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Thirsty lakes get a refill as storms parade through SLO County

The series of intense storms that continued to pass through San Luis Obispo County on Thursday brought welcome rain for some area farmers and vineyard owners.

Elsewhere, the wet weather and gusty winds flooded roads and continued to make driving tricky. Highway 1 north of Cambria is set to close Sunday to repair roadway erosion. The closure will last up to three weeks.

Nearly a week of rain bodes well for local agriculture and drinking water reserves, as underground aquifers are recharged and county reservoir water levels begin to rise.

North County vineyard owner John Crossland said that for grape growers, whose vines are currently dormant, “this rain is really a godsend.” After three years of drought, a heavy rain was necessary to improve water wells suffering from low levels and a buildup of salts.

Cal Poly beef operations manager Aaron Lazanoff said that despite some erosion and damage to fences, cattle ranchers will benefit from greener hillsides: “The more rain, the more feed, the more pounds (of beef),” he said.

South County farmer Tom Ikeda reported only minor crop damage because of hail and said that most problems emerge after a storm has passed. If temperatures were to rise significantly, mildew can form and destroy young crops. A heavy downpour can also create a hard crust on topsoil, which can prevent germinating seeds from breaking through. Nipomo organic farmer Glenn Johnson said rain will impact strawberry growers the most, as the delicate fruit is easily bruised.

“Rain is never really a bad thing,” Ikeda said. “Where we live, a drought is always around the corner.”

Impact on reservoirs

Area lakes — an important drinking water source for many communities in the county — are filling up at varying rates, according to county water officials.

Several reservoirs are up 10 percent or more, while others are just beginning to fill.

Santa Margarita Lake, also called the Salinas Reservoir, has seen the biggest influx. It went from half full a week ago to 61 percent full Thursday. It is one of San Luis Obispo’s main water sources.

Runoff from the storms has also created a live stream in the Salinas River below the dam, said hydraulic operations administrator Doug Bird.

“Essentially, when there is water flowing from the Salinas River to the confluence with Nacimiento River, then it is considered a live stream,” he said. “We can then shut off the releases and retain all the water.”

Lake Nacimiento has also seen a hefty jump from 18 percent to 27 percent full.

Other lakes experienced much smaller gains. Lopez Lake grew by 2 percentage points, to 51.5 percent full, while Whale Rock Reservoir increased to 50.8 percent full from 50.4 percent. Reservoirs fill at different rates because of differing storage capacities and the watershed that drains into them.

North Coast

Like on Wednesday, the weather front came through early Thursday in Cambria. Trees and power lines continued to fall, but far fewer fell than on Wednesday, when dozens fell.

There were 1,437 customers still without electrical service about 4 p.m. Thursday, but that number was cut to 300 customers by 5:30 p.m., a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. representative said.

Nine of the utility’s crews were at work in Cambria, according to the local fire department. The firm brought some repair crews from Santa Maria to help with the effort.

Hearst Castle opened briefly in the morning for tours, then closed again at 11:30 a.m. after stiff winds flung roof tiles around and tore branches from trees.

To the north of Cambria, Caltrans announced Highway 1 will close nine miles north of Ragged Point Inn on the south end of Big Sur because of roadway erosion. The road will close nightly at 5 p.m. and reopen at 8 a.m. today and Saturday; on Sunday, Highway 1 will be fully closed 24 hours a day, seven days a week for two to three weeks.

South County

A section of Avila Beach Drive near Ontario Road was closed to motorists because of flooding. As of noon Thursday, Highway 1 in Oceano was closed at 13th Street because of flooding.

Bill Bookout, the owner of the Oceano Nursery located at Highway 1 and Paso Robles Street, said that the flooding at the intersection was worse Thursday than any other day this week.

The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area and the Avila Pier remained closed Thursday.

San Luis Obispo

The city continues to see few serious flooding problems as creeks remain within their banks, San Luis Obispo City Engineer Barbara Lynch said.

The city has spent revenue from Measure Y, passed in 2006, on cleaning the inlets in parts of the city, she said, and that has helped it avoid some of the past problems.

North County

Atascadero Lake is the highest it has been in four years but remained about a foot below the spillway Thursday. City officials expect that by late today or Saturday, the lake’s water level will surpass it.

Russ Thompson, public works director, said that the excess water will then travel down a concrete channel and into a culvert under Highway 41 and into Atascadero Creek.

The added water will help balance the lake’s water quality, which has suffered because of diminished water levels in recent years, he said.

Paso Robles Police Department spokes-man Ty Lewis reported three traffic accidents since Monday and advised that people stay away from the Salinas River. Road closures occurred at river crossings at a southerly section of River Road, Airport Road and Penman Springs Road in Paso Robles.

Tribune staff writers Nick Wilson, David Sneed, AnnMarie Cornejo, Sally Connell, Kathy Tanner and Tonya Strickland and Assistant City Editor Bert Etling contributed to this report.

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