The five elected supervisors for Tuolumne County unanimously declared a state of emergency Wednesday due to storm damage sustained in the Groveland, Moccasin and Don Pedro areas during last week’s atmospheric river storm.
Priest Coulterville Road is damaged in at least six locations, Quincy Yaley, assistant director of the county Community Resources Agency, told the board. John Klein, who lives on the road, told the board he and other residents need at least one lane open before fire season starts.
Klein, who built a house 14 years ago on Priest Coulterville Road, said he emptied his 7-inch rain gauge at 9 a.m. Thursday last week, and by 3 p.m. it was overflowing.
“As the water comes off the mountains you can hear all the drainages turn to creeks,” Klein said. “That afternoon a river came down the road and it was impassable.”
Klein said detours to get in and out of his rural neighborhood, which is home to about a dozen families, can take him all the way to Bonds Flat Road below Don Pedro Dam just to get to Sonora. He is staying at his place and he still had mud on his shoes Wednesday.
“My wife went to work that morning at Groveland Pharmacy and she hasn’t made it home since,” Klein said before the special meeting where the Board of Supervisors heard about storm damage and declared another emergency. “She’s staying here in Sonora.”
Closed more than a year
At least one major residential access route, Marshes Flat Road, has remained closed, gated and padlocked since winter storms a year ago that unleashed post-fire erosion, debris flows and boulders, a concerned Sonora resident with family members living up there said.
The September 2016 Marshes Fire is named for the road, and residents said the point of origin was on Marshes Flat Road.
“The only way in and out of there is to Highway 132,” Marilyn Hope, a resident of Sonora, said Wednesday. Her son and grandson and their family live up on Marshes Flat Road. “It’s always been a public safety concern for me.”
Jim and Vicki Cox, residents of Marshes Flat Road, said they were home at the height of the big wet warm tropical storm on Thursday, and they came to the meeting Wednesday and sat with Hope.
Marshes Flat Road now has more damage from last week’s storm at locations including First Creek and Second Creek.
Big river in the sky
Tracie Riggs, assistant county administrator and Office of Emergency Services coordinator, said the storm last week was an atmospheric river, coupled with convective showers that delivered 8 to 9 inches of rain at higher elevations and 4 to 5 inches in the Groveland area.
“It really hit the Central Sierra,” Riggs said. “We had a river running down the middle of the road in Groveland, and many of our businesses were damaged. We’re still assessing damage in several areas. Getting all the information is taking time.”
Current county estimates for all storm damage range from $3.5 million to $5 million, Riggs said. Major roads that require immediate attention include Ferretti Road, Marshes Flat Road, Priest Coulterville Road, Deer Flat Road, Zarzamora Road, Las Palmas Way, Merrell Road, Black Road and Old Highway 120.
Tuolumne Utilities District sustained slide damage on Columbia Ditch and damage to roads leading to two water treatment plants, Riggs said. Groveland Community Services District sustained about $500,000 in storm damage to its sewer system and at Mary Laveroni Community Park.
The gym and cafeteria at Belleview Elementary School on Kewin Mill Road above Phoenix Lake were flooded, Riggs said.
Groveland Community Hall on Main Street got 4 feet of water under the hardwood oak floor, and that floor is now destroyed and is being dismantled and removed. Riggs said she is seeking Small Business Administration low-interest loan designation for business owners in Groveland.
Riggs repeated what she told The Union Democrat on Tuesday: the City and County of San Francisco “has provided a high level estimate of $40 million in damages” for damages at Moccasin when Moccasin Dam began seeping and leaking during the height of the storm last week. Mary Ellen Carroll, the emergency planning and security director for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, confirmed that in a phone interview.
Addressing delays for fixing last year’s storm damage on Marshes Flat Road, Riggs said Federal Emergency Management Agency obligation requirements were slowing the funding process. The county has an engineered fix ready when funds become available.
Randy Hanvelt, District 2 supervisor, said Riggs was being too kind to FEMA.
“I urge you all in the audience to write your congressman, that’s McClintock, and your senators and tell them FEMA needs to get with it,” Hanvelt said. “Some damage that didn’t get fixed last year due to FEMA’s lack of funding, that damage got worse. We’re cash-poor here and we’ve been in a continuing state of emergency five years now, since the Rim Fire.”
After the Wednesday meeting in Sonora, Steve Ritchie, assistant general manager for water enterprise with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, described how Priest Reservoir was impacted during the height of the storm last week.
Priest Reservoir is off Priest Coulterville Road, near Priest Station. It is connected to the Mountain Tunnel that brings water from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park, and it’s connected to the giant penstocks that carry water down slope to Moccasin.
“Most of the intense rains that fell were focused right there around Priest Reservoir, which is up the hill from Moccasin, about a thousand feet above Moccasin,” Ritchie said. “We use Priest Reservoir to harness gravity and create hydropower at the Moccasin Powerhouse.”
Hetch Hetchy engineers shut off the Hetch Hetchy Water system Thursday morning for previously scheduled maintenance, before the magnitude of the approaching storm became apparent.
Priest Reservoir can hold up to 2,350 acre-feet of water. Moccasin Reservoir can hold up to 500 acre-feet.
During the height of the storm, operators released some water out of Priest Reservoir so that water in there would not overtop the earthen dam. That could erode the dam and that is something Hetch Hetchy Water & Power staff want to avoid. Priest Dam did not overtop last week and it did not sustain erosion damage.
“There was flooding on the roads up there at Priest and erosion and a landslide coming off one slope, down toward the reservoir,” Ritchie said. “A day after the heaviest rains a Hetch Hetchy employee took a helicopter tour with Turlock Irrigation District and he got a photo of the slide scar. He estimated 2,300 cubic yards of material went into Priest from the slide.”
Priest Dam is fine as far as Hetch Hetchy engineers know, Ritchie said. Staff at Priest Reservoir are now cycling water through Priest to improve water quality. With the slide and other erosion there’s a lot of sediment in the water. Priest Reservoir was functioning as designed on Wednesday.
Ritchie said the plan is to get the Hetch Hetchy System back online April 5.
Most of the estimated $40 million in storm repairs will be focused on Moccasin Dam and Moccasin Dam spillways and geotechnical investigations at Moccasin Dam, Ritchie said.
“We will have to do some work on this slide at Priest,” Ritchie said. “We’re going to want to try to stabilize it so it won’t cause problems in the future.”
No estimates were available for storm damage sustained last week at the Moccasin Creek Hatchery, which is owned and operated by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“It’s too early,” Peter Tira, a spokesman for state Fish and Wildlife, said Wednesday afternoon. “We do not have an estimate of damages or a cost breakdown yet. It's just far too early. We're just still getting back in there and cleaning things up.”
Hetch Hetchy communications staff, including Ritchie, said 90 percent of the fish at the hatchery were killed during the storm.
Property owners in Tuolumne County who sustained $10,000 or more in storm damage last week may qualify for property tax disaster relief, Kaenan Whitman, the county assessor-recorder, told the board and other people at the meeting Wednesday.
“They need to turn in a form within 12 months of the storm event,” Whitman said. “We can go ahead and make a reduction of their assessed improvements that were destroyed.”
Whitman urged property owners with questions to call his office at (209) 533-5535 or go to the Property Tax Disaster Relief link on the assessor’s web page, https://www.tuolumnecounty.ca.gov/1101/Property-Tax-Disaster-Relief.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.