It is raining in California. And some of us are nervous about it. Only occasionally do we experience the river dance; this year the Coyote was a trickster.
The waters have receded from the great flood of late February 2017 here in San Jose, but respect for the power of water in flow will not fade from my memory. Living alongside this creek has been a blessing and a daily connection with Sacred Water. Coyote Creek flows through our lower back yard, but we cannot usually see it unless we go down the stairs to look down into the deep ravine where it usually flows. Very rarely is the water even visible from the house. In late February, our creek became the Mighty Coyote River. From our high ground, we watched Mother Nature in all her force and terror and wonder.
Our house is unique in being built on one of the highest spots in downtown San Jose. Despite living next to a creek that floods from time to time, there has never been flood water in the house. We regularly get phone calls from friends who check in on us when it rains a lot, despite us having explained this over and over again for years. Water will always seek the lowest point, and in the grand scheme of downtown San Jose, we are on relatively high ground. This takes on a whole new meaning during a flood event. And this year we wondered if high was going to be high enough.
Our river is more or less engineered, and floods far less often than it did before the two dams upstream, Anderson and Coyote, were built. The water district is always playing a guessing game between saving enough water for us to drink in the year ahead, and letting out enough water so that those of us who live downstream don’t get flooded out.
This year, the weather had a hand in things, delivering far more rain than we have had in years, with little to no intervals between storms. The weather forecasters call these “atmospheric rivers.” We knew the water district managers were letting out water early on when the creek level rose, but nobody really knew how much rain would come the third week of February.
My first status update on social media, a comprehensive way to keep in touch with a lot of people, was as early as February 15, when I pictured my water altar and captioned it: “In the flow of the rainy season here in middle California. Love for the waterkeepers of the world.”
This was meant as much for my husband Pat as anyone else, a kind of late Valentine, for he is a longtime water expert, having served three decades as an elected Santa Clara Valley Water District board member and employee, and now in his “retirement” teaches water policy, water management, and water law at two universities. During heavy rains, he is usually to be found reading the district’s stream, reservoir, and precipitation gauges to find out what is happening in our creek.
Anderson Dam began to spill on Saturday, February 18. Those of us who live by the creek, and presumably the water managers, knew then that if the rain kept coming, which it was forecast to do, we would have a flood. Pat moved our chickens up from the lower yard on Sunday, to their refuge under the deck. The lower yard began to fill.
By Monday, February 20, I reported, “That river, she is RISING. . . and the rain is still pouring down. The dams upstream are full and spilling . . . Coyote Creek is true to her proper name of River now” – a river being defined as a stream that flows to the ocean; how our river became downgraded to a creek is a mystery. The trees had started falling by then, and we could hear the sound of chainsaws even in the downpour. Offers of help began coming in from friends. The chicken coop began to slowly disappear under the rising water.
On Tuesday, February 21, Flood Day, we were up early. After the cloudy morning, the sun came out. The lower yard and the chicken coop were still filling with water. Upstream, in south county, the gullies and storm drains, the asphalt parking lots and saturated yards, the rivulets and flash floods on the freeways and all the drops of water that had fallen in the previous days made their way inexorably toward the river, flowing, flowing. I wrote at 8:34 a.m. “And still she rises, as the runoff from the upper watershed swells the flow. She’ll keep rising all day.”
The chicken coop was submerged by noon on the 21st, and still the water came higher.
Before long we could see the water from the house, and hear the rushing sound of it.
By mid afternoon, the water had risen almost to the underdeck refuge of the chickens, so they had to be evacuated to house level. Most of our neighbors were out on the street or down on the bridge, checking in with each other about the creek levels.
William Street had filled with water and was closed.
Everyone was trying to decide whether they should flee their houses, and in the absence of direction from officials, made their own choices. Many along our street seemed to have trust in Pat’s assurance that we wouldn’t flood and kept to their homes.
One of our householders enjoyed a drink from the swiftly moving water.
But the water was moving fast, and sure footing was necessary if venturing near.
A friend commented: Amazing that you got to be so close to that moving water and be safe.
My water wizard was completely confident in his assessment that our house would be safe. He may have been smiling at that stage, but the water was still rising, and I was considering that I might pack a bag after all.
Just before the sun went down, the river was at peak flow. As dark fell, we could see the city lights reflected in it and hear its course as it thundered past.
The river stopped climbing the stairs as evening came. Just as Pat predicted, the river had overflowed its banks just upstream of us, near Highway 280, and flowed down the old railroad corridor and began flooding the old Olinder neighborhood east of us. We were more in danger of flooding from that direction now, but the water seemed to slow its advance sometime in the evening as it found its low point and sought further advance to the north of us. I walked the neighborhood nervously in the dark, accompanied by many doing the same thing, some out on the streets because their houses were inundated.
