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California's first heat wave could trigger floods from melting Sierra Nevada snow

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Winter snow is starting to melt in the West and the Midwest. The upper Mississippi River has already reached major flood stage. And in California, there are worries about hot weather and the massive snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas. Joshua Yeager of KVPR joins us now from Bakersfield, Calif. Josh, thanks so much for being with us.

JOSHUA YEAGER, BYLINE: Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: How does it look this weekend?

YEAGER: Well, a lot of snow is going to melt. That's the short answer. Yosemite National Park is closed through Wednesday due to flood concerns. And the world's largest tree in Sequoia National Park will be off limits through summer after all the damage winter storms did. And that's a big deal not only for the park, but for the communities that rely on tourism here. In the San Joaquin Valley, where I am, the snowpack broke all-time records this year. In some spots, there were four times more snow than average. And today, the high here on the valley floor is pushing triple digits. Up in the mountains, where all that snow is, temperatures will be 60 degrees. And more concerningly, lows up there will stay above freezing.

SIMON: And that means even more snowmelt?

YEAGER: Exactly. But the good news is dam managers here have been shooting torrents of water out of reservoirs to make room for the coming snowmelt, so things are expected to be good for this weekend at least. But this heat wave is only the first chip in the snowpack's armor. We have at least four more months of warm weather ahead of us.

SIMON: You've been out in the area. What do you see?

YEAGER: Well, it's hard to overstate just how different the landscape looks. Eight months ago, this region was experiencing severe drought, and now there's a sprawling lake. Thousands of acres of farmland are underwater. The water stretches out like an ocean. As far as the eye can see, only the occasional power pole or farm building kind of pokes out. I mean, there's literal waves lapping at the dirt. Seagulls are chirping. People are even going boating. Towns near the formerly dry lake - Tulare Lake - are in a mad dash to set up sandbags, shore up levees, and protect themselves from the encroaching water. But time is running out. That lake is only getting bigger.

SIMON: And how are the people who live there coping?

YEAGER: I've spent some time in the small town of Corcoran between LA and San Francisco. About 22,000 people live there along with a whole lot of orchards and row crops. There's a 14-mile-long levee that protects the town, and it's the only thing that separates Corcoran from Tulare Lake. Crews are working frantically to raise it, but the town is understandably on edge. People can look up and see those beautiful, snowcapped mountains, but with a pit in their stomachs. I met Lucia Solis outside City Hall. There was some music coming over the PA. She's lived in Corcoran for 30 years, but she's prepared to jump in her car and go.

LUCIA SOLIS: Well, you know what? We got some things ready. Like, important documents, I keep in my trunk, you know, in case we have to do that. I have to - I make sure that my tank is full, you know, and just wait, you know, and wait and pray.

YEAGER: And there's another big weather turnaround coming. More snow could happen in the Sierra in May, and that means we could potentially see even more flooding.

SIMON: Joshua Yeager of KVPR, thanks so much.

YEAGER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Joshua Yeager

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