The Russian River flood of 1986 devastated the rural sector of Sonoma County. This year marks its thirtieth anniversary. As a visiting tourist in eighty-six and later as a full-time resident, I have never forgotten the pure power and intimidation of such a force. Vietnam-era vessels with their square bows struggled against the current as they churned upstream looking for stranded residents and dangerous debris. Runaway propane tanks exploded, sending a ball of fire downriver. Mighty redwoods became lodged under the Monte Rio Bridge. Abandoned canoes, patio furniture, vehicles and bits of homes found the backyards of complete strangers. Leroy Robinson, a local businessman, says that the current tore out the bolts to the concrete foundation of his office. The structure plus two of his trucks drifted past Joe Bacci’s century-old lumber yard (just east of the new bridge) where over 20,000 board feet floated away, making navigation hazardous for boats trying to rescue residents from low-lying areas.
The Markarian brothers, owners of the popular River Club tavern on the east end of Main Street in Guerneville, testified that the turbulent waters reached bar-level, putting a damper on the Valentine Day weekend festivities. Fred MacMurray, patriarch of the T.V. series My Three Sons, rowed into the saloon asking for his regular libation. Locals did what locals do in these parts—carry-on. The flood peaked at 48.75 feet at 7:00a.m. on February 18, eclipsing the old mark by over a foot set in 1955. Unofficially, observers swear that the river reached over 51feet as it buried the 49-foot gauge at the Guerneville Bridge.
Hearsay still persists to this day regarding the Army Corps of Engineers’ role. Some say that the federal agency released water from the Sonoma County Reservoir during high tide, thus exacerbating the problem. The Corps stated that if it wasn’t for the recent construction of the Warm Springs Dam (completed in 1982), the river would have risen an additional three feet, surpassing the rooftops of many commercial and residential structures in the lower reaches of the Russian River.
Stay dry, my friends.