Stockton parks finally reopened last week following a month-long shutdown due to a series of storms over the New Year that brought destructive winds and widespread flooding to California’s Central Valley.

The city’s 66 public parks were closed Jan. 3 to protect Stocktonians from falling trees and branches. One month later all but four parks are now open for recreational use, though city officials warn that park goers should still tread lightly. 

Stockton spokesperson Connie Cochran told Stocktonia Wednesday about 325 trees fell into the public right of way during the storms — meaning they blocked streets and sidewalks, etc. — which took priority over those knocked down in parks. 

Thus, the city opted for closures instead.

“Most people weren’t going to be in them anyway, when it was really storming” Cochran said. “And now it’s just a matter of being able to get in there, get them cleared, get the maintenance done that needs to be done.”

Last week, Stockton officials said that crews and contractors have been actively working on recovery efforts following record-breaking storms that began moving across California in late December and continued precipitation in the beginning of January.

The only parks to currently remain closed are Oak Park, Panella Park, Louis Park and American Legion Park, including all facilities and equipment, with the city citing continuing hazardous conditions, such as storm damage and debris, downed and unstable trees, and ground that is still too saturated to support heavy machinery. 

“When you come into a park, and you have to remove one of those ginormous trees, it takes big equipment,” Cochran said. “When the ground is still soft, you risk either getting stuck or tearing up your infrastructure further.” 

Therefore, the city has to wait for the ground to continue to dry out in some areas, which Cochran said may take awhile.

“So for those (parks) that we were able to reopen, we ask people to please stay off or away from those trees,” Cochran said. “In the parks that we have had to remain closed, it’s because we have a significant number of them (trees) or other wet conditions that just make it not safe or appropriate, or would create more damage to the park if people were to be in there playing.”

Cochran says California’s ongoing drought conditions and anticipated lifespan are likely the root problem for so many downed trees across the city.

The state has been experiencing drought conditions for nearly four years, seeing its driest winter in 100 years at the beginning of 2022, where January, February and March had the least rain and snow on record for these months ever in California. 

At the end of November, large swaths of California fell into the drought categories of severe, extreme or exceptional, with the state’s Central Valley largely classified into the latter two categories, the most severe of the U.S. Drought Monitor’s drought conditions scale. 

Trees, as well as their root systems, become weaker during extended periods of drought, Cochran said, adding that roots will also move closer to the surface as they search for water rather than down. Thus, she said dry conditions coupled with aging trees and sudden saturation can create a problem. 

“That’s why actually during high winds and storms you would see the loss of trees,” Cochran said. 

Storms in late December and early January caused pervasive flooding and strong wind events throughout the Central Valley. Stockton also saw its wettest December on record in 70 years as well as smashed its daily precipitation record for New Year’s Eve. In response, the city as well as San Joaquin County declared local emergencies Jan. 1.   

As for Stockton’s parks, Cochran said the city is continuing to work on cleaning up storm damage and getting back to a regular maintenance schedule — including the “big effort” of removing the leftover downed trees.

“As soon as we have them cleared or have them in a condition where we feel it’s okay for people to get in there and play safely and not create further damage to the infrastructure, then we’ll let people know that they come back to those (other) parks as well.”

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