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What the coming snowmelt will mean for California, already hit hard by winter floods


To California, where flooding and storms have caused billions of dollars in estimated damage already this year. State officials are now warning the floods in the central part of the state could linger through most of the year.

NPR's Nathan Rott is in the Central Valley reporting on this and joins us now. Hey, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey. Good to talk to you.

LIMBONG: So some places could be flooded for a year? How does that work?

ROTT: Yeah. Well, snow - that's the short answer. You know, basically, California right now has a historic snowpack. In parts of the southern Sierra Nevada mountain, snow levels are at more than 300% of normal. And most of that frozen water is going to melt as temperatures warm up. And water officials, you know, they don't know when. They don't know how fast. And those are very crucial questions because a fast melt could overwhelm dams and levees and lead to more flooding. What they do know is that at some point, all this snow is going to come down out of those mountains to where I am on the valley floor.

LIMBONG: The Central Valley floor specifically, right? And what are you seeing as you travel around the region?

ROTT: I'll be honest, Andrew, it is wild. South of where we are now in the Tulare Basin, this long-lost lake that used to exist in the valley floor before, you know, most of the water was diverted for farming and towns has basically come back to life. You've probably seen pictures. I'll tell you, pictures don't do it justice. The scale of the flooding is really unlike anything I've ever seen. It's truly like there's an inland sea with telephone poles sticking out of the water and the occasional piece of abandoned farming equipment. And there's even seagulls flying around overhead.

The water surrounds a couple of sides of this small agricultural town that we've been spending some time in called Corcoran. And earlier today, we stood on one of the levees protecting the town with its city manager, Greg Gatzka. And he said all of that water we're seeing was just from the rain that California experienced earlier this winter.

GREG GATZKA: But we know that we have that snowpack, which is the ominous thing that we can see in the horizon that's going to be coming our way once it starts melting. It's going to combine, and it's going to cojoin with all this water out here. That water is then going to be sitting against our levee. We have to endure that for seven months to two years, most likely.

ROTT: Two years because the closest equivalent to what's happening now, a flood in 1983, left water in Tulare Lake for that long. So it gives you a bit of a sense of how significant this flood is.

LIMBONG: To this point, what's actually flooding right now?

ROTT: So at this point, it's mostly farmland. You know, some people have lost homes. There's definitely a lot of anxiety in places like Corcoran, where people are watching water sit on those protective barriers, those levees, wondering how much higher it'll go. But the main impact at this point has been on agriculture, mainly almonds, pistachios, grapes, alfalfa. I had dinner last night with a county supervisor near Tulare Lake who estimates the agricultural losses in his region have already hit $1 billion. And again, that's before the snowpack has really reached this area. So the damages could be much higher when all is said and done.

LIMBONG: You know, Nate, there's all this concern about flooding when, you know, for years, we've been talking about drought in California, right?

ROTT: Yeah. I mean, drought's old news, right, Andrew? No, California and much of the West has been in a historic megadrought. It's the driest period in at least 1,200 years. Scientists say, that is partially being driven by human-caused climate change. That larger drought is not over. But in California, what water officials call the surface water drought - that is the water on the surface of the Earth - right? - the snow, the water in reservoirs, the rivers - that is mostly over because of this ridiculously wet winter the state has just experienced.

The West Coast has been hit by more than 30 atmospheric rivers over this water season. Those are these high-level bands of tropical moisture which caused flash floods on the coast and inland and created this massive snowpack. But right now, we're in this kind of slow-moving disaster phase, where people know more flooding is coming. They're trying to prepare. But how fast this melts is kind of out of anyone's hands or knowledge.

LIMBONG: NPR's Nate Rott. Thanks, Nate.

ROTT: Yeah. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.