Recalling an awful day on Ophir Creek
The first day of spring has come and gone, but the winter of 2004-05 has refused to go away quietly. An active weather pattern continues to bring precipitation to the Truckee River Basin, and as of May 1, the water content in the snowpack was 137 percent of average. We should consider ourselves fortunate to have experienced such a wet winter without the deadly floods and slides that frequently accompany them. Twenty-two years ago, the El Nio-enhanced winter of 1983 triggered a massive landslide on Slide Mountain near Carson City that transported thousands of tons of rock and other debris down Ophir Creek. The rock displaced the water in Price Lakes and sent a flash flood into the small community below that destroyed several homes and killed one man.
Monday, May 30, 1983, dawned bright and beautiful, capping a weather-perfect Memorial Day weekend, warm and dry. After the long and very stormy winter of 1982-83, which was heavily influenced by the most powerful El Nio (ENSO El Nio Southern Oscillation) in the 20th century, residents of Western Nevada and the Sierra were enjoying an unusual early season heat wave. Sun-starved residents at Lake Tahoe enjoyed the beach as the thermometer flirted with summer-like temperatures near 80 degrees. In Carson City, temperatures registered 88 degrees or warmer for nearly a week. With the weather sunny and hot for days on end, a disastrous flood was the last thing on anyones mind during this popular holiday weekend, the first of the long-awaited summer season. The snowy winter and a cold, wet spring had left a snowpack 200 percent of average in the mountains, and despite the recent heat wave, there was still plenty of backcountry skiing to enjoy. Taking advantage of the spectacular weather conditions, Ronald Mentgen decided to go cross-country skiing in the upper part of the Ophir Creek Basin on the morning of May 30, 1983. Ophir Creek is a small, elongated drainage of about 4.5 square miles that drains east-southeast down the steep, east-facing slopes of the Carson Range. The stream traverses the flank of Mount Rose, then follows the drainage slope of Slide Mountain, where it is anchored by Upper and Lower Price Lakes, two small ponds which straddle the creek within one-10th of a mile of each other. Eventually, Ophir Creek empties into Washoe Lake, which itself is ultimately a tributary to the Truckee River, about 14 miles to the northeast.Mentgen started from the Mount Rose Highway and skied across the Tahoe Meadows south of the road until he reached the crest of a ridge overlooking Upper Price Lake. After observing that the northern half of the lake was still ice-covered, Mentgen sat down to eat lunch. It was about 11:30 a.m. Moments later he heard what sounded like rushing wind, and, glancing toward Slide Mountain, he observed trees moving downslope in an upright position.High overhead, hang glider Douglas Cook clearly saw what happened. Cook had launched from the Slide Mountain Ski Resort parking lot shortly after 11 a.m. and taken advantage of the vigorous thermal air currents rising over the barren slide-scarred slopes above Upper Price Lake. Positioned at an altitude of about 9,700 feet, Cook is the only known eyewitness to the landslides impact on the alpine reservoir. As he soared 2,000 to 2,500 feet above the lake, Cook recalled I heard a roaring sound, kind of like the sound of a jet engine really close. I thought I was going to get hit. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a bunch of rising dust. The seasoned glider pilot, with more than 1,000 successful launches, watched a big chunk of Slide Mountain collapse into Upper Price Lake.When it hit the lake, he said, it was like a huge explosion. It just blew the lake apart. It looked like a tidal wave at first and then the canyon gathered it up. At that moment, Cook was the only person who knew that a landslide containing 1,400,000 cubic yards of rock material had just plummeted into Upper Price Lake. The force of the slide displaced 20 acre-feet of water and slush from the small mountain lake and unleashed a torrent of mud, rock and debris into the canyon below. Concerned about people fishing, hiking, or living downstream, Cook traced the Ophir Creek channel from his vantage point high in the sky as the ominous snakes head of destruction surged toward civilization. Anyone caught in the path of this nasty flash flood was doomed. It didnt have a chance to dissipate before it got down there, Cook noted. I saw trees just getting plowed down and it was gaining momentum. At this time it was between 40 and 50 feet high, weaving down the canyon. He began to race with the flood surge to warn downstream victims, but soon realized the futility of his attempt, so Cook flew back to the Slide Mountain launch area. From the ski resort parking lot, Cook and his friends watched a big, brown wave cross Bowers Mansion road (Old Highway 395) and saw a school bus and cars being washed out. Similar to a powder avalanche, the incredibly fast-moving slurry of rock and mud seemed to have a super-elevated surface as it negotiated curves in the channel. When the debris collided with large conifer trees, the impact snapped the mature pines like twigs. Although catastrophic floods caused by reservoir spillage are not an everyday occurrence, neither are they extremely unusual. In contrast, the forceful and nearly instantaneous expulsion of a reservoirs contents, as occurred at Upper Price Lake during this event, is a very rare phenomenon.
It was lunchtime on that hot, sunny Memorial Day Monday, and Tom Reed, his wife Linda, and three companions, Joseph Valenzuela, Tim Miller, and John Burruel, were finishing off the interior of Reeds newly built home. The Reeds had constructed their house on the north-bank terrace of Ophir Creek less than a quarter of a mile downstream from the mouth of the lower canyon, just outside of the estimated 100-year flood plain. Tom Reed noticed the creek was running faster than normal due to rapid melt from the above average mountain snowpack, but it was nothing to get excited about. Suddenly John Burruel heard a roaring noise. I heard the creek make a rumbling sound and I asked Tom if it always did that, he said. Then Tom and I both looked out the back window and we saw a mountain of dirt and trees coming out of the ground like someone was tearing things up with a bulldozer.At that point, anyone trying to flee the leading edge of flow was running from a wall of boulders, cobbles, gravel, sand, and debris towering 20 to 30-feet high and 100 feet wide. Instinctively, all five started running in a desperate race for their lives. Stay tuned for the conclusion and analysis of this unusual landslide-induced flash flood event in part two.This dramatic account of the 1983 hydrogeological event at Ophir Creek is based on USGS Professional Paper 1617, researched and written by Patrick A. Glancy, U.S. Geological Survey, and John W. Bell, Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology. Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears monthly in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, “Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” and “Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2” are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at email@example.com.