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Weather Whiplash Roundup
I suppose it goes without saying, but just in case you haven’t noticed: We live in interesting times climate- and water-wise. And by interesting I mean whiplash-inducing and uncertain; downpour mingled with drought; massive flash-floods in the same region as dried out river beds.
Tropical storm Hillary wreaked havoc in southern and central California even as massive wildfires burned through tens of thousands of acres in the north. Flash flooding caused so much damage in Death Valley that the entire national park remains closed, weeks later.
A successive wave of storms brought more rain to Nevada, turning Burning Man into a mud-and-poop fest from which celebrants couldn’t escape (God’s punishment, according to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed). Las Vegas Wash, which carries treated wastewater from Las Vegas back into Lake Mead (credited against Nevada’s Colorado River allocation), swelled up to 14,100 cubic feet per second on Sept. 2, the second highest flow since 1957.
A woman and her dog were caught in a flash flood in Mary Jane Canyon near Moab and was swept about 200 feet downstream before escaping the rushing, muddy waters. She lost her shoes, was covered with mud, but otherwise escaped mostly unharmed, according to reports.
The southern San Juan Mountains and headwaters of the Rio Grande have received about 40% more precipitation than normal this water year. And yet the Rio is nearly dry through Albuquerque. In early July, about 44% of New Mexico was in moderate drought; today the entire state is gripped by drought, with 20% at extreme levels.
It’s a similar story on the Animas River in southwestern Colorado, which had its healthiest spring runoff in years, only to see flows drop below median levels in August and September as the monsoon failed to deliver its usual deluges. Inflows into Lake Powell were far above average this spring, but in August they were back down to the median levels and on a par with last year. The surface level is now sitting at about 3,573 feet above sea level. That’s a lot better than last year at this time (3,530), but still 43 feet below what it was on Sept. 12, 2019.
Phoenix’s high temperature has reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter on 55 days so far this year, breaking the 2020 record. And at least 194 people have died from heat-related causes in the metro area this year, with 351 fatalities still being investigated. Pikes Peak experienced its first snow of the year, with a few inches accumulating on top.
Things might get even crazier. Forecasters say there is a greater than 95% chance that the El Niño climate pattern will continue through the winter. Typically that means more moisture than normal for the Southwest, less for the Northwest, and about average in between. But what does “typical” even mean in these climate-crazy days, anyway?
As long as we’re talking extreme weather: I drew up this little diagram of the floods that submerged our house not just once, but twice, after massive storms in Greece. I find it an interesting study in how human-made infrastructure intensified the flooding and damage.
The two major drainages (in aqua blue) come from the south (bottom of the picture) and their natural paths, which were altered long ago, appear to pass just to the west of our house. The eastern main drainage — the one I thought posed the greatest threat to our house — normally dissipates at the place labeled “check dam terraces.” It blew right through there, toppling fences as it went, and rushed through our parcel of land, but still missed hitting our house. The bigger, western main drainage had enough force and water to blow out a small bridge, but still missed our house and parcel by a long shot.
So what was the problem? The road, that’s what, or rather, the built up bed on which it sits. It crosses the entire drainage just upstream from the sea, effectively forming a dam. Only one culvert, maybe six feet by six feet, provides passage for the water. That was clearly not nearly enough for the amount of water rushing down the natural drainages. That water was augmented by an artificial drainage created by the main road and a concrete driveway leading to a house on top of the ridge, which deposited large volumes of water into the drainage upstream of the main road (aka the Koukouleika Dam). Meanwhile, the road’s drainage system failed, meaning flash floods running off of the steep hillside to the west of the house ran over the highway and into the main drainage rather than in ditches toward the sea.
All of that water then backed up behind the “dam,” creating what we call Koukouleika Lake. Just behind the dam the water was probably ten feet deep or more; it was around seven feet deep at our house (and carried about four inches worth of silt, which now blankets the floors of our home, as well as everything in it). And until more culverts are added to the road and the drainage problems are fixed, it will likely happen again.