Nature Has Her Way
by Birgitta Jansen
The late summer storms of 2023 were transformative. Here are some of the reports:
FROM INYO COUNTY
Hurricane Hilary was downgraded to a Tropical Storm before making landfall in Northern Baja California. From there it tracked into southern California, and on August 19, it arrived in Inyo County. Given its earlier Category 4 designation, it was somewhat surprising when Manzanar Historical Site’s Interpretation Ranger, Sarah Bone, revealed that wind was not a major feature. But Tropical Storms do bring heavy rainfall, and this storm was no exception. Darcy Ellis, Public Relations Liaison and Assistant Clerk of the Board in Inyo County explained: “What made this particular storm so impactful was the sheer volume of precipitation received. This storm brought well over a year’s worth of rainfall in some locations, causing flash flooding and mud and debris flows on a scale not seen before in Inyo County.”
The damage was devastating and widespread. Infrastructure was absolutely battered by the storm including LADWP diversion and flow measurement structures from Big Pine to Olancha along with structural damage to the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Ellis described the situation: “At one point, every single road in the 8,000-square-mile Fifth District, including U.S. 395, was closed. This was unprecedented, and it temporarily left residents and visitors stranded for hours, some even days. The communities of Darwin, Keeler, and others in the Panamint Valley were totally isolated due to extended road closures, including State Routes 190 and 136. Luckily, our Sheriff’s Office, Health & Human Services Department, and Road Department, as well as our partners at Caltrans and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, were able to get critical supplies to those communities and open a detour to and from Lone Pine.”
There was more. Ellis explained why the amount of rain brought by Tropical Storm Hilary was especially problematic for Inyo County. Even before Hilary arrived, creeks, streams, rivers and channels that hadn’t seen water for decades were already running near capacity. This was the aftermath of a 300 percent of normal snowpack in the Sierras that produced an equally historic runoff. Deputy Public Works Director-Roads, Shannon Platt, commented back in August that the storm caused more destruction that he has seen in the last 30 years.
Ellis emphasized that the response by Inyo County and its partner agencies helped to minimize damage in certain areas and, most importantly, keep the public safe under challenging circumstances. He concluded that the scale of the destruction that Tropical Storm Hilary left behind was best understood visually. This is well documented on the County Sheriff’s Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.614159257566317&type=3
Christopher Andriessen is the Public Information Office Chief in Caltrans District 9, which includes Eastern Kern County, Inyo County, Mono Lake, and parts of San Bernadino County. Caltrans deals primarily with the highways in this area including the pavement, shoulders, culverts, and highway facilities. He commented that “in 2022, the storms were separated by weeks. But with Hilary, it was like all those storms came in one day and it was much more widespread.”
In September, Andriessen was able to assess the damage in the eastern part of Death Valley National Park. He knew that this was the area that was hit hardest. “This was my first time visiting the park after Hilary had moved through the area. Looking at the damage, it took my breath away to see how much of the roadway was washed away. One hundred feet of Highway 190 just east of Zabriskie Point was just gone. There was one sliver of pavement left. Shoulders were broken up and whittled down on both sides of the road. The scale of it was astonishing.”
Asphalt piled at Zabriskie Point
Photo: Abby Wines, NPS
Some of the maintenance workers who had been with Caltrans for a long time told Andriessen that, “this was the biggest storm they’d ever seen. In fact, everyone was taken aback when they realized how widespread this was. More than 100 miles of highway were impacted in Inyo County alone.”
The year 2023 was probably the most eventful ever on record for Caltrans: Multiple atmospheric rivers came through starting in January and then there was the record snowpack in the Sierras. Then several more atmospheric rivers followed toward the end of February and into March. “Getting all the highways cleared of snow took us into July.” And then came August…
FROM DEATH VALLEY
Management Analyst, Abby Wines, reported that the storm hit Death Valley during the early morning hours on Sunday, August 20. She said that, “It was cloudy all of Sunday. There was an overcast layer and clouds below it; it was really pretty. There was no wind. But what was remarkable was the drop in temperature down to the 70s for a day or two and then it went back up to 110s.”
It rained until approximately noon. Then the rain paused until early evening when the second wave started and continued during part of the night. She explained that there was much more damage from the second wave because the ground was already saturated.
What stood out for Wines from this particular storm as compared to others was that “We knew it was coming. We were notified three days before it happened, where it would go, and how bad it would be. We were able to close parts of the park ahead of time. We closed campgrounds and secondary roads. We posted warnings on social media and did press releases to discourage visitors from coming to the park. It was critical to reduce the number of visitors. We anticipated that it could be difficult for visitors to get out once the storm was happening.” Wines pointed out that “We were able to be proactive which has never been the case before. We receive notice when a flash flood watch is issued but the location cannot be clear. That makes it harder to plan.”
Paul O’Donnell, a Law Enforcement Ranger in Death Valley NP implemented the planning. His priority was to contact all visitors at the most popular attractions and convince them to leave the park. He said that some visitors were quite taken aback by this, especially those from other countries, because everything looked exactly as they expected a desert to look. “Storm? What storm?” But the preparations continued. Barriers were put up, and roads were closed in places where damage could be anticipated. Flood diversions were put around buildings at risk.
Sunday August 20, is a day that Abby Wines will not soon forget. “It was an overwhelming experience,” she said. “We were all so excited, and we were running on adrenaline as we’re seeing this happen. On Sunday afternoon, after the first wave of the storm had subsided, a small group of us made our way to Zabriskie Point. What we saw was a flowing river of water going down Gower Gulch.”
On Monday morning at 3 a.m., Wines heard the first heavy equipment rumble past her house. The maintenance crew was on the job putting in temporary roads where previous roads had been destroyed.
