About 150 people crowded the Idyllwild Library Community Room, lobby and doorways on Tuesday night, Sept. 1. All seats were taken and all walls were lined with people standing. They were not there for entertainment but for information.
Mountain Disaster Preparedness convened the meeting, headlined by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Meteorologist Alex Tardy, local Geologist Julian Geisinger and Certified Arborist Deborah Geisinger, to discuss the presumptive 2015-16 El Niño weather pattern and ways to prepare.
Exit interviews and questions at the end of the meeting revealed the disparate reasons why so many people had come: “We wanted to hear the reality of it; how bad is it going to be?” “Where can we get sandbags?” “How great is the erosion and flooding danger?” “What about soil saturation, large tree root weakening and the likelihood of large trees falling?” “What are the remedial steps that can be taken now to prevent major damage to property?” “Will Idyllwild be cut off because of road closures (major mud and rock slides)?”
Larry Kueneman summed it up this way, “As many people as are here, there are that many different reasons for coming.”
Tardy, who spoke without notes, did not disappoint. Fluent, engaging and frequently entertaining, he gave the headline people either had wanted or feared to hear: Present indicators show that this El Niño could be very strong, perhaps historic, and that “it will come directly at us.” Tardy explained that it looked as if the moisture-bearing jet stream would directly cross over Southern California and the Riverside County mountains, specifically. “The expectations are that the jet stream will be so far south that it will cross right over us,” he said.
Tardy explained the likelihood that Southern California will experience many more storms, not necessarily larger or more severe storms. “There is a really good correlation that indicates we will have a lot of storms with little or no time to recover [between storms.]”
That poses, as he explained, dangers from over-saturation of the soil, greater runoff and erosion, and weakening of tree root structure.
“Extreme weather is also a wild card that makes it hard to predict,” he said, noting that with this approaching El Niño, there are indicators that have not previously been seen at tracking levels. “There is a little unknown about what is developing,” he said. “When the oceans start to warm [at levels that are being recorded] it’s an indication that the atmosphere is too hot.”
He noted that deep ocean temperatures are currently unusually warm, portending an extended El Niño season — one that could begin in early fall and last into late spring, with the most severe precipitation continuing into late spring. Indications are that this approaching El Niño could rival the three greatest previous ones — in 1972-73, 1982-83 and 1997-98.
“We’re going to be seeing a lot of precipitation in Southern California even while the drought persists,” said Tardy. “To make up for the two seasons of moisture we have lost we’d have to average 67 inches of precipitation this winter. The chances of that are zero. The bottom line is that we have dug ourselves into a prolonged precipitation deficit.”
The coming rainy season is, he explained, shaping up to possess a potentially catastrophic confluence of circumstances: dry compacted soil, major runoff and erosion, loosened boulders blocking roads and damaging structures, flooding potential, weakened tree root structure, falling trees and Santa Ana winds.
“The bottom line,” said Tardy, “is getting educated and making wise choices.”
Both the Geisingers talked about measures to be taken now to prepare: sculpt and contour grade land to “shape” and guide water runoff; increase ground cover and mulch; capture water runoff on site and have “multi-phase” backup measures for capture devices and systems that overflow; and drill holes into compacted soil driveways to allow water to permeate. “All these features require maintenance at least seasonally,” said Julian. “You must dig silt out of swales and containment berms. Hire a professional who knows about landscaping and water harvesting.”
Deborah warned of weakened tree roots. “Look at where a tree is leaning as well as gopher activity,” she said. “Also thin out smaller trees so the larger ones can survive. Drill holes in the ground to capture water and keep it as much as you can on the site.”
MDP President Mike Feyder said that his organization would be posting weather warnings on its site at www.idyllwildemergency.com. He also suggested a future meeting to discuss in more detail ways to prepare for the coming El Niño and how to prevent potential damage for a protracted wet winter.
Below is a video of the first half hour of the meeting: