The Cambrian

El Niño rains flood San Simeon Creek

Water from San Simeon Creek floods the Washburn Day Use Area at midafternoon Tuesday, Jan. 19.
Water from San Simeon Creek floods the Washburn Day Use Area at midafternoon Tuesday, Jan. 19.

El Niño came to the North Coast in force Monday and Tuesday, Jan. 18 and 19, bringing with it sustained heavy rainfall that caused some localized flooding, especially at the Cambria services district’s well field along San Simeon Creek.

By late afternoon Tuesday, Cambria Community Services District officials had shut off those wells, leaving the town of about 6,000 residents with one water source in the interim, a well near Leffingwell High School in the Santa Rosa Creek aquifer.

General Manager Jerry Gruber explained the situation to his board members in an email about 4:30 that afternoon.

He wrote that Justin Smith, the district’s water supervisor, had contacted him about 2:30 p.m., to report on the flooding. At that point, the general manager estimated later, the Rocky Butte area (in the hills east of the San Simeon well field) already had been dowsed with from 4 to 5 inches of rainfall.

John Lindsey reported Wednesday morning that “the upper San Simeon Creek area received 8.5 inches” of rainfall during the storm. But on, some automated Cambria gauges only reported about an inch for the two days, while others recorded about 2 inches.

As water rushed heavily and quickly down the creek from the hills Tuesday, it also overran several spots on San Simeon Creek Road.

Creek water infiltrated a portion of the well field, Gruber said.

“As a precautionary measure the San Simeon well field is currently off and the SR4 well is providing the community with water,” the general manager wrote in his email notification to the board. He said Smith had assured him that the SR4 well was “capable of providing the community with the necessary level of potable water and fire protection.”

Gruber said that “once the water subsides entirely, we will evaluate the wells to determine if any repairs will need to be done.” He and staff will review what actions they could take next time to prevent or mitigate future infiltrations.

“What immediately comes to mind is sandbags around all three wells, stacked several feet high.”

At 3:45 p.m. Tuesday, the two district officials notified state regulators, who asked for a brief summary describing what had occurred and for reports on turbidity and chlorine levels in the wells during the localized flooding.

New automation and telemetry equipment will help provide those reports quickly, Gruber said.

He praised Smith, district engineer Bob Gresens and the water department staff “for doing a fantastic job” in handling the emergency situation.

The storm

At midday, water was rising fast in both creeks and was rushing and roaring down toward the ocean. Linda McDonald of Cambria posted on Facebook a video of a refrigerator floating down Santa Rosa Creek.

“The river was wide, flowing fast and very muddy. Made the ocean closest to the beach look like chocolate,” she said. “It was amazing.”

Besides flooding CCSD’s wellfield, rain and runoff flooded State Parks Washburn Day Use area nearby and low-lying areas of the neighboring campground.

As of early Wednesday, most of the camping areas and the campground loop trail at San Simeon Creek Campground were closed, according to a State Parks dispatcher who said the only campsites open were in the upper loop area.

Other effects seemed less dramatic from the storm that started in the dark Tuesday morning, and continued until midafternoon.

But don’t tell that to Darlene Wadsworth, whose fence was obliterated by a falling pine tree that she estimated had been 100 feet tall. She said she was grateful that no homes, people or vehicles had been hit by the tree’s swan dive.

During the storm, accumulated rain also washed over low spots on some other North Coast roads, leaving behind debris flows of silt and wood. Runoff whooshed down some hillsides onto other streets.

Despite some rockfall and mudflows, the landslide-prone Highway 1 stayed open between Cambria and Carmel.

Cambria Fire Department officials say they received no emergency calls related to the storm, possibly because winds were gentle to calm. Hearst Castle tours continued as usual.

Good news

After four years of drought, many people seemed exultant online and in person about the downpour.

Cambria writer Charmaine Coimbra defined Tuesday as a “wet, foggy, rainy, spectacular day.”

Former county supervisor Shirley Bianchi and husband Bill Bianchi were so entranced by the rain falling on their San Simeon Creek Road home that “we keep walking from window to window,” she wrote. “Not sure if we think it won’t rain in the view from a different window, or (if we’re) just soaking up the vision of a good hard rain. First time in years!”

Rancher/historian Dawn Dunlap, who keeps close tabs on rainfall on area ag lands, said in a phone interview that “Debbi Mix and Joyce Williams, whose ranches are in about the same area of San Simeon Creek Road, reported receiving 2 inches of rain on Monday and a little more than 6.5 inches on Tuesday.”

Dunlap’s ranch, on Santa Rosa Creek Road 9 miles from Main Street, was drenched by 1.3 inches of rainfall on Monday and 4.1 inches on Tuesday.

Rain that falls on those areas can eventually flow into CCSD’s aquifers, the creeks and the ocean.

Santa Rosa Creek “was pretty high between noon and 2,” Dunlap said Tuesday, “then the level came down. It looks good. Such a relief to see a normal winter rain day.”

The first hint that this storm was going to be a doozy came Monday for some people.

Steve Brody said he was sitting by the Santa Rosa Creek about 10:30 a.m., (hours after a previous spate of rain had stopped), when he suddenly heard “this loud, almost a roar … thought it was the wind coming up or perhaps a tractor.” Instead, it was the water level rising suddenly in the creek. “I love it when it does that, seemingly out of nowhere,” he wrote in an email interview.”

He said the creek width went quickly “from perhaps 2 feet across to now 8 feet or so, from not much more than a trickle to a bit of a river feel.”

All of which could sound good to residents who’ve been super water conservers during a four-year drought.