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Flooding Safety at Serene Lakes
Heavy winter snow is the lifeblood of Donner Summit and makes it the wonderful place that it is. With some of the heaviest snows in the US, Donner Summit is a winter wonderland for skiers and snow shoers. The spring melt waters fill our lakes and provide water for our meadows and forests. Unfortunately, the extremes of our winter snow and rains can have a downside for our community - FLOODING.
Our community is nestled around two lakes at the bottom of a basin of 1300 acres of alpine watershed. All of that watershed has to drain right through the Serene Lakes subdivision. There is an extensive network of drainage creeks, ditches and storm drains that under normal conditions allow the shedding water to reach the lakes and bypass our homes. Unfortunately, heavy winter snows can negate the effectiveness of the drainage network when they fill the network with 8-10 feet of snow. The real trouble comes when one of those warmer winter storms comes out of the Pacific Ocean laden with subtropical moisture (the Pineapple Express) and dumps heavy rains on the existing snow pack. The result is a phenomenon known as a "rain on snow" event in which the water drains directly over the snow and not though the drainage network. The result for Serene Lakes is streets and driveways become the drainage network and our houses become the destination for some of that water. 
Flooding in Serene Lakes
Ask the Serene Lakes old-timers and they will tell you about many floods in the subdivision. The most consistent flooding is on the east side of Lake Dulzura where the subdivision was built right in the drainage path for the 600 acres of watershed on that side. When a rain on snow event occurs, the water flows over Soda Springs Rd and down through the streets of the subdivision, primarily on Sierra Dr and Dulzura Dr. The drainage water floods the cross streets of Donner and Lake Dr and runs down the driveways into the homes. This is exactly what happened in January of 2015 when we had a warm storm come through and drop 5 inches of rain on the existing 8-10 ft base of snow. However, the flooding was not restricted to the east side. Due to the blockage of drainage on the west side of Lake Serena by snow and snow removal services, there was also some flooding in that area.
For more information about the flooding in Serene Lakes please see these reports:
Many homes in both areas were flooded and in some cases homes had 4 ft of standing water in the bottom floors. The damage costs for affected cabin owners was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Considering the damage and the continuing threat of future flooding, SLPOA formed a committee to investigate what could be done to mitigate the threat of flooding.
Committee Actions
The committee communicated with Placer County officials including Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery and Kevin Tabor, the road supervisor for the area and a meeting was set up for August 20th to include all of the parties involved. This included Placer County officials, SLCWD representatives, commercial snow removal companies and Serene Lakes homeowners. Supervisor Montgomery led the meeting in which the causes of the flooding were discussed and a number of solutions and policies were proposed to mitigate future flooding.The following proposals were made:
  • Placer County would make every effort to clear existing drainage along roads in the subdivision including the creek along Soda Springs Rd. They also will continue their practice of building a snow berm on the road to channel water away from the subdivision when heavy rain storms occur with heavy snow loads. County road crews were out in the summer of 2016 clearing roadside ditches and creeks.
  • Placer County also agreed to have their large snow blowers avoid blowing snow into drainage creeks throughout the community to prevent blocking drainage with snow and ice dams as occurred in 2015.
  • Private snow removal companies also agreed to avoid blowing snow from private driveways into drainage channels. 
  • SLCWD committed to clearing drainage channels running on their properties. This includes the drainage creek on the east side that channels water from Soda Springs Rd to Lake Dulzura. This work was done in September of 2016 opening the channel.
  • SLPOA proposed posting flood information which is the purpose of this page.
  • Private homeowners agreed to clear drainage channels running across their property. This work was done during the summer of 2016 by several homeowners at their own expense. SLPOA thanks those homeowners.
  • A proposal was made to Placer County to consider the installation of storm drains on the eastern side of the subdivision. This would require significant infrastructure improvements and would be very costly. Placer County officials agreed to consider the proposal. In light of predicted warmer winters as a result of climate change, the frequency and severity of rain on snow events could increase in the future with increased flooding. SLPOA will continue to pursue this issue with Placer County.
Reality Check
While no one wants flooding in our community, the reality is that we live in an area of weather extremes. The snow that we all love and makes all our snow sports possible is a double edged sword. Serene Lakes has an extensive network of drainage channels that work pretty well to drain the surrounding 1300 acres of watershed through our community, AS LONG AS THEY ARE KEPT CLEAR (see the video below). However, when that system is filled with 8-10 feet of packed snow and then we get one of those warm atmospheric river storms that drop multiple inches of heavy rain in a short time, there is very little that can prevent the storm surge from flooding into the community. Many long time cabin owners in the area have been through this many times and have made adaptations like sump pumps and raised foundations. The truth is that much of the Serene Lakes community is built in traditional drainage zones that experience seasonal flooding. In spite of this, most cabins built adjacent to the lake were built at grade level which means it only takes a few inches of flooding in the streets to flood the cabin's ground floor. This is exactly what happened in 2015. With 20-20 hindsight, it's evident now that cabins built in traditional flooding area should have been required to have raised foundations to alleviate the flooding threat. Unfortunately, the horse is long gone from that barn.
Fortunately, the frequency of severe flooding events has been relatively low in the past. Most cabin owners with sporadic flood damage have absorbed the damage and made accommodations. The real question is with a warming climate will the frequency of flooding increase. If is does, in the future the Serene Lakes community may be faced with implementing more drastic (and expensive) flood mitigation measures.
2016 Rain Storm

Winter rain storm at Serene Lakes 720p 12-16 from George Lamson on Vimeo.