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Crews struggle to save levees; flood threatens drinking water

January 7, 1997

MERIDIAN, Calif. (AP) _ Crews labored to safeguard dozens of saturated levees and to prevent contamination of the state’s drinking water today as floods surged down northern California rivers.

Residents near Manteca were being evacuated today after a levee break along the San Joaquin River. At least one 70-unit mobile home park was being overrun by water in the area just northwest of Modesto.

Several other major levee breaks have occurred on the Tuolumne, Mokelumne and Cosumnes rivers.

Until today’s evacuations, all but about 1,000 of the 125,000 Californians evacuated since last week’s storms had been believed to have returned home. Outside California, some 250 people were still homeless on an Indian reservation in northern Nevada.

Elsewhere in the West, authorities worried about mudslides, particularly in Seattle, where 100 slides in the past week have blocked roads and destroyed homes.

And in the Southwest, snow and ice closed highways today across parts of Arizona and New Mexico, and Southern California cleaned up after two days of high wind.

At least 29 deaths have been blamed on the series of storms that have caused floods, landslides and avalanches across the West since Dec. 26.

In addition, three women are missing, Yuba County Undersheriff Gary Finch.

``As the water recedes, we’ll be able to get down to where we think those people were at,″ Finch said. ``It’s still several feet deep.″

Officials were watching the rising San Joaquin River, which reached 32 feet early today, or 4 feet above flood stage.

``It’s a little lower than expected, maybe because some levees have broken,″ said Earle Cummings of the state Department of Water Resources.

One of those levee breaks was forcing the evacuation of people living along the river near Manteca. Flooding was likely to extend a few miles from the San Joaquin, though probably not threaten the town, Cummings said

Emergency crews elsewhere in California’s fertile Central Valley worked to shore up other levees to prevent more breaks that would flood thousands of acres of wheat fields, orchards and vineyards.

``It’s going to be a real nightmare for some of those folks to try and recover and stay in business once those flood waters recede,″ said Dave Kranz, a California Farm Bureau spokesman.

Even without further damage, the flood of 1997 will probably be the most destructive in California history, Gov. Pete Wilson said. Preliminary damage estimates from nine of the 42 flooded counties already have hit $775 million. In Nevada, Gov. Bob Miller said flood damage there could reach $500 million.

In Meridian, north of Sacramento, the National Guard punched a hole in a levee to relieve water pressure after a break over the weekend forced evacuations.

And more than 300 people, including dozens of inmates, filled sandbags and bulldozed mounds of earth around the town into a new, 6-foot wall nearly a mile long to protect the community.

``It’s a race with Mother Nature, but right now we’re ahead,″ said Capt. Mark Bisbee of the state Forestry Department.

High water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta threatened to contaminate Southern California’s water supply. The fear is that islands in the Delta will wash away, allowing salt water to push upstream. The delta feeds the 444-mile California Aqueduct, which supplies the San Joaquin Valley and the Los Angeles area.

The threat puts water-management officials in a bind _ they could partially empty upstream reservoirs to push out the salt water, but that would further reduce the amount of water available to the Los Angeles area.

Officials warned residents to drink bottled water because of contamination from pesticides and spilled sewage.

Ashland, Ore.’s 18,000 residents remained without water for a seventh day today as crews worked to test and repair broken water mains. Schools and Southern Oregon State College were closed and portable toilets were stationed throughout town.

In Northern California, thousands of people returned to their homes Monday under sunny skies.

When Margaret Mattson arrived back at her Modesto house along the Tuolumne River, she found that water had soaked family photo albums, furniture, clothes and even the box holding her husband’s ashes.

``My husband died, I live alone and I don’t know what to do. Look at these walls, they’re waterlogged,″ she said. ``I don’t have money to get a new carpet.″

In Nevada, which has been hit with the worst flooding in decades, some 250 evacuees from the Yerington Indian Reservation were expected to remain homeless for two more days.

In northeastern Oregon, a portion of Imnaha Canyon and its 250 residents remained cut off from the world. Road crews were building temporary roads, and a U.S. Army National Guard helicopter dropped off more clean water and supplies Monday.

In Idaho, crews Monday reopened the state’s only north-south artery, freeing thousands of people from isolated mountain towns. Repairs to roads and bridges could cost $42 million.

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