Flood/Drought Cycles


California doesn’t have “droughts” or “floods”. Rather, its climate is composed of a drought/flood cycle. And often, the severity of a flood year reflects the severity of the associated drought, either preceding or following the flood. Insert formal from PPIC or Water Deeply or the Water Education Foundation? 

Flood/drought cycles have been known to change the course of California history. For example, an epic flood/drought cycle severely impacted the sustainability of the Mexican Ranchos on the Central Coast and precipitated major social and financial upheaval in California. 

During the Spanish Mission Days and in the early days of the Mexican Ranchos, cattle were raised on open range on large unmapped swaths of land and were slaughtered for hides and tallow, not for meat. But this changed in the 1848, when demand for meat created by the Gold rush transformed the cattle production from simply pastoral to single-purpose enterprise. Miners were willing to pay exorbitant prices for fresh meat and vaqueros drove herds of black Spanish cattle from the coast to the foothills to provide beef. 

At the same time, there was plentiful rainfall and grass.  As a result, the ranchos went into debt to increase their herd sizes to accommodate booming business and surplus feed. There was a Cattle Boom from 1849-1961. 

The California MegaFlood of 1861

Then, in 1961, the most epic flood to occur in California’s recorded history was the ARK-storm (i.e., Atmospheric River 1000-year storm) that occurred. It rained incessantly for 45 days during January and February. San Francisco, San Diego and parts of the Sierra recorded 29.28 inches, 35 inches, and greater than 102 inches, respectively, In addition to copious amounts of rainfall, there were wild fluctuations in temperatures. Some storms were very cold and others were very warm, which melted snow and sent high waters cascading into the San Joaquin Valley.  

The most impacted area of the Central Coast was In the Santa Maria area, “One storm lasted 70 days, with one downpour lasting 20 hours. With more than 50 inches of rain falling in many areas” (Contreras). However, it should not be assumed that there weren’t impacts to the Traces of the Past Project area in Northern San Luis Obispo and Monterey Counties. There were assuredly localized of heavy rainfall and flooding. 

A traveler in California at the time, William H. Brewer, kept a journal in which he recorded evidence of the disastrous effects of floods. He noted:

“Thousands of farms are entirely under water—cattle starving and drowning. All the roads in the middle of the state are impassable; so all mails are cut off. The telegraph also does not work clear through. In the Sacramento Valley for some distance the tops of the poles are under water. The entire valley was a lake extending from the mountains on one side to the coast range hills on the other. Steamers ran back over the ranches fourteen miles from the river, carrying stock, etc, to the hills. Nearly every house and farm over this immense region is gone. America has never before seen such desolation by flood as this has been, and seldom has the Old World seen the like.

Farmland, towns and huge swaths of open space were inundated, and some areas were literally “inland seas” for months afterward. The costs were devastating. According to Lynn Ingram in the Scientific American, “One-quarter of the state’s estimated 800,000 cattle were drowned. [One-quarter to] one-third of the state’s property was destroyed and one home in eight was destroyed completely or carried away by floodwaters.” The state of California, was dependent on property taxes, at that time, and went bankrupt. Elected officials and employees were not paid for 1.5 years. It was an economic disaster. 

Drought of 1862-1865

Then, following on the heels of this misery, a devastating drought occurred between 1862 to 1865. Brewer recorded  the disastrous effects of drought in the Salinas Valley:

“The drought is terrible. In this fertile valley, there will not be over a quarter crop, and during the past four days’ ride we have seen dead cattle by the hundreds.”     

Unfortunately, after the flood/drought cycle, many of the ranchos had lost their stock, could not repay their debt, and had to sell off portions or all of their ranchos. In 1862, cattle herds were 90,000 and dwindled to 14,000 by 1865. The Mexican Rancho system ended. 

Insert drought/flood timeline?

Books and References

Casey, W.D. Been there: The California Great Drought of 1862-65. Santa Cruz Patch. January 30, 2014. https://patch.com/california/santacruz/been-there-the-california-great-drought-of-186265

Contreras, Shirley. Cattle Industry Devastated by 1860s Rainfall, then Drought. Santa Maria Times. July 29, 2012. https://santamariatimes.com/lifestyles/columnist/shirley_contreras/cattle-industry-devastated-by-s-rainfall-then-drought/article_13e18460-d923-11e1-a9eb-001a4bcf887a.html

Ingram, Lynn B. California Megaflood: Lessons from a Forgotten Catastrophe. Scientific American. January 1, 2013. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/atmospheric-rivers-california-megaflood-lessons-from-forgotten-catastrophe/

Cook, Terry, D. Soil Survey of Monterey County, California. USDA. Volume 22. 1978. https://books.google.com/books?id=k05gNzPz-TAC&pg=PA223&lpg=PA223&dq=drought+1862+California+Salinas+Valley&source=bl&ots=x4rCpz2VEl&sig=CHqq89QAH42gWk49SSWmpLV5bQg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj46ue0pL3bAhWKxYMKHQkGD1w4ChDoAQgoMAA#v=onepage&q=drought%201862%20California%20Salinas%20Valley&f=false