You hear it every time it rains around here, especially when the torrent is heavy.
I hope we don’t flood.
It’s not paranoia. There’s good reason to be concerned about flooding because, ironic as it may seem, our dry desert with its skimpy rainfall of about 3 inches a year, is nonetheless a very wet welcome mat for flash floods, now piercingly announced on television and social media (at least 11 times in the past year).
This alerting technology is modern, but the threat is ancient. The native Cahuilla sang of rapid waters respectfully — but with this caveat, according to a definition by the nonprofit Native Languages of the Americas: “[Their] eerie cries are omens of bad luck and death.”
Although their threats have been mitigated over the years, flash floods are still perilous. In 2017, as KESQ reported, then–Palm Springs Mayor Robert Moon, while in a ride-along to assess damages wrought by flooding, witnessed a daring rescue of a woman and her son submerged in a car in floodwaters along Golf Club Drive, saved moments before their car was swept
off a bridge.
A flash flood differs from a regular flood by time. Whereas regular flooding can last for days or weeks, flashers strike with immediacy and come on strong quickly.
According to the National Weather Service, water in a flash flood can rush through the landscape at 6 to 12 mph. Half a foot of moving water can upend a normal-size human; twice that can cart away your Chevvy. And split. Leaving a mess.
It makes you wonder: Where is all this water coming from and how can we control it?
A local bridge collapses during a 1927 flood.
PHOTO COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Avatar’s Na’vi say that water “has no beginning and no end,” but they don’t live around here. In the Coachella Valley, we know exactly where water begins: on the interior slopes of the San Gorgonio, Santa Rosa, San Bernardino, and San Jacinto mountains. They, especially the San Bernardinos, collect rainfall and snowpacks and then gravitationally release it all — water, trees, rocks, debris — into Whitewater, California, a “census-designated space” and home to the Whitewater Preserve (or White Water or Whitewater River Preserve — it’s been called numerous things through the years, starting with “Agua Blanco”).
“The Whitewater River,” according to the California Wilderness Coalition, “is one of the most pristine and remote watersheds in Southern California.” The Preserve covers 2,851 acres and is one of the surprises of the desert, a hiking environment with the ambience of a mountain lake that is seemingly centuries away from Palm Springs’ modernism.
It’s here that Jack Thompson has served for the last 15 years as desert regional director of The Wildlands Conservancy, the guardians of the preserve. Thompson, a 42-year-old former guide, knows the territory; he was born in Pipes Canyon around the time Pappy fell for Harriet in nearby Pioneertown. He’s agreed to take a stumbling hiker out for an exploratory and educational walkabout.
Historically, Whitewater was the site of a rainbow-trout farm, a bustling enterprise started in the late 1930s that included a hatchery and a tourist attraction with surefire fishing. In 2006, however, the trout went to sleep with the fishes, the hatchery closed, and the setup was placed in the custody of this conservancy, with help from organizations like Friends of the Desert Mountains and the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy. It’s been a good investment — public access is now available at the Sand to Snow National Monument, and many endangered species now fall under The Wildlands Conservancy’s protection, including two avian stalwarts: the Least Bell’s Vireo (Vireo bellii pusillus) and the Southwest Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus).
As we take to the trail, perhaps sensing that he’s dealing with a product of the Ohio school system, Thompson patiently explains the basics. Right now, the water running through this canyon is only a trickle, like a backyard creek. But it traveled more than 30 miles to get here and is strong enough to launch itself another 50 miles across the desert floor.
Most useful in this regard is the Whitewater River/Coachella Valley Stormwater Channel, a combination of 17 channels that controls the water’s path across the valley floor, cutting diagonally at Point Happy at Washington Street and Highway 111, and then traveling over and under the sand to join the Salton Sink — or Sea, as it’s calling itself now.
As a steward of the property, Thompson is proud of the direction it’s all taking, but he sees challenges, pointing out, for example, how the floods have become powerful enough to erode an entire levee berm in that high-traffic area running along the canyon walls. He also references the Apple Fire of 2020 and how it has added to the water’s descending velocity as burn areas above the riverbeds offer less and less resistance to their assault.
Residents dig out a car in 1936.
