Another major flood along Russian River raises question of what’s to be done

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Tetanus shot. Bleach. Protective gloves. Power washers.

R3 Hotel owner Jeff Bridges has the drill down.

So even after 8½ feet of floodwater inundated his Guerneville hotel, bar and restaurant last week, Bridges viewed it as a problem with a solution well in hand.

“This will be my fourth redo at the Triple R, so I just take it in stride,” said Bridges, who started at the downtown resort four major floods ago and bought the place with his partner in 2011. “It will be a total gut job and renovation. But it will reopen bigger, better and more sparkly than before.”

Like many who call the lower Russian River home, Bridges understands the trade-off that comes from settling in the region. Its sun-baked beaches popular with tourists and locals alike belie a long history of giant floods, with this week’s the worst in nearly a quarter century.

“You can’t stop Mother Nature,” Bridges, 58, said, “and, quite frankly, it’s the price we pay to live in paradise.”

It’s a common refrain in the communities along the lower river, where for decades residents and merchants have endured periodic disasters and recovery. People here pride themselves on the grit that allows them to rebound from destruction wrought by a rebellious waterway time and again.

“The community really pulls together in those ways,” said Jeniffer Wertz, a member of the Guerneville Community Alliance and representative on the municipal advisory council for the lower river.

But there is real grief and suffering, as well, particularly among the uninsured and the inexperienced — those who may be newer to the region and perhaps faced the flood unprepared.

Some are reeling from major losses caused by the rampaging floodwaters, which countywide affected an estimated 2,600 homes and businesses, with damage totaling more than $155 million. As usual, the river area saw the worst flooding.

“There’s a lot of other things I’d rather be doing than starting over,” said Rio Nido Roadhouse owner Brad Metzger, 49.

He described it as a slow-motion disaster that swallowed the business into which he and his wife sunk a good deal of their money, time and attention over the past decade. He watched from a friend’s house across the road as the floodwaters rose toward the eaves of the low-lying bar and restaurant.

“One of the most surreal things of my entire life,” he said. “I would not wish this on anyone,” he said.

Yet federal flood loss figures show that Metzger is far from alone.

Sonoma County ranks No. 1 in the state for repetitive losses under the National Flood Insurance Program, accounting for a third of those payments for assistance, totaling nearly $61 million since 1978 — more than half of the payments made to the state’s top 10 repetitive loss communities — according to Federal Emergency Management Agency data.

About 5 percent of unincorporated Sonoma County, or 77 square miles, lies within the 100-year flood plain, the area deemed by FEMA as having a 1 percent chance of a flood in any given year. The Russian River and its tributaries impact the largest swath of that territory, with other streams and water bodies making up the remainder, according to the Sonoma County Hazard Mitigation Plan.

The current document, approved in 2017, lists 3,508 structures in flood zones, including nearly 2,500 homes and 438 commercial or industrial buildings.

Pressure has long been exerted on local officials to curb flood losses on the lower Russian River. Briefly, after the record flood in January 1986, there was some flirtation, theoretical mostly, with the idea of relocating the town of Guerneville, according to former Supervisor Ernie Carpenter.

His tenure representing the west county, from 1981 through 1996, spanned two major floods. The precedent for the idea came from a midwestern town that had been moved from the path of the Mississippi River after repeated, catastrophic floods there.

Though discussed in numerous meetings among county staff members — but never publicly, as far as he recalls — moving Guerneville “was never viable,” Carpenter said.

Geography, of course, is a complicating factor. The lower Russian River cuts a narrow path through a gap in the coastal hills, leaving little room for floodwaters to roam beyond the loose subdivisions and towns on its banks.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, the current 5th District representative, said she was struck by how extensively and forcefully the river had overtaken that landscape. She saw it from a helicopter flight in the hours after the river crested late Wednesday. It sprawled across vineyards, roads and neighborhoods, turning individual homes into islets.

“You know, normally when you stand in the middle of Guerneville, you feel like you’re in civilization. It’s a vibrant, thriving community,” she said. “When you see the river that huge, suddenly the community feels very small and fragile.”

The unincorporated town is home to about 4,570 people, with a median household income of about $54,000. It is the largest in a string of communities where residents of varying fortunes live side by side. Some are clearly in better position than others to regain their footing when the river runs wild.

The floodplain offers some of the most affordable housing in Sonoma County, and though it’s a widely shared notion that people who live there do so knowing the risks, for many “it’s not necessarily a choice,” said Hopkins.

“Sometimes, it’s a necessity,” she said. “And some of the most affordable housing of all is the trailer parks in the floodplain, and often those are the first to go under.”

Renters in her district who have little to no control over post-flood repairs have expressed particular concern in the wake of the disaster.

“In general, the Russian River community is very resilient,” Hopkins said. “ I have also heard from people saying, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to come back from this one.’ It’s a mixed bag. The majority have a sense of resilience, of ‘We will come back and we will come back stronger.’ But there are also people who are deciding river life isn’t for them.”

