With meteorologists predicting a 95 percent chance of a strong El Niño weather pattern lasting through the winter, county emergency services and public works officials are getting ready for a wet winter — something San Luis Obispo County hasn’t experienced since 2010.
Ron Alsop, county emergency services coordinator, told the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that conditions this winter will be similar to 1997-98, when a strong El Niño brought drenching rains that caused flooding, landslides and wind damage throughout the county. Rainfall totals for that winter averaged twice normal amounts and prompted federal, state and local disaster declarations.
“Although there has been and is caution that even a strong El Niño may not bring significant rainfall, using the 1997-98 years as a comparison shows that we could have significant damages,” Alsop said.
As a result, the county is finalizing an adverse weather response plan that county officials can use as a playbook for managing its response to storm warnings, flooding and evacuations.
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The county Department of Public Works is clearing culverts and debris catchment basins. The county maintains 72 debris basins throughout the county and is carrying out 6,000 checks of culverts, said Wade Horton, county Public Works director.
Of particular importance is maintenance of levees along Arroyo Grande Creek, Horton said. Those levees were built in 1961 to protect Oceano from flooding.
Supervisor Frank Mecham said he is frustrated by the lack of cooperation between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The two agencies are often at cross purposes when it comes to clearing debris out of creeks to prevent flooding and protecting endangered species, he said.
Supervisor Debbie Arnold said it has been challenging for county staff to transition from dealing with four years of extreme drought to preparing for a wet winter. However, most agreed that a wet winter will be a welcome break from the extreme dry conditions.
“We will be very grateful for the water even if it causes a few problems,” said Eric Greening, an Atascadero resident.