The National Weather Service says rain is expected Saturday

Merrill knows all too well the tranquility – and fury – of the Salinas River.

He has lived in this fertile river valley called the Salad Bowl of the World for 55 years. She was in high school when the river burst its banks in 1969, isolating the Monterey peninsula from the rest of the state and leaving children without school for days.

“Normally the Salinas River is pretty lazy and calm, but when it overflows it causes tremendous destruction,” Merrill, 69, said Friday, when just that was happening.

Merrill had driven his Honda CRV to the Salinas River to watch the chaos. Nearby, the tiny community of Old Hilltown was under several feet of water, courtesy of the latest atmospheric river storm to hit the embattled Golden State.

The latest storm system – prompting evacuation orders and warnings across the state – began moving into California early Friday, again raising concerns about flooding in the San Francisco Bay Area and Central Coast.

The threat was especially dire in the Salinas area, where authorities warned that flooding in the coming days could shut down major roads, including Highways 1 and 68.

On Friday morning, low-lying fields and farmland near the small town of Chualar were submerged in murky water from Salinas, which had breached some levees.

The rain returns this morning and persists through the weekend. There are also gusts of wind and dangerous conditions on the beach and the sea. There may even be storms. Beware of flooding and the possible fall of trees due to soil moisture and wind.

“These storms remain dangerous and dynamic, posing a threat to communities across the state of California,” Nancy Ward, director of the California Office of Emergency Services, said Friday. “We are not out of the woods yet. The threat to communities remains, and the waters will continue to rise even after these storms have passed.”

David Lawrence, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said most of California was beyond saturated, susceptible to flooding, landslides and mudslides, coastal erosion and downed trees. Heavy rain, strong winds and more snow are expected in the mountains on Saturday, he said.

County officials and forecasters began warning Thursday that severe flooding from the Salinas River could encroach on Highways 1 and 68, effectively cutting off the Monterey Peninsula from the rest of the bay.

But forecasts updated Friday morning predicted that the flooding would continue to be less severe, making that possibility less likely.

“It does not seem that [el flujo de aguas arriba] was as strong as predicted,” said Colby Goatley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Monterey. The river level forecasts incorporate expected rainfall and upstream flow, the latter of which appeared weaker early Friday, he said.

The Salinas River in the city of Spreckels rose above flood stage – starting at 23 feet – Thursday night, reaching 24.5 feet as of 8 a.m. Friday, according to the National Weather Service. The river peaked at 24.6 feet Friday and is expected to remain in flood stage through Saturday, according to projections from the California Nevada River Forecast Center.

A man in knee-high rubber boots in the middle of the mud. Behind him is a house with a brown fence and outbuildings.

Eddie González surveys the flood damage at his parents’ home in Chualar on Friday.

(Susanne Rust / Los Angeles Times)

“There are a lot of unknowns,” said Nicholas Pasculli, a Monterey County spokesman. “I hate to say it, but it requires constant vigilance.”

Despite flooding affecting some roads, Highways 1 and 68 were open as of Friday afternoon, Pasculli said. The flooding could be aggravated this weekend by heavy rains and strong winds, he said, or Pacific Ocean tides could also affect the behavior of the river.

“We all have to become aware of the situation of the river,” said Pasculli. “The water will take its course.”

The Salinas is that famous river from “East of Eden”, in which John Steinbeck wrote: “It was not a good river at all, but it was the only one we had and that is why we bragged about it: how dangerous it was in winter and how dry it was in summer.”

On Friday afternoon, Eddie González was assessing the damage caused by the river on his parents’ property, outside Chualar.

Wearing knee-high rubber boots, he walked cautiously through the thick mud that covered the driveway, the yard, and the fields behind the house.

“Care. All of that is sewage,” he told a Times reporter, pointing to the ground.

González explained that the river had swept away four sewage ponds upstream. All the water in the fields behind her parents’ house of 43 years — the house he grew up in — and the manure in the driveway were full of sewage.

He says that the same thing happened in 1995, although that time the water entered the house. This time, he made it as far as the fence, but only squeezed through a gap under the back gate.

“This is bad, but not as bad as that flood,” he said. As the sun came up, González noticed that the water around his family’s home had already begun to recede compared to late Thursday.

In Salinas, schools were closed because of the storm.

An industrial wastewater treatment plant on South Davis Road also closed on Friday. It is likely to remain closed until early next week after being compromised by flood water from the river, said Sophia Roma, a spokeswoman for the city of Salinas.

The treatment plant processes industrial wastewater from agricultural companies and does not deal with raw wastewater, Roma said, but the outage affects a dozen agricultural and other industrial discharges.

“It’s been a harrowing 72 hours, with thousands of people under evacuation orders,” Salinas Councilman Steve McShane said Friday night. “And thanks to the coordinated efforts between city, county, state and national assets, it appears that the loss of life and significant property loss may have been averted.”

The river flooded more farmland and open space than urban and suburban areas, McShane said. But that farmland is important, he said.

“Anyone who farms along the river will have lost whatever type of crop they had planted,” he said. “Anyone eager to visit a salad bar this spring will be able to do so but at a higher cost.”

Floodwaters surround a home in the Chualar community of Monterey County, Calif.

Floodwaters surround a home in the Monterey County community of Chualar as the Salinas River burst its banks Friday.

(Noah Berger / Associated Press)

In Mendocino County, meanwhile, flood watches remained in effect along the Navarro and Russian rivers Friday, though most of those areas aren’t expected to reach flood stage until the weekend.

In addition to the Salinas, Ruso and Navarro rivers, other places were expected to exceed flood stage in the coming days, including the Sacramento River and the San Joaquin River area, according to Department of Water Resources officials.

Friday’s storm was the eighth of atmospheric origin in California since Christmas. At least 19 people have died in the winter storms.

“The full weight of the federal and state government has been quickly deployed to try to protect our affected communities,” Ward, the director of the state’s Office of Emergency Services, said Friday at a news conference.

She was joined by the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency days after President Biden approved an emergency declaration for California. Ward said officials had positioned resources and equipment across the state for continued storm response and recovery, including the California National Guard in Santa Barbara.

At a news conference in Montecito, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the storms highlighted the need for infrastructure improvements, including improved flood protection and stormwater capture systems.

Doing so is essential, he said, in a time of climate change in which “the heat is getting hotter, the dry is getting drier and the humid is getting wetter.”

“The question is whether we are resilient enough… whether we have enough resources to be more creative so that we can thrive, not just survive, through this new reality.”

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass declared a local state of emergency on Friday following storms that swept through the city earlier in the week, causing landslides, flooding and road closures.

The city is expecting another storm to arrive on Saturday, which not only increases the possibility of further rain damage, but also hinders authorities’ ability to address the damage already caused.

Bass’s emergency declaration directs city departments to continue evaluating estimates of storm damage and to apply for state and federal assistance. It also calls on the governor’s office to waive regulations that would slow recovery efforts.

Times staff writers Christian Martínez, Salvador Hernández and Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.

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