When rain storms pummel Sacramento, a city surrounded by levees, crews work all hours of the night to prevent flooding.
They monitor, control and maintain the city’s more than 100 stormwater lift stations, which residents depend on to pump water into creeks, canals, or the Sacramento or American Rivers.
These stations failing would cause water to burst out of the city’s gutters, drain inlets and manholes, said supervising plant operator Philip Myer.
“If our stations don't have power, pumps don't come on,” he said. “We flood. That's all there is to it, you know.”
During power outages in windy downpours, the city sends electricians to hook up generators to pumping stations. Other crews clear fallen trees that clog up drainage systems. Rain doesn’t drain out of Sacramento naturally or for free.
Dealing with a series of storms from New Year’s Eve to mid-January cost the city more than $3.9 million, public records show. In the roughly 20-day period, atmospheric rivers dumped rain on Sacramento, toppled trees and power lines, inundated the city’s customer service line and put flood prevention systems to the test.
The figure gives a local snapshot in the wake of research showing damages from atmospheric rivers are projected to triple in the western United States.
CapRadio calculated this figure by reviewing about 350 pages of city reports obtained through a California Public Records Act Request. The documents show Sacramento’s Department of Utilities, Public Works, and 311 division spent an estimated $3.9 million between Dec. 30, 2022 and Jan. 18, 2023 to respond to storms.
This estimate includes work orders for filling potholes, clearing trees and repairing sidewalks, as well as expenses for paying employee overtime rates, patrolling levees and using generators during power outages. But it doesn’t include storm-related costs for other city departments, such as fire and emergency services, or repairs the city paid out after that period.
Sacramento has yet to compile a breakdown of expenses covered by insurance or reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Daniel Bowers, the city’s director of emergency management. Generally, Bowers said the city first seeks reimbursement from insurance, then any sort of federal or state assistance from emergency declaration programs. The city also pays for damages with its general fund.
“While we're still going through the recovery process — we're still working through this whole thing — I think [$4 million is] a good estimate from what we're seeing,” Bowers said.
Given the severity of the early January storms, Bowers added he thought the costs matched the response required.
Costly storms are predicted to become more severe
Past windstorms have also cost Sacramento several million dollars — like one that happened a few years ago, which Bowers said knocked trees into one of the city’s sump stations that pumps storm water, causing $750,000 in damages. Insurance, however, covered most of the cost, so Bowers said the issue didn’t cost the city much out of pocket.
Even so, Bowers said January’s stormy period was one of the more expensive the city has recorded in the past few decades. The $3.9 million estimate offers only a glimpse of the economic impact: This year, atmospheric rivers hit Sacramento and the rest of the state for weeks on end. State officials say over thirty atmospheric rivers hit the West Coast this past winter, around half of which hit California.
This satellite image made available by NOAA shows a bomb cyclone system off the U.S. West coast directing heavy rain and winds towards California on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, at around 4 p.m. PST.NOAA
Researchers agree that the mere existence of these storms isn’t unusual. California is often referred to as a “land of extremes,” where multiple drought years are frequently interrupted by an intensely wet one.
But research says these storms will become bigger and stronger in the future because of climate change, which could cause more damage and flooding in communities. That comes with a hefty price tag: A 2019 UC San Diego study found that the annual cost of damages from atmospheric rivers for the 11 Western states most impacted by them comes to about $1 billion.
Tom Corringham, a researcher studying the economic impacts of extreme weather, led the study. He said California accounts for over half of those damages — around $600 million a year. The cost varies year to year as a result of California’s swinging extremes in climate, but overall, he said that average will inevitably increase.
“We expect costs associated with atmospheric rivers to triple by the end of the century under a high emissions scenario,” he said. “If we're able to limit greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decades, we may be able to reduce that to just a doubling of damages.”
This poses a problem for places like Sacramento, which already exists in an area that is more likely to flood. Corringham said places like these weren’t originally built with worsening climate conditions in mind.
“The climate in 2023 is very different from the climate over the past 50 years,” he said. “And certainly the climate in two, three or four decades from now is going to be even more different.”
A SMUD employee carries equipment to help a team restore power during a storm in the Arden Arcade area of Sacramento County Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023.Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
Planning for future storms comes with challenges
Jennifer Venema, the city’s climate action lead, said these winter storms are a reminder of the worsening climate extremes to come.
“These are the types of events we expect to happen more and more regularly,” she said.
Like many California cities, Venema said Sacramento has worked on a plan to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions. Already, the costs associated with reducing these emissions amount to more than $3 billion. She said planning around worsening storms is another added cost, but the city hasn’t estimated what that cost might look like.
“These issues are regional and so it doesn't fall to the city alone to understand the costs,” she added.
On the city level, Bowers said it’s almost impossible to estimate the cost of future atmospheric river storms or any disaster. A variety of factors influence the severity of storm damage.
A windy rainstorm might cause more damage in the wake of previous precipitation that left the ground saturated, for example. Drought-stricken trees will be more likely to topple over and potentially clog drains, Bowers said.
Reports from meteorologists and climatologists for a mild to moderate winter can also turn out to be inaccurate, he added, like they were this past fall.
“It’s always nice to look back … and it's important to track those costs,” Bowers said. “But I wouldn't pigeonhole myself to think that that precise amount is what it's going to cost.”
It can even be challenging to plan the amount of chemicals the city needs to treat storm and sewer water each year. Because of all the rain, as of late March, the city had used 168% of its budget for those chemicals, said Mike Wasina, operation and maintenance superintendent for wastewater.
But over the past three years, the city had only spent about 50% of its chemicals budget, Wasina said. How long chemical deliveries last depend on the storms.
“When we were having those consecutive weeks of storms, it was quite a logistics game to try to keep up with deliveries,” Wasina said.
During extreme weather events like winter storms or summertime heatwaves, Sacramento has opened centers for people seeking relief. Venema said one part of the city’s future plans is boosting funding for these centers, which could offer better direct aid to people during extreme weather events.
“What we expect is that projects like that will be more important as we move forward to ensure we have a broad network of how we can activate and provide safe options for our residents,” she said.
Conversations about California’s climate and how the city needs to prepare aren’t new to Sacramento, Venema said.
“What’s new is… the reality of how urgent and extreme and rapid these events are coming,” she said. “What's also new is the public understanding of anticipated changes over time and perhaps greater visibility of the issues.”