by Roving Ranger in Borrego
Summer monsoons are a beautiful thing. Watching the really big systems form overhead, listening to the sounds and taking in the smells of the desert in anticipation of water’s arrival is an experience I find hard to put into words. It’s as if every living thing here takes in a breath all at once. Everything gets very still and quiet, birds stop singing, insects stop buzzing, and even the wind goes silent! The air is so full of the smell of creosote that sometimes, it’s hard to let that breath out.
Then the thunder sounds and the desert lets out an audible sigh. Wind starts rushing into the storm and you can sit and watch the clouds billowing up like a marshmallow over a campfire. Lightning flashes and strikes, and pea-sized hail starts tapping out a rhythm on the skylights and car tops all over town. Great sheets of rain cascade out of the clouds and pretty soon the streets and washes are running rapids, carrying all manner of human existence toward the Borrego Sink or on toward the Salton Sea.
Just as quickly as it arrived, the storm cell is gone! The sun is shining, birds and insects are making so much noise you can barely hear the last of the rain drops coming off the roof. In an hour the ground looks like the rain never fell. That's when things can get interesting…
If you're ahead of the storm and downstream of the flood event, it can take some time for all that disappearing water to arrive. It doesn't all show up at once. Usually there is just a little trickle of water slowly working its way through the drainage. If you ever enter a wash at the head of such a trickle, I strongly encourage you to seek higher ground. It may look like it’s traveling slowly enough for you to out-walk, but that's the ruse of a flash flood.
If you're paying attention, you may hear the unmistakable sound of onions or bacon frying on the world’s largest frying pan. That's the sound of water hitting hot sand! Lots of water over lots of sand. You may also hear a crackling sound coming from the frothy foam that's building up at the head of the water column. The only description I have for this is if you've ever eaten candy Pop Rocks. That funny little noise as they dissolve on the tongue reminds me of the crackling sounds of flood water foam.
The topper to this ruse is that while you've been listening to the oncoming water, and watching that little trickle coming downstream, the soils along the sides of the drainage have been slowly releasing water into the wash. You may find yourself standing or driving in several inches of water before that little trickle catches up. It is now past time for you to get out of the wash. Leave the car! It’s replaceable. Get up on solid ground and wait for the flood to pass!
Twice this past week while on patrol I came across vehicles stuck in flood waters. One vehicle was pulled out just 20 minutes before a second flood arrived. Thankfully no one has been seriously injured here in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park during a flood event in many years, but several vehicles have been carried away. I’ll say it again: Summer monsoons are a beautiful thing! But they can also be dangerous and deadly. Skies overhead tell you nothing about flood waters 20 miles upstream from you. Enjoy the desert but use caution, the Monsoon Season has arrived!
For more info check out the NOAA Hazardous weather site