So, we stayed, essentially on an island of dry land between the roaring river to the west, and the slowly creeping water from the east. Our house is in the green circle on the map below.
Late that evening I wrote, “It’s been an exhausting, exhilarating, hysterical, euphoric day. The creek she rose higher than in anyone’s memory. We had visitors serenade us, help us re-rescue our chickens, and invite us to sleepovers. We and the river seem to holding steady now and we are still high and dry.” Calls and emails began coming in from all over the country and the world, as people saw on news reports that our house was right in the middle of the evacuation zone.
Ultimately, the water came to within a half block of us from the direction of the park, a block and a half from the other direction to the east and north, and about 20 feet from the back of the house to the west. After a fitful night of sleep, interspersed with more flashlight checks on the creek level, and ignoring the incoming buzzes on my phone of ongoing evacuation notices, finally in Spanish and Vietnamese as well as English, we woke to a sunny day.
My relieved status update late the following morning: “we are high and dry, and still in our home. The water is slowly receding, but there is still a mighty river in our back yard . . . we stayed, essentially on an island of dry land between the roaring river and the slowly creeping water from the other direction. I believe the singing, praying, candle lighting, spellworking, beseeching, berating, and offerings of sacred tobacco and whiskey all played a part in our deliverance, supported by my resident water guru’s deep and longstanding knowledge of the hydrology and engineered modifications of this watershed. Blessed be science! Blessed be faith!”
I did not mention my raw lower lip from my habit of chewing it during times of extreme anxiety.
The next morning, a walk around the neighborhood told the story. The giant eucalyptus in the chicken coop showed the high water mark.
About a block and a half from our house, the streets were quiet but still filled with water. Residents in these houses had been evacuated by boat in the wee hours of the morning.
In William Street Park, the flood flow had receded a bit, but the ducks were still happily swimming around in the park.
And in the afternoon, when the terror had passed, I had a private moment in my back yard with the water and light and magic.
Up to 14,000 people were flooded out of their homes, and many more had damage to their buildings, yards and cars. Evacuation centers were set up for people whose homes were later invaded by dangerous molds, and even now some people are still living there. Fortunately there was no loss of life.
Pat began being interviewed for news reports. Visitors and former neighbors from as long ago as 25 years dropped in to see us and the creek.
The yard finally emptied after a few days and the chickens were returned to their home.
Everything had a scoured look, but soon the green sprouts began to cover this. We are still hearing chain saw aplenty from all the trees that were downed by their saturated roots.
Because we are an urban creek, we had plenty of debris. Now that the trees are leafing out this is less obvious, and we’ve dispatched most of the trash.
Many news stories reported that this was the heaviest flooding in California in memory, but this is an old story in California. It is sobering to read this account of extreme flooding in the very early days of California, long before anyone had ever heard of climate change. “That winter was a very wet winter,” writes Joan Didion in Where I Was From, “raining night and day for weeks. It was always called the winter of the Flood as the levee broke on the east side of Sacramento and the city was a lake of water, boats running up and down the streets and small houses floating around like dry goods boxes. This was in 1861 and 1862.” As a descendant of these Californians, she has a deep respect for the water management in this state, and wrote rather lyrically of a visit to the Operations Center of the State Water Project in an essay fittingly titled “Holy Water,” in 1979 when the state was coming out of one of its cyclical droughts.
A flood can come fast or slow, a rush of water or a seeping, advancing tide, but when it comes, there is no stopping it. Sandbags help, levees might hold the water, but only just and only for a while. History is full of great floods. It is the way of water, to flood, or to not rain and bring drought. We have come to expect that the engineers can make any land habitable, can always make the right decisions and hold nature back.
There were many mistakes made during this flood: warnings and notifications of the coming waters could and should have been better coordinated and delivered to residents who were most in danger. In some cases, people received their first official alert after their homes were filled with water.
Surely climate change is having its say, and we will see more extreme weather events. At the same time, it has always been thus in California. The waters rise and recede and we who live alongside them, who might forget that great Nature is not so far away in our city jungle, are reminded when the water is at our doorstep.
So while I watched the merciless rush of water go by in our backyard, and listened to its rumbling voice from inside my house, I had that deep helpless feeling that every ancestor I ever had must have felt in the presence of flood, drought, fire, hurricane, earthquake. We live on this Earth at Her pleasure. Our clever builders plan and promise, but in the end, She will have her way with us.
It is raining in California. And some of us are right to be nervous about it.