PHOTO COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
A Watered-Down History
On the desert, we can’t live without water. For a long time, we couldn’t live with it, either. The decadeslong history of this stormwater channel is rife with wide-awake leadership and creative engineering but also, in equal measure, disappointments, compromises, and in one case, a close call in the near destruction of a few perfectly good golf holes at Indian Wells Country Club.
Much of this history is in the capable hands of the Palm Desert Historical Society, where archivist Rochelle McCune is now scrolling through files on her computer, sharing an array of disaster flood photos.
This is nightmare viewing for the hydrophobic. Grainy halftones showcase the local floods’ destructions, and the view doesn’t get any better in color. A semitruck tears off a portion of Highway 111 in 1965. Late model cars collide and topple one another in a tableau at Tahquitz Creek. Water floods the streets of Indio, putting a pool hall under siege. Sunrise Way practically disappears. There are reports of more than 6½ inches of rain falling in Indio in 1939. And a resident of Rancho Mirage, in 1979, sits in debris, her feet taking a very un-spa mud bath.
Floods through the years tore off miles of Southern Pacific roadbed, drowned Mecca in 30-foot waves, and offered boating opportunities on Miles Avenue. The sights are disturbing, as are the yellowing newspaper clippings that recount desert residents fighting the currents that ravaged their homes, took their money, and interrupted their lives.
The Palm Desert Historical Society is drenched in such history, especially when it comes to archiving the eastern part of the valley. “Floods always happened,” McCune says, “but since no one was around, they mostly affected just a few farmers.” Indio, for example, was the biggest settlement in the early 1900s, but it was largely agricultural and bore the brunt as growers saw their fields menaced. On Jan. 18, 1916, the city was covered in water in what the book Coachella Valley’s Golden Years calls “probably one of the worst floods of modern times.” That led the way to the formation of the Coachella Valley Stormwater District two years later.
A school district car navigates high tide in 1952.
PHOTO COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Work had already started on a primitive levee plan, but this was the loud alarm bell: Now it was settlers being flooded, and something would have to be done.
Sort of. All through the ensuing decades, the desert, a bit slow on the uptake, tried to Whack-a-Mole the problem piecemeal; the real work finally started in the 1960s when, according to the Coachella Valley Water District’s Lorraine Garcia, “we embarked on significant flood control.”
Then came Sept. 9, 1976, when Hurricane Kathleen sent a lot of Southern California property to a watery grave. Four days later, the CVWD was on the phone with engineering firm Bechtel, and the gears of civil improvement clicked out of neutral. There would be control. The plan was to build the Palm Valley Channel, a tributary to the Storm Channel to protect Palm Desert, Indian Wells, and Rancho Mirage.
As always, the sticking point was money, mostly because nobody wanted to talk about it. Then–Desert Sun reporter John Hussar wrote on Dec. 16, 1976, that during a two-hour meeting of the parties, not one person brought up the subject.
Small wonder nobody wanted to talk money. Proposition 13 had recently been passed in California, and as Keith Ainsworth from Coachella Valley Water District told Hussar, “[It] pretty much killed flood control.” The proposition left local governments with smaller resources to cope with the waters. Business consultant Kay Hazen runs the numbers: “By virtue of the formula distributing the 1 percent property tax collected,” she says, “the Flood Control District suffered a 60 percent reduction in projected property tax revenue for Fiscal Year 1978–’79.” A big hit.
Then the politics began, Hussar says, recalling the mind-numbing meetings he endured.
Because the way to raise money was to tap into redevelopment funds, the cities had to get creative. Most visionary was Rancho Mirage; the resort city tried to convince the world that it was “blighted” to wrangle federal money. Once or twice, the engineers at Bechtel were sent back to their drawing boards to propose cheaper alternatives. And those making a living selling water squared off against those wanting to reduce its harmful impacts, a sticking point that is not completely resolved today.
Environmentally, it got really complicated. As University of California, Riverside, professor emeritus Cameron Barrows points out, floods pull down valuable sand. “Floods carry it in their wake,” he says, “and controlling the flow will degrade critical sand dune habitats for a host of species downstream.” Importantly, he reminds us, “[These] species are found nowhere else on earth.”
