Big rivers kept in check as residents grappled with havoc from streams, springs and snowmelt in Madera and Fresno counties

March 18, 2023
Gregory Weaver, Fresnoland
by Gregory Weaver, Fresnoland
Mill Creek, a typically small tributary to the Kings River, was flooding at more than 18,000 cfs below Pine Flat Dam during the March 10 storm. Gregory Weaver / Fresnoland
Gregory Weaver, Fresnoland
Gregory Weaver, Fresnoland

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  Editor’s note: This story was done in collaboration with SJV Water and Fresnoland.


In Fresno and Madera counties, it was smaller streams and snowmelt that caused most of the flooding and other issues brought on by the latest spate of atmospheric rivers pummeling the state.

That was especially true in eastern sections of the counties where the normally placid Mill Creek became a raging torrent through Wonder Valley and springs and snow melt from warm rains plagued residents of Oakhurst and North Fork.

The county’s two main river systems, the San Joaquin and Kings, remained in check even as water managers eyed the record-breaking snowpack in their upper watersheds with trepidation.

“We’re not seeing problems yet, but we have a big snow pack,” said Michael Jackson, Area Manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the Friant Dam at Millerton Lake. “Right now, we’re maximizing releases into the river to the level it can safely handle them.”

Millerton, which can hold a maximum 520,500 acre feet, stood at 414,000 acre feet as of Friday, with nearly 14,000 cubic feet per second flowing into the lake and 7,250 cfs flowing out.

Jackson said no water has gone over Friant’s spillway yet, as has occurred on the Success and Kaweah reservoirs in Tulare County.

On the Kings River, water managers have been employing a “pulse draining strategy” to maintain storage capacity in the Pine Flat reservoir while, at the same time, leaving enough room in the river channel for swollen tributaries to dump their water.

Pine Flat can hold up to 1 million acre feet. As of Friday at noon, it held 770,000 acre feet with water flowing in at 8,000 cfs and out at 6,100 cfs, according to the Army Corps of Engineers’ hourly status web page.

Meanwhile, smaller streams, harsh weather and snowmelt wreaked their own brand of havoc in the two counties.

Seeking relief

On Wednesday, Fresno County supervisor Nathan Magsig hopped into his Dodge pickup truck to survey damage along the Kings River up and around Pine Flat Dam. He said road flooding was spotty but mudslides from steep hillsides are a major infrastructure problem around Highway 180 and surrounding country roads. 

As rivers recede, Magsig said, dealing with long-term home damage is a top priority for him. Impacted families need to submit forms online to qualify for relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), he said. 

“I’m encouraging residents right now that are affected by the storm, who have received damage on a private property, to fill out these forms,” Magsig said. “There’s a threshold that has to be met for California to be able to qualify for this individual assistance through FEMA. But if we don’t meet that threshold, that declaration won’t be made.” 

Standard federal disaster relief funds only support public infrastructure such as roads. The county needs to get FEMA to beef up its financial support to cover flood damage to residents’ homes and property, he said. 

“We’re asking residents if their homes have been damaged, structures have been damaged, private roads and other private property that’s been damaged by these storms, we need to aggregate that information at the county-level to deliver financial assistance to each family in need,”  Magsig said. 

Serene creek rampages through Wonder Valley

Mill Creek, a typically small tributary to the Kings River just below Pine Flat dam, ballooned to more than 300 feet wide during the March 10 storm. Flowing at over 18,000 cfs, the creek flooded several homes in the Wonder Valley Ranch Resort.

The creek tore down a fence and an archery range, said Roy Oaken, son of ex-Fresno County Supervisor Stan Oaken, who is the owner of the resort.

Down the street from the resort, a family had to be evacuated by boat after the creek’s flow forced a new water channel that surrounded the home, Oaken said.

“I haven’t seen this kind of flooding in 30 years,” said Oaken, whose family bought the riverside estate from the Webb family 50 years ago. 

The Oaken Archery at the Wonder Valley resort was flooded out in the March 10 storm. Courtesy: Roy Oaken

He credited 6 crews made up of 102 fire fighters from Cal Fire and local prisons with preventing worse damage. The crews, fueled by 15 Costco pizzas, laid down 20,000 sandbags to divert Mill Creek’s water upstream from the resort.

Flooding would have been far worse without that line of defense, Oaken said.

“Thank god for the crew,” Oaken said. 

Oakhurst neighbors pitched in wherever needed

In Madera County, Oakhurst resident Joe Perro said he hasn’t slept a wink over the past three weeks.

Keeping up with torrential rain and snow on his private road has kept him up working his snow plow at 2 a.m. during the worst of the storm, he said. 

The spring that runs through his property is carving into a nearby hillside, said Perro, a 73-year-old, recently retired infrared missile engineer. He’s spent the last few days cutting his own culverts underneath his road to stop the spring from causing a sinkhole.

“I haven’t seen this sort of flooding in 20 years,” Perro said, adding that the storm has brought out the best of people. 

“I saw a lot of neighbors helping neighbors,” Perro said. “When something like this happens, without the help of others, you’re stuck.” 

An elderly woman whose oxygen concentrator had run out over the course of the storms was rescued via snow plow by Madera County Sheriff Tyson Pogue and Madera County Development Chief Matt Treber.

Perro, himself, trucked out a neighbor’s cow, which had died giving birth, and cleared out other neighbors’ snow-plugged driveways.

While California enjoys a brief respite from the storms, Perro is catching up on his sleep. 

“The way things have been going, I certainly could not have kept up with the property much longer,” he said.

Madera supervisor clears trees, assembles crews

In North Fork, Madera County supervisor Bobby Macaulay got caught in snow flurries while clearing fallen trees near his home in Cascadel as the storm hit March 10.

By Monday morning, the 35-year-old Macaulay had assembled seven contractors to clear snow from foothill subdivisions across Madera County. The contractors cleared driveways in Oakhurst, Bass Lake, and Coarsegold. By the end of that day, he had 10 contractors working. 

“Over the weekend, it was pretty clear to me that we needed to bring in some extra help,” said Macaulay.

The county also cleared culverts and evacuated a few mobile home parks, he added. 

“I think the county has done a damn good job at mitigating what could have been much worse.”

Like Magsig, Macauley said it’s critical that county residents fill out disaster relief forms.

Drought-weakened oaks succumb to floods

Mudslides along an area burned in recent wildfires on the North Fork Rancheria of Mono indieansdestroyed one home, said Bobby Hale, a secretary for the North Fork Rancheria tribe.

Hale said the torrential rainfall ran over the burn scarred slopes “like a big river” uprooting and collapsing centuries-old oak trees weakened by drought. 

“They didn’t have enough water to grow their tap roots deep enough,” Hale said.

Some reservation roads  suffered “pretty major washouts” and “severely restricted the ability of people to get out” of their homes.

“There’s a lot of different kinds of impacts up here,” Hale said.

Gregory Weaver, Fresnoland

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


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