said. “That snowmelt is already gone and is not what we’re concerned with.”
This translates to trillions of gallons of snowmelt — an estimated range of 8,000 to 12,000 cubic feet per second — that will enter Isabella Dam before going downstream along the canyon toward the water districts' storage networks.
In anticipation of heavy runoff, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to increase its outflow of water from the dam to 7,500 cfs by mid-May from its current 6,500 cfs. The balance, Duncan explained, is to siphon just enough dammed water so that they save as much as they can while also ensuring there’s no serious damage to “the city, water districts, roads and systems.”
As of Tuesday morning, water levels at the dam sat at 348,000 acre-feet, or 60% of its 580,000 acre-feet capacity. Looming above in California’s mountainous middle is an estimated 1.8 million acre-feet of water, over three times what the dam can hold. But how fast the snow melts is unconfirmed, Duncan noted, and depends on weather patterns.
“There is a lot of confusion about (this),” Duncan said, in regard to recent news coverage. “That snowmelt is not coming at one time and it’s not guaranteed to come this year. We may only see half the snowpack melt this year and carry over to the next year.”
According to Jessica Chiari, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Hanford, temperatures are expected to continue rising in the coming weeks, and a melt of midlevel snowpack — 5,000 to 8,000 feet — is expected to come down the mountain.
“After (Tuesday), we are expecting things to dry out and temperatures to rise by this weekend,” Chiari said, adding meteorologists expect above-normal heat for at least the next two weeks.
But that’s for midlevel snowpack, Chiari said, adding that snow above the 8,000-foot mark likely won’t melt until late summer, “when hot temperatures are much more consistent.”
For now, it’s all about getting the water out safely, Duncan said, as a fast melt could overwhelm dams and levees and lead to more flooding.
“We want to get out more than we have coming in,” Duncan said.
Duncan did assure that a state inspector two weeks ago decided the city’s levees to be in good shape, “with few weaknesses.”
“This (flood fight specialist) walked from metro Bakersfield all the way up past Kernville and he has told me that we have a good levee system,” Duncan said.
While not listed on the Board of Supervisors' Tuesday agenda, the department gave the presentation toward the end of the morning meeting, during the board comments.
Stephanie Foe, a Bakersfield resident living along Alfred Harrell Highway, asked supervisors beforehand if there was going to be any forum on the topic.
“As I look through the agenda I didn’t see anything pertinent to (floods),” Foe said.
“Residents are nervous,” Foe said, stating that amid the worry and perceived lack of information, people are “inundated with rumors” over whether communities in the immediate downstream should expect evacuations.
Foe then made the recommendation that the county host further public discussions, so people can get real information.
“We’ve been told we’re going to be flooded; we’ve been told we’re going to be out of our houses for three months,” Foe said. “We’ve been told that (cubic feet per second) is going to be 10,000 to 15,000, which puts my house underwater.”
Duncan said his department plans to create a hotline as well as an online dashboard for real-time data on outflows and related advisories. Information, he said, will flow from state and federal agencies, Chevron and the Corps of Engineers through the county Fire Department.
“We cannot stop the weather that comes into Kern County,” Duncan said. “But what we can do is be prepared.”
For more information, go to kerncountyfire.org/education-safety/ready-kern/ for updates.