Eventually however, the Palm Valley Channel was built, running from the mouth of Dead Indian Creek/Carrizo, parallel to Monterey Avenue, and crossing under Highway 111 to the Coachella Valley Stormwater Channel. It was finished in February 1984 at a cost of $15 million. A lot of money but, as even a cursory look around at the booming desert will reveal, ultimately a wise investment. It’s unlikely, for instance, that resorts and real estate agents could ever close on properties that are figuratively — and actually — under water.
A classic seeks an underground parking space, circa 1965.
PHOTO COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Getting Closure in Palm Springs
It’s safe to say that we on the desert live in a tight bubble, and many things that are horrific catastrophes in the real world, around here, usually turn out to be mere annoyances.
Compare, for example, last summer’s shocking Pakistani floods, where almost 2,000 people were swept off the Indian subcontinent, to Palm Springs’ flash flood around the same time, which closed the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, forcing more than 200 visitors to spend a few more hours sightseeing.
It’s a sliding scale of misery.
Sure, a flash flood can kill, but they don’t often around here. In fact, in the entire county of Riverside during the past decade, while flash floods caused property damages running to $157 million, only one person, Ankit Goyal from El Centro, was caught in a flash flood and carried to his death, Sept. 30, 2018, as he drove along Box Canyon Road between Interstate 10 and Highway 111. (That road is now gone.)
Here, floods are no longer fatal — just irritating. Take their aftermath: You escaped death, but recovering your property from water damage is a miserable affair, beginning with the cleanup and never ending with your insurance adjuster. Restoration can cost thousands and, even worse, drive totally innocent homeowners toward permit counters across the valley.
Floods can be expensive, not only to homeowners. A busted pipe that caused a raw-sewage spill into the Whitewater River Channel in Cathedral City in 2019, for instance, set Desert Water Agency back almost $200,000 in fines.
More irksome, though, are the frequent road closures in Palm Springs that sometimes follow even a mild storm. One recent “event” saw nearly two dozen paths cut off. During these closures, in one section of Cathedral City, drivers are detoured through neighborhoods, conga-line style, left wondering if they will ever see East Vista Chino — or their families — again. “It’s happening more and more often, at least twice a year now,” says one longtime resident, Paul Mediano.
But while flash floods may not be so lethal anymore, they are always newsworthy events, with easy money-shots of barricades and slickered reporters. And floating sedans, because as catchy as that slogan “Turn Around Don’t Drown” is, some daredevils still insist on plowing through floodwaters.
Incidentally, should you find yourself in a fix like this, swift-water rescue teams from CalFire are at the ready. (According to KESQ’s Taban Sharifi, one remarkable tool they have, known as the “lucky launcher,” shoots a rope 300 feet across moving water.)
Surfin’ Safari Park
That rope could have come in handy on the afternoon of Sept. 8, 2017, around 4 p.m., when residents of Palm Springs’ Safari Park found themselves fighting off a flash flood and cascading mudslides. Sitting atop a flood zone, the 55-plus community was easy pickings for raging waters. One resident at the time, lighting designer Paul Washington, remembers how suddenly and quickly the park was inundated. He still marvels at the size of some of the boulders that rolled down the hills behind the mobile home park. A neighbor was heard screaming for help (he’s OK now and has since moved), and fellow residents captured footage of the rampaging currents coursing through the streets.
New owners living at Safari Park don’t want to talk about the flood, but the incident eventually washed away civic apathy, spurring Palm Springs’ leadership into preventing a reoccurrence. To get some idea of how strong the defenses against such flashers need to be, The Desert Post’s Mark Talkington reported on May 17, 2021, that the city planned “to lay 5,450 feet of underground pipe and [create] a 7-acre water detention basin, while installing more than 1,300 feet of reinforced concrete pipe under the middle of the mobile home park.”
Drivers contemplate crossing a muddy divide in 1958.
PHOTO COURTESY PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL SOCIETY.
More Water Under the Bridge
There are more flood prevention projects in the works. To the north and east, the Coachella Valley Water District is building the North Indio Regional Flood Control Project, a 2.5-mile-long series of concrete channels from Sun City Palm Desert to Sun City Shadow Hills that’s projected for completion in 2024. CVWD’s Lorraine Garcia notes one big plus: Flood insurance will no longer be required in areas covered by the project, including Thousand Palms and north Cathedral City.
