A rare tropical storm pounded the Sierras with rain throughout New Years Eve day, 1997. The warm rains melted the heavy mountain winter snows, causing flooding across the region. In the Yosemite Valley, water cascaded off its waterfalls causing the usually docile Merced River to spill over its banks in a torrent not seen for more than forty years.
Sue Beatty, a restoration ecologist living in the Valley at the time of the flood, recalled, “Yosemite Falls was thundering so loud that our windows were shaking in the house, and we were a half mile away from the waterfall. It was just running!” Across the Valley, Stan Wacht watched in awe as the water level quickly swallowed Camp Curry, “By the time I boxed my stuff up, the water was up to my knees. I slept on the floor of the cafeteria with about 150 other employees and guests.”
At its peak, the flood reached 24,600 cubic feet per second. Over a four day period floodwaters washed out large sections of both U.S. Highways 120 and 140, destroyed concessioner employee housing, and wreaked havoc to the park’s bridges, trails, and campgrounds. Nearly 2,100 people became trapped in the Valley’s hotels and lodges. By the end, the flood was the largest and most destructive flood in the park’s history, causing an estimated $178,000 in damages, and closing the Yosemite Valley for nearly a month.
Video of the flood captured the sheer ferocity of the water as it erased camp grounds and turned open the Valley’s meadows into lakes.
Photographs taken by park employees further showed the flood’s destruction. The Lower River Campground inundated with water, whole sections of Highway 140 washed away, and debris jammed against the Singing Bridge.
On surveying the damage of the Lower Pines Campground, park spokesman Geoff Green told San Francisco Chronicle reporter Michael McCabe, “It’s likely that in this area, the river will keep it.” In all, roughly half of all the Valley’s campsites were destroyed, many having been located in the flood plain.
Yet with all the destruction, the 1997 flood crystalized the mounting frustrations over development within the Yosemite Valley, frustrations that reached back to the park’s failed 1974 General Management Plan. Despite the eventual approval of a plan in 1980, which sought to lessen visitor impact on the valley, visitor numbers peaked at an astounding 4.2 million visitor days by 1996. In comparison, 3.9 million visited Yosemite in 2012. Combined with a steady decline in federal funding, creating a significant maintenance backlog within the park, park administrators faced widespread criticism for its failure to both lower visitor numbers and maintain the roads, parking lots, and campgrounds groaning under the growing use.
Flood damaged bridges and buildings, including the both the historic Sentinel and Swinging Bridges. Built in 1919, Sentinel offered views of both Half Dome and Yosemite Falls, making it a favorite of park visitors. In 1987 the NPS had proposed replacing the bridge, noting that it had become structurally unsafe for highway loads with chunks of concrete began breaking off, exposing the reinforcing its steel trusses. Despite its poor condition, repairs to the Sentinel Bridge, languished over the next ten years until the flood forced Yosemite hand in addressing its failing infrastructure.
The primary reason for the park’s failure in up keeping its aging bridges, campgrounds and roads were bureaucratic. In 1984, Congress had designated 122 miles of the Merced River, from its headwaters in the Yosemite National Park Wilderness to its impoundment at Lake McClure, as a Wild and Scenic River, requiring Yosemite to prepare a comprehensive management plan for the Merced a within the next three years. However, by 1987 funding had evaporated, leaving the park in the precarious position of violating federal law but with no finical means to complete the required studies needed prior to any construction along either river.
Yosemite’s inaction, created by a combination a lack of funding, the public’s growing cultural distrust in the NPS by several constituencies, and a failure of political will within Yosemite management to exert any purposeful direction, meant all management decisions were simply kicked down the road. To members of environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, the park’s long history of development in the Valley needed to be stopped at all costs in order to save Yosemite’s natural wonders. While often in agreement with such sentiments, growing numbers of visitors demanded greater access in terms of parking lots, campsites, restaurants, and other amenities.
The 1997 flood thrust these issues to the forefront. The Sierra Club filed suit following the Clinton Administration’s approval of a $178 million for recovery from the flood, citing that the park had not properly completed the Merced River Plan.
The suit set off years of court battles in which frustrated environmental groups and individuals sued Yosemite in attempts to bludgeon park administrators into shaping policy to their sense of what Yosemite was suppose to be, which in turn brought the park’s recovery efforts to grinding to a halt. The standstill infuriated millions of visitors, who while often agreed that more needed to be done to protect the Valley insisted that the park continue to provide enough park spaces and campsites.
Furthermore, competing interests within Yosemite’s own administration over resources, particularly in completing management plans for the Merced and Tuolumne Rivers, Yosemite Valley, and the Visitor Experience and Resource Production, or VERP, report, only heightened the public’s belief that the the park had lost its way.