But the Russian River is fundamental to the life and economy of the region, flowing 110 miles from its headwaters east of Willits, in Mendocino County, past cities and towns, agricultural fields and vast open spaces.

Supplemented as well by diverted flows from the Eel River, and Dry Creek, a major tributary, the river supplies drinking water to more than 600,000 North Bay customers, sustains the lucrative wine industry and provides growing opportunities for outdoor recreation.

It drains 1,485 square miles, nearly 90 percent of which lies outside the flood-prone communities of Forestville, Rio Nido, Guerneville and Monte Rio, where the river narrows as it passes through the Coast Range to its mouth at the Pacific Ocean at Jenner.

During periods of heavy rain like the three-day storm that stalled overhead last week, flooding occurs at various locations along the main stem. Parts of Alexander Valley, for example along Lytton Station Road, were transformed by floodwaters into a vast lake more than 6 feet deep.

But it’s in the last 25 miles or so, when the river has accumulated most its runoff, where it can inflict the greatest damage during a major flood. It has flooded there in 36 of the past 64 years, though sometimes only to a minor level.

Flood stage in Guerneville is officially 32 feet. People start to pay close attention when the river’s rise is projected at 38 feet. Last week it crested at 45.4 feet, the highest level since a storm in early 1995, when the river peaked at 48.01 feet.

The only larger flood in the past four decades came in 1986, when the river reached 48.9 feet. That came after completion of Warm Springs Dam on Dry Creek, impounding Lake Sonoma, the region’s largest reservoir. That and the smaller Lake Mendocino, on the East Fork of the Russian River, have significantly reduced the severity and frequency of major floods.

In 1986, they were calculated to have reduced the height of floodwaters in Guerneville by 4 feet, the first major test after completion of Warm Springs Dam in 1982, according to the county flood mitigation plan.

Yet that event, followed by a trio of catastrophic floods in the mid-1990s where damage totaled about $100 million, showed that the dams would not be a panacea for flooding. The disasters attracted renewed attention from FEMA and fueled local efforts to find new ways to reduce flood exposure. FEMA even considered buying up some riverfront neighborhoods at first only to be turned back by prohibitively expensive real estate.

The next step was the first in a series of phased federal grants that have funneled about $19.5 million to date into elevating more than 300 homes above the 100-year flood level, including eight recently finished projects and 17 in the pipeline, according to Permit Sonoma representatives.

At least 200 of the grant-funded projects involved repeatedly flooded homes. Controversy surrounded the first round of grants, which excluded homes directly in the floodway and most likely to be damaged when the river overran its banks. A shift in FEMA policy later prioritized homes particularly at risk of flooding, according to the county.

The remodels come with a local match of 25 percent, by the county or homeowner. Some homeowners fund the whole thing themselves, an average cost of about $200,000, according to the county.

Since 1995, the county has issued at total of 725 permits to raise homes.

But the river remains an unpredictable force, one that could give rise to even more destructive floods in an era of increasingly extreme weather, experts say.

“It’s not the first time that they’ve gone through a flood and, sadly, it won’t be the last, with climate change and weather extremes,” said former Supervisor Efren Carrillo, Hopkins’ predecessor representing the west county. “It’s the new normal.”

The best models predict more condensed periods of precipitation and stronger atmospheric rivers — the intense, moisture-laden storms that account for the majority of the region’s rainfall and 89 percent of its floods.

“In our water world, they pretty much dictate everything,” said Jay Jasperse, chief engineer for Sonoma Water, region’s chief supplier of drinking water.

The increased climate volatility also is expected to factor in greater exposure to drought and catastrophic wildfire.

Improvements in weather forecasting and related dam management may help maximize the flood protection afforded by the Russian River’s two reservoirs, water officials say.

But Hopkins has her sights on the opportunities to tame floodwaters in the river’s middle reaches, starting near Windsor and upstream, where it broadens and meanders more freely in a floodplain less constricted by roads and other development.

County officials have been contemplating a strategy involving public lands north of Riverfront Park where old gravel mining pits might allow for overflow in the future, Hopkins said, “to allow the river to breathe,” spread it out, slow it down and allow for natural groundwater recharge.

In the meantime, there is the existing disaster to get through — a recovery barely two days underway.

Metzger, the Rio Nido Roadhouse owner, and his very-pregnant wife, Raena, are grateful for the support of friends who have come out in droves to help them as they try to save their business, a key hub in the local social scene.

In the hours after the water receded, the visitors arrived. Some grabbed a mop or a squeegee or a hose. Others started moving future and equipment.

“This place is so much fun,” said Metzger, in mud-streaked olive shorts and a matching T-shirt. “We have a great time, we have a fantastic customer base who are so good at supporting us. During the summer, there’s 150 people on the lawn with their kids; they all know each other and the pool’s going. I just stand back in awe some times.”

Getting back to that lively state is what fuels many inclined to stick it out here, said longtime Guerneville resident Beth Rudometkin.

Yes, the river floods — but not all years.

“Come here in the summertime,” Rudometkin said, “and you’ll see why we live here year-round.”

Staff writers Austin Murphy and Martin Espinoza contributed reporting. You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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