O’Donnell recalled, “I knew where there should be a road but now there wasn’t. Everything was covered with up to three feet in debris. The whole area looked like the desert. When we went out in our trucks, it was like driving on an alluvial fan.” He continued, “The heroes of the first few days were the heavy equipment operators. In case of an emergency, a vehicle needed to be able to get out of the park. This meant that accessibility was THE priority. And this wasn’t just front-end-loader work. This was bulldozer work.” As Wines explained, the park communities were completely isolated until late afternoon, Monday, August 21.
Caltrans clearing debris
Credit: National Park Service
Measured at Furnace Creek, the park received 2.2 inches of rain within a 24 hour period. This broke the previous record of 1.7 inches set in 2022. The annual average in Death Valley is 2.2 inches.
When the Death Valley staff took stock of the situation, it quickly became apparent that the damage was so extensive that it would take months before the park could reopen. So it was. It was closed for 56 days, the longest closure in the park’s history.
NPS truck driver Matt MacIsaac has worked in the park for over 22 years and seen many storms come and go, He mentioned that contributing to the present problem was the fact that not all backcountry roads had been repaired after the 2022 storms. There had not been enough staff or funding to do so. “But once you have a road that’s been hit,” he explained, “you need not only to repair the damage but also set up the drainage to prepare for the next storm. The dirt needs to be shaped to accommodate the water flow. If that work is not done, then the original damage just increases with each storm that comes after.” This is what worsened the severity of the current devastation.
Titus Canyon illustrates another factor causing delays and frustration. The road does not only need to be repaired but also the damage was so extensive that it needs compliance work. This must be done by archeologists and biologists to ensure that no damage is done to cultural resources in the area. The process is costly and time consuming process but is required by law and is particularly needed in areas where the original roads are no longer visible.
In an email, Mike Reynolds, Death Valley’s Superintendent, commented that the park is currently using a different approach based on what has been learned from previous experience. “We are now attempting to stay in a prolonged, incident response mode for as many months as possible. During that time we can bring in dozens of workers from other parks and obtain extra funding to rent equipment like bulldozers.” He explained, “This strategy allows the park to fix many miles of dirt roads that are still impassible. Once the park is no longer in ‘incident response mode’, the park must meet repair costs, including the cost of contracts, from of its own, allocated budget. This means that it can take much longer to get repairs completed.”
On Sunday, October 15, Death Valley NP celebrated a partial (9 percent) reopening.
FROM THE AMARGOSA VALLEY
Similarly, on the morning of August 19, Laura Cunningham, biologist and longtime Beatty resident, noted that the weather had dramatically changed. “It was 100 percent overcast as Hilary’s remnant cloud bands quietly arrived in the area. At around 9 p.m. that evening, a steady strong ground-soaking rain began. It continued non-stop all night until it paused at about noon on August 20. The sheer volume of rainwater started to cause sheet flow across the creosote desert.” She continued, “On August 21, constant and widespread rains continued throughout the day forming pools of water and puddles in the low spots everywhere. The washes were flowing. The Amagosa River flooded up onto its floodplain, perhaps 100 feet wide in places, and it also took out our entranceway… again.”
Cunningham maintains a rain gauge in her yard and began taking measurements in 2002. Her average annual rainfall has been 3 inches. From August 19 at 9 p.m. to August 21 she measured a total rainfall of 4.25 inches. She expects that 2023 may well turn out to be her record rainfall year.
“But then,” she concluded, “on August 22, the storm moved northwards, the clouds left, the sky was sunny and clear. We began to dig out and dry off.”
Executive Director of the Amargosa Conservancy, Mason Voehl said, “From our perspective on the ground here in the Amargosa Valley, these flood events are literally reshaping the contours of the landscape. We’re seeing washes incised aggressively. Portions of the Amargosa River corridor are experiencing fast-moving head-cuts where water is eroding channels that sooner or later will cut their way beneath roads and below other infrastructure. The damage to roads in the lower portion of the river south of China Ranch has been tremendous.”
Amargosa River flooding near Tecopa Marsh
Drone Photo: Mason Voehl
AND ALL ACROSS THE DESERT
There are always questions about how wildlife is affected by storms of this magnitude, and how resilient it is, or not, to damage from large flood events. Voehl thinks that, “They’ve survived many floods over millennia; although now floods are getting stronger and they are happening more frequently. We know that there is genetic similarity among species usually separated by miles of arid uplands. It seems flood events like these have a way of moving species downstream, causing them to intermix. This is particularly true of pupfish and dace.”
When Laura Cunningham spent time out in the valley around mid-September, she observed that there were still water puddles remaining. And then there was something else. With enthusiasm she reported, “I am now seeing hundreds of baby seedling creosotes, bursage, cheesebush, and even screwbean mesquite, popping up in washes and basins. There is an interesting late summer-fall wildflower bloom happening: apricot mallow, milkvetch, Baileya, and even a couple of Mojave asters flowering!”
Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin Director, Center of Biological Diversity, echoed Cunningham‘s passion and delight in the resilience of the natural world. In his article, also in this issue of the Desert Report, he describes numerous observations of life returning to the desert.
When a big storm hit Death Valley NP in October, 2015, Frank Lambert, Death Valley’s Roads and Trails Supervisor said, “All this water didn’t destroy the landscape. It changed it. It only destroyed what we built.”
It might be prudent to remember that civilization, the artificial world that we built, is but a thin and vulnerable veneer on the surface of this ancient planet.
Birgitta Jansen has been an active volunteer in Death Valley National Park. Currently residing in British Columbia, she is a managing editor of the Desert Report, has written previously on a number of environmental topics, and has completed a book about the October 2015 flash floods in Death Valley NP.