Mike Morrison remembers watching in awe as Ashland Creek roared through the Plaza after jumping its banks on New Year’s Day, 1997. And while the recent rain shower which followed last week’s snowstorm may still lead to some small-scale flooding locally, Ashland’s public works superintendent is fairly certain, for many reasons, that the city will, at least for now, avoid another devastating event.
“We work with the National Weather Service and see what the forecasts are, and Mount Ashland has a weather station up there that I watch a lot,” Morrison said. “ODOT (Oregon Department of Transportation) has the road cams and we keep an eye on those because those include temperatures at different elevations. … At this point, we’re not seeing scenarios like ‘97, but we’re watching the weather pretty close to make sure that it stays that way.”
The storm that dumped a near-record 8.3 inches of snow at the Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport on Jan. 4, combined with an expected 1.2 inches of rain on the valley floor between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning has created conditions ripe for flooding, and the National Weather Service issued a flood advisory for Jackson County until midnight Wednesday.
The one-two punch caused an avalanche on Highway 62 that closed Crater Lake National Park and triggered a landslide near Galice, but as of Tuesday afternoon there were no reports of flooding in Ashland, according to Morrison and Ashland Fire & Rescue interim Deputy Chief Matt Freiheit.
“I know that the battalion chief over the weekend was keeping a good eye with public works and (the Ashland Police Department),” Freiheit said, “and they had a plan in place ready to start calling people in and dealing with some of the emergencies that might arise, like when the trees fall and block the waterways we have equipment to pull those debris out to clear the waterways. But again, like public works said, we really didn’t see the flows that we were ready for.”
Part of that is luck, and part is thanks to smart planning. Until Reeder Reservoir is full, the city controls how much water flows into Ashland Creek. Currently, Morrison said, the city is releasing approximately 43 million gallons a day and the reservoir is about 65 percent full.
“We’ve had the systems in place for a lot of years and every winter we intentionally lower our reservoir to absorb storm flows,” he said. “The reservoir’s not nearly big enough to stop any kind of major event, but it gives us the ability to control it or gain a couple hours if one of those major events does happen.”
Morrison also noted the infrastructure improvements the city made in the wake of the New Year’s Day flood which greatly improved the creek’s capacity to handle high water flows.
“The potential is still there for that to happen but it’s less likely now than it was then,” he said. “The biggest one was that in ’97 there was a culvert that Ashland Creek went through right there at Winburn Way. That has been upgraded to a bridge that, from what I understand, is about three times the capacity of what that culvert was. So that was kind of a bottleneck at the time that isn’t there anymore.”
If the creek does overflow and threatens to run through the Plaza like it did nearly 20 years ago, residents would be alerted beforehand because the city keeps a close eye on trouble spots when the possibility arises.
“They have automated systems, but at times like this there’s a person 24 hours a day monitoring," Freiheit said. "And we’ll start to see those rises and the city will activate their high-water plan and … get the departments rolling to mitigate some of the hazards, like removing debris, setting up barriers, evacuating.
“But it’s different than a dam break. A dam break’s almost instant. We have minutes versus this high water, it could take an hour, it could take four hours, it could take six hours.”
Residents can help themselves and their neighbors, Freiheit added, by clearing their storm drains of fallen branches, leaves and other debris. If those clogs are bad enough, the water will accumulate alongside city streets and freeze overnight.
The Ashland Public Works department has been busy clearing storm drains that are known problem areas throughout town, but if residents chipped in it would be a “huge advantage,” Freiheit said.
For those that do encounter high water, Freiheit says they should call public works and stay away, even if it looks harmless.
“Never drive through flowing water because it doesn’t take very much to actually move a vehicle, and because you can’t see what’s under the water,” he said. “If the road’s actually washed away, you can get stuck or start going downstream in your vehicle. And stay away from swift water. It doesn’t take a lot of water. There’s a lot of energy there. Even ankle-deep, mid-calf (water) could sweep a person out. But also, there’s debris coming down the water that you don’t see so you get hit by a rock or a log and it tumbles you and then you’re in the water.”
Braving even a shallow-looking flow could prove disastrous, Freiheit said. Plus, the nearest water rescue team is stationed about 30 minutes away.
“There is a water rescue team with Jackson County Fire District 3 (in White City) that we can call, but it would take a while for them to get here. But we have ropes. We’d throw ropes, you reach things. There’s a lot of things you would do before even a trained person would get into the water.”
National Weather Service hydrologist Spencer Higginson said the NWS issued an advisory for Jackson County rather than the more ominous “flood warning” because there’s “just minor flooding,” such as a lane of traffic blocked an overflowed pond or a plugged culvert.
The amount of rainfall that’s dumped over the next day or so could change that, however, especially if the freezing level rises, as expected.
“The next roughly 24 hours I would say is when we’re going to have the bulk of the rainfall,” Higginson said Tuesday. “Any rainfall left to come is mostly going to be in the next 24 hours and then it’ll taper off fairly quickly after that. So a day and a half, two days maybe, we’ll see rainfall, but mostly the next 24 hours. And the freezing level I believe is going to be fairly high during that time period, so … a lot of that mid-elevation snow is going to see some melting. So we’re definitely not out of the woods.
“Once the rain stops, even with the snow melt at least it’ll just be the snow melt contributing to the runoff. But right now it’s going to be the snowmelt and the rain fall, so it’s kind of a double-dipping situation.”
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.