It rained so hard in California in 1862 that a 300-mile-long lake was created in the Central Valley, stretching from Bakersfield to Red Bluff.
Leland Stanford needed a rowboat to transport him through the flooded streets of Sacramento to be sworn in as the new governor.
No, I haven’t covered it.
It was the largest flood in the history of California, Nevada and Oregon. In 43 days, the equivalent of 10 feet of water – rain and snow – was dumped on California. At least 4,000 people have been killed.
It became known as the Great Flood of 1862.
A few years earlier, in 1846, a rare monster snowstorm in late October ravaged the area around what was later named Lake Tahoe, leading to one of the ugliest chapters in the world. California history.
A train of Midwesterners wagons bound for California was trapped by deep snow under the Sierra Ridge at what became known as Donner Lake, named after one of the party leaders. Only 48 of the 87 members of the Donner Party survived nearly four months of famine, disease and alpine cold.
The Donner Party has earned a place in history for its heroic perseverance. But he became best known for some starving survivors resorting to cannibalism, eating the corpses of those who perished.
OK, so what do these two disasters have to do with anything today? There is a common thread between them that is relevant: No one has blamed abnormal storms on climate change.
They happened long before anyone burned fossil fuels in cars and warmed the planet. They just happened because of the nature of nature.
You don’t have to be a climate change denier to recognize and acknowledge history.
Yes, climate change is terribly real. The melting of the Arctic ice cap and the rising seas are proof enough. The same is true of higher average summer temperatures. Warming is exacerbated by humans burning fossil fuels.
This does not mean that global warming is the mother of all natural phenomena. Not all major events are caused by climate change, regardless of what Gov. Gavin Newsom repeatedly says about the extremes of wetter and windier storms, drier droughts and hotter forest fires.
Global warming is creating drier air and helping to dry out vegetation that feeds horrific forest fires. But California’s forests have been poorly managed for over a century.
Evidence that climate change is not the primary cause of catastrophic forest fires can be found in Baja California, Mexico. There is a large mountain range that looks like Sierra Nevada. But it’s healthy and fire-resistant because, until relatively recently, it was managed by nature, not humans.
Lightning-induced fires were able to go out on their own, naturally cleaning up the forest and minimizing the intensity of the fires. In the western United States, we needed to put out the fires immediately to protect the growing cities, resorts and lumber. And we’re just starting to seriously start clearing the forests and brush of dead trees and undergrowth that feed fires and make them more volatile.
Sunday’s “bomb cyclone” dumped more water on Sacramento in one day than ever in history – 5.44 inches, or 27% of its average seasonal supply. There was a record soaking all over northern California. And Southern California’s months-long dry spell was interrupted.
What has been the contribution of climate change?
That won’t be known for about a year, state climatologist Michael Anderson said. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will investigate the flood.
“We don’t know if this was the start of a big rainy year or just a big storm,” Anderson adds.
Jeffrey Mount, a water specialist at the Public Policy Institute of California, said “a storm like this would have happened with or without global warming.”
And Jay Lund, co-director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, puts it this way:
“California has a lot of extremes. We have always had wetter years and drier years than any part of the country. Every year around this time, we manage drought and flooding, and we always will. Look at the statistics.
“They show what everyone knows: California is weird.”
Lund says the storm “may have been made a little more intense by climate change. I wouldn’t be in the denial category. There was probably a modest influence.
He notes that Newsom declared a statewide drought emergency just before the torrential storm hit. “It’s like washing your car and then it rains,” he says.
“If you’re going to have a big storm, this was the perfect time,” Lund says. “If the storm had happened later in the season, it could have created significant flooding. The tanks could have been full. It would have been more exciting.
Because this was the first big storm after two very dry years, much of the water seeped into the ground and did not become a roaring runoff in downstream reservoirs, although there is enough water to raise the level of the lake.
“The floor was like a dry sponge,” says Mount. “Now the water will fall on a damp sponge and it will drain out.”
Another benefit was that the storm dramatically increased the flow of water into the San Francisco Bay, pushing salinity out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
“We’re going to hear it’s wasted water at sea,” says Mount. “But these people don’t understand how the delta works. When salinity is excluded, Los Angeles and the Bay Area get cleaner water.
“Everyone is doing better, including the critters that live in the Delta.”
You can thank nature for what we received and what we did not receive: a great flood.