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County braces for deluge of wet, windy weather

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Posted: Monday, December 23, 2002 10:00 pm

Stormy weather has a different meaning to different people.

To Steven Winkler, when the clouds burst and the wind howls, it means the inevitability of clogged sewers, flooded roads, destructive potholes, uprooted trees - and sometimes floods.

Winkler, deputy director of the San Joaquin County Public Works Department, said his crews have been kept typically busy during this wet and windy season, keeping the county byways clear and safe.

But so far the rains brought forth this El Niño year haven't caused Winkler's department too much grief.

"We're fortunate that we have not seen any large-scale emergencies yet," he said. "Like other agencies around us, we've seen storm drains blocked by leaves and debris, and we've responded on a case-by-case basis."

That status could change if the two storms predicted to pound San Joaquin County this week come through. In a former El Niño year - 1998 - the county experienced damage to levees and roads because sewers became backed up, spilling onto the already saturated ground. The private weather firm AccuWeather predicts limited rain later today and rain late Wednesday.

Winkler, who has a wait-and-see attitude, said the county is as prepared as it can be, which includes working closely with the San Joaquin County Office of Emergency Services.

He said his department does more than just react to the trouble left in a storm's wake; it takes a proactive approach.

"We have an active storm drain cleaning program where we make sure the drains are open and clear," Winkler said. "And we try to make sure they are open before the stormy weather."

Public Works keeps an especially vigilant eye on historically troubled ditches and drains throughout the county in such towns as Thornton, which has flooded in the past, he said.

"A number of storm drains have a propensity for becoming clogged with silt, roots, and debris which lead to flooding," Winkler said.

But pre-emptive strikes aside, Winkler and the Public Works Department are at the mercy of the weather's impetuous ways.

"It's somewhat of a reactive situation - we don't know where the trees are going to fall," Winkler said. "Mother Nature tends to hop and skip around in regard to where it rains."

In the past, strain on reservoirs in Northern California, such as Oroville and Folsom, have been another source of flooding for San Joaquin County, said Ronald Baldwin, director of San Joaquin County Office of Emergency Services.

Baldwin is not worried about the dams right now.

"It's going to have to rain a lot before there are issues with the dams," Baldwin said. "The more immediate concern is, are we going to get saturated enough to raise creeks and streams?"

Flooded local waterways is the typical fallout from an El Niño year, he said. That's because El Niño tends to bring sudden heavy rain that overwhelms the earth's ability to absorb water.

Conversely, non-El Niño winters tend to either be dry or extremely wet with continuous pounding rain which overwhelms the dams.

While Baldwin said he's not one to give weather predictions, he doesn't expect the regional dams to exceed their holding capacity this year.

So that means local agencies such as county OES and local public works are focusing on the safety of nearby structures.

The flood control districts have electronic gauges in place on levees as does the state on major rivers such as the San Joaquin, Sacramento, Mokelumne and Stanislaus to monitor water levels, Baldwin said.

"Once it gets to the point of high levels, it gives the local agencies data to work with," he said. "It doesn't tell you the levy is going to break, but it gives you a heads up."

When flooding looks imminent, public works and OES provide sand bags to brace levees.

Winkler said the California Conservation Corps and the local water districts physically perform the task of building sandbag barriers around the levees, although the county does not provide sandbags to residents.

"We have found that unless you know how to properly sandbag a house, they are not efficient tools for local individuals," Winkler said. "We would prefer to put our resources into managing levee problems."

For the home and business owner, the OES provides a Web site that lists where sand and bags are available throughout the county.

The OES also acts as a liaison for the county and relief agencies such as the Red Cross when flooding occurs.

The last flood in San Joaquin County took place in 1998, another El Niño year, Baldwin said.

It cost the county $3 million in damages, but mostly the county's unincorporated areas, such as Tracy's Corral Hollow, were affected, he said, because the cities tend to own and operate better drainage systems.

While the Valley itself didn't receive much rain in 1997, torrential downpours in the foothills and mountains caused dams to overflow which lead to raging rivers and eventually flooding in the Valley and $99 million in expenses for San Joaquin County.

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