Readying for Rain in Drought-Stricken California

With another El Niño on its way, a proactive approach to stormwater management helps officials mitigate risks when Southern California suddenly gets too much rain
Readying for Rain in Drought-Stricken California

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Major rain events in sunny Southern California are not commonplace. In the midst of four years of severe drought, recent downpours have arrived as an even bigger shock, testing the preparedness of local officials and infrastructure.

The onslaught of rain that hit southern portions of the state in late July led to the Los Angeles Angels' first rain out in 20 years and the San Diego Padres' first since 2006. It also broke records in at least 11 locations, including five that experienced the most rain ever recorded on any single day in July, according to an Associated Press report. The .36-inch accumulation in downtown Los Angeles even shattered a high that had stood for nearly 130 years.

It wasn’t just the records that broke in the wake of the precipitation, however, as a bridge collapsed on Interstate 10, leaving travelers searching for a new route. These storms were the latest sign that a strong El Niño weather pattern is in the works, and if that continues portions of California could see more in the way of powerful rainstorms and the fallout that follows.

Related difficulties
Events similar to those seen in July can present a number of issues for the City of Anaheim’s public works department, notes Keith Linker, principal civil engineer. Localized flooding is an area of concern, and although Anaheim is generally flat there are some steep hills that bring the potential for slope erosion and landslides into play.

“Our primary concern is flood risk,” says Drew Kleis, deputy director of the City of San Diego’s stormwater division, “so flooding caused by some portion of the storm drain system that fails. That could be a channel that overtops, a piped portion of the storm drain system that gets overwhelmed with too much rain at one period of time, or portions of the system that would clog.”

If a trash can gets knocked over or a cardboard box plugs an inlet it can cause an incredible amount of damage, he adds. Water can start to pond in the street, for example, and if it’s severe enough it can flood vehicles or properties in the vicinity. This brings safety concerns along with it as well.

Proactive measures
“There are ways that we can prepare,” Linker explains. “We clean catch basins more frequently, we ensure street sweeping is accelerated and we look at the protection of slopes to minimize or eliminate the threat of erosion. We do proactive tree maintenance to reduce the potential for limbs coming down or a complete failure of the tree. And then we’ll also purchase more supplies like sandbags, for example.”

Before the storm arrives, prevention can avert some of the issues that can be damaging during the rain event, Kleis says, and outreach efforts are one important element when it comes to educating residents and constituents. Email blasts, flyers, website information and radio air time are all part of making sure the public is well-informed and helping in small ways that can make a big impact, like picking up garbage can lids or calling the stormwater hotline as needed.

The storm patrol, which mobilizes crews not only from their own division but also from other staff in the department, is another measure taken to examine critical drains and channels and look for debris to clear and problems to take care of before the rain arrives.

The 14 pump stations located throughout San Diego have provided benefits in low-lying areas where the combination of high tides and heavy rain make it difficult to get good drainage. “We’ve installed remote telemetry in the pumps so that we can monitor the well levels — how much water is in them — and look at the weather forecast so we can start to pump down those wells ahead of the rain we see coming and make sure they’re at top capacity,” Kleis says.

Handling the event once the rainfall actually begins is crucial as well. “We deploy a number of crews and pumps out in key areas where we know there are some hot spots or sensitive areas that are prone to flooding to try and make sure that we’re doing everything we can to keep those flows under control, keep an eye on those flood-prone areas, mark them off if necessary, and make sure if there’s trash or debris that’s clogging a drain that we’re getting that cleared as soon as possible,” Kleis adds.


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