Mt. Shasta's Mud Creek is living up to its name this year, washing a "staggering" amount of debris down the mountain, knocking over trees, flooding roads, overtopping bridges and endangering a water source for the community of McCloud.
Fed by warmer-than-normal rains in the Mount Shasta and McCloud area, Mud Creek has been sending tons of rocks, trees, boulders, cars and mud down the southeast side of the mountain, officials said Tuesday.
The debris flow also forced the closure of Pilgrim Creek Road, which heads north off Highway 89 a couple miles east of McCloud.
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"There are 5-foot boulders and just this really heavy mud slurry coming down," said Carolyn Napper, the district ranger for the Mt. Shasta-McCloud Ranger District on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
"And it's just been incredibly unpredictable in how it moves. So it's been both fascinating and terrifying at the same time," Napper said.
Officials are concerned about a large pipe that crosses over Mud Creek and delivers drinking water to the McCloud Community Services District.
They are also worried mud and debris will be washed into a pump house and spring that supplies drinking water for McCloud, said Bryan Schenone, the Siskiyou County's director of emergency services.
Workers have been using bulldozers, excavators and other heavy equipment to dig out a channel to redirect water away from the pump house and spring, Schenone said.
The McCloud Community Services District held an emergency meeting in October to address the mud threat. District General Manager Amos McAbier said at the time that he was worried about the mud flow affecting the town's drinking water.
"It is more serious than we thought. The channel keeps on changing. Our spring source and infrastructure is also threatened by the mud flow," McAbier said. "The impact of Mud Creek has already closed Pilgrim Creek Road and can possibly come into town."
The effects from the mud flows are being felt as far away as McCloud Reservoir and they could affect the McCloud River, a protected trout fishing stream that flows into Lake Shasta, Napper said.
In some areas, the river of mud is about 100 yards wide, Schenone said.
"Some parts of the forest have been pushed over and mud has taken over some of the trees and ground. It's certainly concerning to us, and it's something we're working on at multiple levels," Schenone said.
While crews use heavy equipment to clear out the mud, they also have to be careful not to get in the way of the debris flow or get stuck in the mud, Napper said.
The problem started in June due to unusually hot weather melting the Konwakiton Glacier on Mt. Shasta, spewing mud and water down Mud Creek, Napper said. Konwakiton is one of seven glaciers on the mountain.
Because of flooding, the U.S. Forest Service closed Pilgrim Creek Road in the area where the creek runs under a bridge at the road.
But the problem has evolved, Napper explained. The October rains that washed more debris down the hillside were from warmer storms, not necessarily from the glacier.
Schenone said they need colder weather to bring snow that will freeze the ground and keep it from washing away.
Whitney Creek and Ash Creek have also flooded this year, Napper said. Whitney Creek began sending mud and rocks down the mountain last summer during heavy rain storms that broke out following the Lava Fire on the north side of Mt. Shasta.
The heavy mud flows down Whitney Creek forced Highway 97 to close for hours this past summer after debris washed onto the roadway, the California Department of Transportation said.
Mud Creek flooded in the summer of 2014 drought. Portions of Konwokiton Glacier broke off, sending tons of rocks and mud down the stream and onto Pilgrim Creek Road.
Mud Creek also flooded during previous droughts in the 1970s and 1920s, Napper said. Like this year, those previous floods were brought on by low snowfall and high summer temperatures, she said.
During the 1920s the flooding and mud flows were so bad that it affected the water supply to Redding, she said. At the time, Shasta Dam had not been built, so the silt in the water was carried all the way to the Sacramento River into Redding, she said.
Scientists have noted the glaciers on Mt. Shasta, as well as other peaks throughout the Pacific Northwest, have been shrinking over the past couple decades.
Dr. Mauri Pelto, an expert on glaciers and climate change, told Mount Shasta Area Newspapers earlier this year that Mt. Shasta’s Whitney Glacier, the longest in California, has shrunk 800 meters in the past 16 years, or about 25% of its length.
Even more stunning is a “spectacular loss of snowpack” above 12,000 feet, helping reduce Whitney's total mass by nearly half.
While colder weather is expected this fall and winter, the flooding problem could return next year if the North State goes through another hot and dry year, Napper said.
"Whatever people believe, or don't believe about climate change, it just seems like there's less snow on the mountain. So this could happen again, and like I said, in the '20s it went on for several years," Napper said.
Damon Arthur is among the first on the scene at breaking news incidents, reporting real time on Twitter at @damonarthur_RS. Damon is part of a dedicated team of journalists who investigate wrongdoing and find the unheard voices to tell the stories of the North State. He welcomes story tips at 530-338-8834 and email@example.com. Help local journalism thrive by subscribing today!
This article originally appeared on Redding Record Searchlight: Mt. Shasta creek flooding threatens town's water supply