And relief may be in sight for another large project, building bridges to stop the closure of our main arteries. The recently passed infrastructure bill in Washington, D.C., is poised to dole out $40 billion to worthy projects around the country, and Palm Springs is looking to grab some to solve our “arterial” predicament, mainly the frequent floods on Indian Canyon, Gene Autry Trail, and East Vista Chino.
As Palm Springs City Council member Lisa Middleton testified before the City Council session on Jan. 12, 2023, the area’s pitch for this money, coordinated with the Coachella Valley Associations of Governments, is an effective one because, north of the freeway, ambulances and emergency personnel are dependent on these routes. As our rains get stronger, closures put Desert Regional Medical Center out of reach, threatening our perfect record on fatalities.
A Personal Assurance
During my researching and writing of this story, atmospheric rivers were pounding California, up and down the state, but mostly in the north, where almost two dozen people perished. My sister-in-law was coming to visit for a month, and she sounded fearful. She saw on the national news footage of closed roads and sinking cars in Palm Springs and was reconsidering her trip. Because some forward-thinking people had the good sense to come in out of the rain years ago and lay some infrastructure, I could reassure her that most of the desert is pretty well protected by these storm channels. She’s making the trip, provided, as Johnny Cash used to sing, the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise.
CAUGHT IN THE STORM
By Jack Thompson, Desert Regional Director, The Wildlands Conservancy
You don’t only hear the thunderous sound of a flood. You feel it. The ground vibrates under your feet, and your insides quiver as the crashing resonates through your whole body. When the Valentine’s Day flood hit in 2019, I was at the Whitewater Preserve in Whitewater Canyon, where I’ve lived and worked as a ranger and land manager for the past 15 years. In that time, I weathered numerous large storms, but the Valentine’s Day flood is one that has printed itself on my memory.
The sheer cliffs on both sides of the canyon reflect and amplify the roar of the water as it flashes past. The maelstrom grinds granite boulders into each other, tossing them about as if they are nothing at all. Huge, uprooted trees are carried by the torrent like twigs tossed in a rain gutter by a curious child.
At one point in the storm, standing on a patch of high ground at the river’s edge, I witnessed a surge of water deflect off a pinch point in the riverbed just ahead of me, and I watched in fascinated horror as a coal-black standing wave began to form. A gust of wind blew onto the wave’s face, pushing it up nearly to my eye level, where it hung shimmering in the air — a singular form of ordered and terrifying beauty in the deluge.
I realized that I might be witnessing the formation of a hydraulic jump, a phenomenon where constricted flood energy stacks up and forms a highly erosive wave that if sustained can carve its way out of its channel. With a cliff on one side, that meant there was only one place for the water to go: where I was standing. As if to underscore this alarming development, the wind whipped in my direction, a cyclone spiraling the crest of the dark wave high into the air and dropping it directly on top of me. The water, a mix of ash and freshly melted snow was freezing and smelled like wildfire.
One thought overwhelmed the icy shock of the cold: Run.
I looked over my shoulder as I took my first step and saw the wave topple over as the storm energy ebbed. The peak of the storm was passing. The next day, I put a few essentials in a backpack and hiked out of the canyon. The road had largely been destroyed.
BEHIND THE ALERTS
By Patrick Evans,
Prior to a major storm, we usually issue a weather alert a day or two in advance to warn viewers of significant weather on the way. We also assign a photographer and reporter specifically to weather coverage. With storms like these, the weather team consults with the newsroom on where to position them so they see precipitation first, or where there might be flooding (usually along the Whitewater Wash). Sometimes, even if the rainfall is minimal, the effect of the runoff can be enormous as the heavy rain in the mountains drains into our local washes. That kind of flooding can occur even if we get no rain on the valley floor. Flooding snarls traffic because so many major Palm Springs arteries run
through the wash.
We spend a lot of time in the weather center looking at prediction models and going over forecast data prior to the storm. Once a storm hits, we’re really focused on where the rainfall is greatest, informing folks about flood potential, and getting info on road closures out as quickly as possible. We also spend a fair amount of time telling people to obey road closures because a lot of folks think they can drive through flooded roads. Of course, it’s a terrible idea. You don’t know how deep the water is, how fast it’s flowing, and what kind of debris is in the flood waters. We had a high-water rescue in Rancho Mirage recently; it’s a good example of what can happen when you drive into flood waters.