The Drought Is Making California Mudslides Even Worse

Cars on Interstate 5 in Southern California grind to a halt in the mud after terrential rain hit the area. Caltrans/AP

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


Mudslides stranded hundreds of motorists on Southern California’s main north-south highway Thursday evening after severe thunderstorms rocked the area. Cleanup crews worked through the night to plow and scoop up the mud, but meteorologists say that thanks to California’s historic drought, widespread wildfires, and a potentially historic El Niño, this disaster could be just a taste of what’s to come this winter.

The rain was part of a slow-moving storm system that passed through the Los Angeles area Thursday afternoon and battered the mountains to the north of the city in Kern County. The result: flash floods that sent mud and debris flowing down hillsides and onto Interstate 5, as well as onto a smaller state highway. I-5 has been cleared and is waiting for final inspection to reopen, but hundreds of cars are still stuck on the state highway.

According to National Weather Service meteorologist Robbie Munroe, it’s too soon to be certain how much we can blame El Niño for the storm—El Niño tends to affect the frequency of storms more than their severity. But if it is the beginning of a wave of El Niño-linked rainstorms, Californians should start bracing for more flooding and mudslides. There are two reasons for this.

Normally, plants and trees are what hold the soil together, says Munroe. But drought and wildfires have decimated plant life in many areas of California. So when heavy rain flows down slopes, it brings mud and debris along with it.

Second, the drought has dried out and hardened the ground. This can be especially dangerous on hillsides and in canyons like the ones surrounding the highways buried by Thursday’s storm. Instead of being absorbed into the soil, rainwater deflects off it and continues careening down the hill, picking up velocity and washing out whatever is in its path. 

Munroe says there is one potential upside to yesterday’s storm: Rainfall early in the season could loosen the soil and rejuvenate ground cover, hopefully mitigating the destruction caused by the weather that will arrive later this winter.

A BETTER WAY TO DO THIS?

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and we can't afford to come up short. But when a reader recently asked how being a nonprofit makes Mother Jones different from other news organizations, we realized we needed to lay this out better: Because "in absolutely every way" is essentially the answer.

So we tried to explain why your year-end donations are so essential, and we'd like your help refining our pitch about what make Mother Jones valuable and worth reading to you.

We'd also like your support of our journalism with a year-end donation if you can right now—all online gifts will be doubled until we hit our $350,000 goal thanks to an incredibly generous donor's matching gift pledge.

payment methods

A BETTER WAY TO DO THIS?

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and we can't afford to come up short. But when a reader recently asked how being a nonprofit makes Mother Jones different from other news organizations, we realized we needed to lay this out better: Because "in absolutely every way" is essentially the answer.

So we tried to explain why your year-end donations are so essential, and we'd like your help refining our pitch about what make Mother Jones valuable and worth reading to you.

We'd also like your support of our journalism with a year-end donation if you can right now—all online gifts will be doubled until we hit our $350,000 goal thanks to an incredibly generous donor's matching gift pledge.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate