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Then & Now: Citrus Heights residents reflect on 1997 floods, rain

Flooding near a creek at Rusch Park was observed during recent storms in January 2023. // S. Williams

By Sara Beth Williams–
In the early weeks of 2023, a stream of back-to-back storms in Citrus Heights caused flooding and damage across the city and region, but this wasn’t the first time Citrus Heights has weathered such storms.

The recent series of heavy rain storms slammed into Citrus Heights, toppling hundreds of trees, downing power lines and causing significant leaking roofs in businesses. Multiple local and regional creeks overflowed their banks, including Cripple Creek and Arcade Creek. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District called it the “most damaging string of storms in SMUD history.”

During the first City Council meeting of 2023, Citrus Heights City Manager Ash Feeney reported that the city’s General Services Department fielded more than 400 service requests during the two weeks of storms, a volume of requests that was three times the average.

The warmer rainstorms, termed “atmospheric rivers” by meteorologists, were reminiscent of storms in past years, including the historic warm rains that caused catastrophic flooding in 1997.

Heavy rain and flooding in 1997
Following heavy snow in the mountains at the end of December 1996, a warm atmospheric river brought with it steady rain and winds, coupled with high daytime temperatures. Major flooding in the Sacramento area began on Jan. 1, 1997, the same day Citrus Heights officially became a city.

According to an article posted by KCRA, the western slopes of the Sierra saw “10 times as much rain” as the valley, where they normally would see only two to three times as much. All of the warm rain and subsequent high temperatures resulted in extreme snowmelt. Rivers and creeks rose fast, overflowing their banks. Multiple levee breaks caused catastrophic flooding throughout Sacramento County.

Larry Fritz, president of the Citrus Heights historical society, explained that the storm had “a long-term impact” and that it prompted the Sacramento region to make preparations for future storms.

“The ’97 storm was much worse and came close to causing catastrophic flooding,” Fritz said in an email to The Sentinel, adding that locally, the storm 26 years ago, caused similar structural damage, including toppling trees and fences.

According to the California Department of Water Resources website, reports submitted after the flooding in 1997 produced “more than 50 recommendations to improve California’s resilience to flood events.”

Former Citrus Heights councilwoman Jeannie Bruins said she had all three sides of her fence blown down in past storms. During the 1997 storms years ago, she said many of her neighbor’s homes at the time were threatened by floodwaters when nearby Cripple Creek overflowed its banks.

“I remember Sylvan Road being impassable because it was under water where the road dips in front of the church,” Bruins said, adding that one of her neighbors had to pump water from their overflowing pool.

Local business owner Bill Van Duker had similar memories of the 1997 rains.

“We lived in a cul-da-sac that slopes down and the Arcade Creek there overflowed its banks by three or four feet deep,” Van Duker said in an interview. “It made the two homes at the bottom of the cul-da-sac inaccessible by vehicle.”

Better prepared for the future
Bruins and Van Duker both said Sacramento County wasn’t regularly cleaning out local creeks and other waterways, and that those often overflowed during heavy rains.

Van Duker concurred that Citrus Heights has done a “greatly improved job” compared to the county in keeping the creeks cleaned out, adding that it allows the creeks to handle a higher volume of water during heavy or back-to-back storms.

City crews are out filling potholes after storm. Here’s how to report one

“Even though the rains [in 2022-23] were as intense as 1997, we did not experience flooding in our neighborhood,” Van Duker said.

Feeney, the current city manager, also credits the city’s storm drain and creek maintenance programs as having “really paid off” in minimizing damage in the recent storms.

“I know there was flooding out there on certain streets, but (the city) did not see widespread flooding that we’ve seen sometimes in the past — and this was a major event,” Feeney said in remarks to the City Council on Jan. 12.

According to the city’s website, after a 12-year battle with the County of Sacramento, the Citrus Heights voters approved the measure to incorporate the city on Nov. 5, 1996, and the incorporation became effective Jan. 1, 1997.

“Once Citrus Heights took over the maintenance of the creeks and waterways, we cleaned them out and have kept them clean,” Bruins said in an email to the Sentinel. “No more flooding!”

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The city now has its own Stormwater Program, which oversees management of 26 miles of creeks, about 60 miles of ditches and channels, 62 bridges, hundreds of miles of pipe, and “thousands of catch basins and manholes,” according to the city’s website. The city has also created a Drainage Master Plan, which was enacted in four phases, beginning with neighborhood areas deemed high priority based on a “lack of defined drainage systems.”

A request for proposals was sent out by the city following the recent storms seeking professional services to repair erosion on Cripple Creek. City spokeswoman Meghan Huber clarified in an email Friday that the project is not due to effects from recent storms but is part of a “proactive assessment of needs within our system to help address creek bank, canal, outfall, and culvert erosion.”

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