If the predictions are right, this could be one of the wettest winters in many years.
Earlier this month, representatives from agencies and towns from around the Verde Valley met in Cottonwood to discuss this year’s projected El Niño, which is expected to bring warmer temperatures and plenty of precipitation. Thus, a greater chance of flooding.
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“The meeting was to inform local officials about the possibility of greater-than-normal precipitation predictions for this winter,” said Chief Terry Keller, of the Camp Verde Fire District, who helped facilitate the preparedness meeting. “It enabled us to ponder the possibilities of flooding, and to review the current plans and strategies in place at the local level.”
Aside from the El Niño discussion by the National Weather Service, other presentations were delivered by Yavapai County Emergency Management and Yavapai County Flood Control District. Local emergency responders also reported on their capabilities and preparations as well as known target hazards.
Attendees included representatives from the city of Cottonwood, city of Sedona, city of Cottonwood Engineering and Public Works, Cottonwood Police and Fire Departments, Cottonwood Regional Communications Center, Clarkdale Police and Public Works, the Clarkdale, Sedona, Montezuma-Rimrock, Camp Verde and Verde Valley fire districts, Arizona State Parks-Verde River Greenway, Yavapai County Roads Department, Yavapai County Flood Control District, Prescott National Forest’s Verde Ranger District, and Beaver Creek School.
Keller added that the Town of Camp Verde was not able to attend due to a scheduled all-hands training exercise that was planned for the same day.
The National Weather Service has forecast a strong El Niño for the winter. As a result, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Winter Outlook shows probabilities for above-normal precipitation over much of California, Arizona and southern Nevada.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, “Being predominantly a desert, Arizona has a lower risk of river flooding seen in other states in the Midwest or east coast. However, because of the natural conditions, Arizona is highly susceptible to flash flooding. Additionally, the Salt and Gila rivers flow through Phoenix and have historically flooded during heavy rains.”
It goes on to say the state also may face flood risks from rapid snow melt in mountainous areas. Historically, strong El Niño episodes have featured an increased frequency of occurrence of above-normal precipitation over the state from December to March. For this period totals have averaged about 140 percent of normal precipitation in the northern part of the state and up to 180 percent of normal in the southern part of the state.
El Niño is characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Pacific, as opposed to La Niña, which is characterized by unusually cold ocean temperatures in the same region, the FEMA document stated.
“So if cold temperatures are seen through January, with snow accumulation on the rim, and then see things warm a bit with a heavy rainfall event, we could experience flooding,” Keller said. “I am not overly concerned because those three parameters have to be met — snow pack, warm temperatures and a significant rainfall.”
He said certain areas are more susceptible to flooding than others in the Verde Valley.
“Obviously any low-lying area adjacent to a waterway that is fed by snow pack from the rim is susceptible to flooding,” he said.
These areas include Sycamore Canyon, Dry Creek, Oak Creek, Dry Beaver Creek, Wet Beaver Creek, Clear Creek and the Verde River, he said. Localities include low-lying areas adjacent to these waterways in Clarkdale, Cottonwood, Sedona, Cornville, Lake Montezuma, Rimrock, McGuireville, Camp Verde and Verde Lakes. Since all of the streams, except Clear Creek, enter the Verde River above Camp Verde, he said high flows in all of these combine with Verde River to make Camp Verde particularly vulnerable.
When it comes to potential flooding, Keller said most residents who live along waterways are pretty well versed with how to prepare in the event it occurs.
“Of course, when the water is very high, there is little one can do to stop it and it is best to just get out of the way and evacuate,” he said. “Those with the potential for this should prepare by having critical items ready in the event they need to move out quickly. Prepping important documents, photographs, clothing, valuables, etc. will help speed up an evacuation.”
Moving vehicles to higher ground can help save them as well, he said. All residents should have nonperishable food stored for several days on hand to prepare in case the weather knocks out the power or a roadway is damaged and access is limited. A battery-powered radio to get news updates might also keep one informed in the event a resident loses power and can’t access news and the Internet.
Sedona Community Development Director Audree Juhlin and City Engineer Andy Dickey attended the preparedness class in Cottonwood and both have concerns when it comes to what may occur.
“This season is currently predicted to be one of the top three El Niños experienced over the past 30 years and may even be one of the strongest El Niños of all time,” Juhlin said. “But we were also cautioned that these are only predictions based on current conditions and past events. Considering this, the season has the potential to be significant as far as storm events.”
Juhlin said they were told that by the end of December, weather patterns will begin to change. At that time, a lot more storm activity is predicted and residents should prepare for a 50 to 60 percent wetter season than normal.
“It is predicted that we will also see an increase in the number of weather events per year,” she said. “Most likely we will see storm after storm after storm, particularly in January, February and March. During these months we can expect to be hit the hardest, based on previous El Niños.”
She added that an interesting fact that was shared is that a normal winter season produces on average 15.3 feet of snow in Flagstaff — a strong El Niño can produce 50 percent more.
“My concern is that when you have snow pack in the upper Oak Creek Basin and then a rain event occurs, it results in flooding,” Dickey said. “Those living along the creek need to plan ahead and prepare their homes for possible flooding and in the event access is cut off across the creek. My feeling is that there’s going to be a much higher likelihood of flooding this winter than we have had in many years.”