Floodgates, Levees and Weirs

El Niño has recently kicked back into gear, and we are reminded California’s Central Valley was once a vast swamp and only the machinations of myriad engineers prevent it from returning to that status in a wet year. In Sacramento’s early boomtown years during the height of the gold rush, the city was wiped out several times by huge floods. The prevention of flooding as well as reclamation of land from the grasp of California’s major rivers has been an ongoing project since the mid-to-late 1800s. When I lived in Sacramento I became familiar with some of the infrastructure used to keep the city from flooding, infrastructure which is constantly being updated and modernized.

Molly and I were passing through Sacramento this week with a little extra time on our hands. I recalled reading that Discovery Park, located at the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers, was under water, so we exited I-80 in my old neighborhood of South Natomas to check it out.

I lived in Sacramento from 1983 until 2000. During those years we had any number of wet winters, including some years of flooding—most notably 1983, 1986, 1995 and 1997. Discovery Park was designed to go under water when the rivers swell. There is no cause for alarm, the levees have not been breached. It is part of the engineered plan to keep the city of Sacramento from flooding, a task that has been ongoing for over a century.


Discovery Park is fairly large, at 302 acres, and seeing it underwater is a pretty cool sight. The park anchors the 32 mile American River Bike Trail (aka the Jedediah Smith Memorial Bike Trail) which follows the American River up to the town of Folsom. Discovery Park does not boast much in the way of infrastructure, as one would expect from an area designed to flood at regular intervals, but it does have a softball field, archery range, a boat ramp, and many picnic areas. It is a narrow, flat parcel bordered by Steelhead Creek on the north, the American River on the south, and the Sacramento River on the west. I-5 passes directly over the west end of it, giving one a bird’s eye view. To the east are levees through which Northgate Blvd. passes, necessitating a flood gate, one of 15 located in Sacramento.


The pin marks the location of the Northgate Blvd. floodgate.

We drove east along Garden Highway, (the rather poetic name for the road that runs for miles along the Sacramento River on the Sacramento County side—the river forming the boundary between Sacramento and Yolo Counties) and then south on Northgate Blvd. a short distance to check on the status of the flood gate. Along the way we could see where sections of the paved bike trail were underwater. Steelhead Creek was running very high, erasing the many unofficial mountain bike trails that typically run through the riparian habitat.


Floodgate at Northgate Blvd., Sacramento, CA

Open floodgate at Northgate Blvd., Sacramento, CA

We found the floodgate open, allowing free passage along Northgate Blvd., but I remember a number of different years when it was closed for months to prevent the floodwaters from Discovery Park to move any further east.During those months I had to take a different route to work, along with many others from the South Natomas neighborhood, and traffic would be thrown onto residential streets ill-equipped for that many cars. The roads have since been reworked and elevated, and I suppose it’s likely that no one even notices the flood gate anymore, as its closure would not be much of an inconvenience.

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Closed floodgate in a previous year.

Retracing our route along Garden Highway we searched for a place to park so we could get a closer view of the flooded park on foot. We eventually pulled in to the north entrance off Garden Highway which was gated shut. Feeling cautious because of the “No Parking, Tow Away Zone” signs we took turns sitting in the car while the other crossed the bridge over Steelhead Creek and walked down the road a short distance to view the scene. Now Molly understood why I insisted on a bathroom break at a fast food place a little earlier when she couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t just use the bathrooms at the park, our destination. It would have been a bit of a swim.


The north entrance to Discovery Park from Garden Highway.


Although closed to cars, the entrance was accessible on foot. 


…but one couldn’t walk far…

Here is a quote from the Sacramento County Regional Parks website about Discovery Park: During the winter, you might see Discovery Park underwater during high water. Discovery Park is part of the Sacramento area flood control system. It is designed to flood to take pressure off American River levees when there is a lot of water in the system.


The flooded park.


After taking care of the appointment that had brought us to the area in the first place, we capped off our afternoon with a longer drive along Garden Highway. The road is on top of the levee providing views of elevated houses along the river bank, each with its own boat dock. I recall that people started elevating their homes after the floods of the 1980’s when many houses were flooded along that stretch. On the opposite side of the levee one looks down onto small farms with orchards, field crops, cows and goats.


Looking east, away from the river, from Garden Highway.


A farm lies just east of the levee.



I-80 overpass, crossing Garden Highway and the Sacramento River.



We had lunch at an old restaurant right on the river that I had all but forgotten about: The Virgin Sturgeon. An enclosed ramp leads one down to the restaurant which is essentially a barge floating on the river. Well, I say down because when the river is at its normal flow the restaurant sits below the ramp entrance, sometimes steeply below. On this day, however, we actually were walking at an upward angle, the river was so high.

The Virgin Sturgeon has been around for more than 30 years and is a great place to have a meal or a drink on the open deck in the summer. Boaters tie up and come aboard to eat and drink. But on this cold, rainy day we were very happy to sit in a corner of the restaurant with large windows giving us a firsthand view of the rushing Sacramento River. The service was excellent, the food adequate, and they had beer on tap, so we were quite content with our mesmerizing view of the river. There was plenty of debris coming down the swift water, and at one point a grebe floated past at an alarming speed. It was the only bird we saw—apparently some species of thrill-seeking grebe.

We drove home in the rain, pleased with our unplanned explorations of yet another piece of the California water system. Just after we returned to the city we learned that for the first time in three years water topped the Fremont Weir and began flowing into the Yolo Bypass. When this occurs the elevated portion of I-80 between Davis and Sacramento appears to transect a vast ocean, so far does the water spread in some years. Sorry we missed that.



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