Faced with three reservoirs filling to capacity due to fierce storms that pounded the West, California officials may be forced to release water and risk further damage to farms, homes and businesses downstream.

"It's unfortunate that there is damage downstream, but it's the requirement. It just has to be done," said Jeff Cohen, a spokesman for the California Water Resources Department.The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requires water to be drained from reservoirs before they reach capacity, he said.

The New Melones reservoir west of Sonora was at 2.3 million acre-feet on Wednesday - an acre-foot is the equivalent of 1 foot of water spread over an acre. The maximum capacity for the reservoir, which empties into the Stanislaus River and eventually into the San Joaquin River, is 2.4 million acre feet, Cohen said.

Other reservoirs near capacity include Millerton Lake northeast of Fresno and Shasta Lake north of Redding.

"Physically, you can't get the water down fast enough," Cohen said. "It's going to be like shifting freight cars in a crowded rail yard."

Water officials say some rivers, including the Stanislaus and San Joaquin, will remain swollen with runoff until February.

The runoff from last week's storms also was putting pressure on eroding levees in the Central Valley and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Many levees in the region already have given way, causing widespread flooding.

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This could be the most expensive flood in California history. Emergency workers estimated damage at more than $1.6 billion with only 19 counties and one city reporting. Forty-two of California's 58 counties have been declared disaster areas.

At least 29 deaths have been blamed on a series of storms that battered the West Coast from late December into the new year. Thousands of homes and businesses have been damaged or destroyed.

In Yuba County, the Feather River inundated farms, killing hundreds of animals. On Wednesday, farmers piled up the bloated carcasses of goats and horses. About 200 cows died at Martin Poldervaart's dairy farm.

"It was like an orchard of Hol-steins," said Michele Louis, who helped in the cleanup.

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