Signs of flooding still paint the San Joaquin County landscape as the ag community looks to recover. Photo by Kevin Swartzendruber
By Craig W. Anderson
California has been battling a five-year drought and suddenly farmers, ranchers, the ag industry and everyone else has been forced to refocus and cope with record wet conditions.
"It's different from 1997," said David Strecker, second vice president of SFJB. "So far this current stretch of wet weather hasn't reached the levels of 1997's heavy rains, levee breaks and flooding."
Strecker pointed out that the water woes struck at a different time in 1997, "Earlier in the year when crops were still dormant, but the storms delayed spring planting."
The crops and their growers adapted quickly and within a few weeks a high level of normalcy had returned to the county and unflooded lives went on.
In 2017, even the snowpack presents a menace as the ag industry meets the challenge of surviving a five-year drought and then almost overnight shifting focus to deal with a winter onslaught.
The Department of Water Resources (DWR) said in a February report that "in 2015, we had record low statewide mountain snowpack of only five percent of average; the four driest consecutive years of statewide precipitation in the historical record were in 2012-14; water year 2017 – Oct. 1, 2016 – Sept. 30, 2017 – is now surpassing the wettest year of record (1982 – 1983) in the San Joaquin and Sacramento River watersheds. The mountain snowpack is already well above the April 2 seasonal averages throughout the Sierra Nevada, with the southern Sierra being more than 200 percent of average for the year to date."
Levee crack dealt with
Mary Hildebrand, who's farmed in south San Joaquin County for decades, described a cracked levee near her land as a "near miss" that neighbors staunched with quick action by stopping the break. "They pushed dirt in from each side of the crack. The state came in the next day and have rocked some wave erosion, sandbagged boils and done other work on the site," she said. "Now, there's seepage but we can deal with it."
Hildebrand was one of the 500 residents evacuated when the break occurred and the SJFB board member has returned to her home… warily. "With the weather clearing up, I hope there's light at the end of the tunnel."
That light may be flickering as a new uncertainty has arrived in the weather-stricken county: Don Pedro Reservoir is releasing 16,000 cubic feet per second to relieve pressure "and the snowpack above the dam has yet to melt," Hildebrand said. "Friant has had to release some water, too, and the high river flows may stay up longer." She said the situation "is approaching 1997 levels."
With the potential of at least 10 days of rain-free weather, the soggy environment may have a reasonably good chance of recovering.
State most extreme
According to the DWR, California experiences the most extreme variability in yearly precipitation in the nation and the summary on California precipitation by the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at the Scripps Institution explains how large storms (often atmospheric rivers storms) contribute to those extreme changes. Water year 2017 has been an active year for atmospheric river storms, according to the institution.
Hildebrand said, "Our system was designed for snow pack runoff, not atmospheric rivers. We need more flood space to take into account atmospheric rivers." This would be done by putting water into the groundwater system in the summer. It may be summer before growers can get back into their fields, said Strecker. "But pruning has been pretty much done already and if we're fortunate, all that will happen will be harvests pushed back."
Time to plant nearing
"It's nearly time for planting some crops," said Brenna Aegerter, Ph.D, farm advisor for San Joaquin County's vegetable crops. "Small onions, asparagus with saturated beds can develop problems; tomatoes will have a shorter planting season but the bulk of tomato planting won't take place until nearly the end of April."
One of the major challenges created by the weather and rain is that growers are finding it difficult to get out into their fields and orchards to perform cultural practices. However, there is a benefit from too much water: crop pests are killed by flooding.
With the extreme water pummeling farming operations the groundwater recharge will continue to be done by Mother Nature and with all the water arriving, enough should be available for increased allocations. But that remains to be seen as the situation settles down in the weeks and months to come.
Allocations? Time will tell
As reservoirs are filled, rivers edge upwards on their banks and the snow melt begins to contribute to the mix, more equitable allocations seem inevitable. But, as farmers and ranchers have come to know, the simple fact that more water is available is no guarantee allocations will increaase. At times bureaucracies overpower Nature.
"This stretch of weather and water reveals a positive attitude from farmers and ag people," Strecker said. "No one wants to hear about the twin tunnels except for what can be done to stop them. And people are discussing the reservoirs and the additional storage they provide, and everyone would like to see Don Pedro adjusted."
Some storage adjustments have taken place via Mother Nature: New Hogan Reservoir has 231,174 acre feet in storage and New Melones Reservoir currently holds 1,443, 777 acre feet. These two reservoirs are beginning their return to being viable water resources for a thirsty state.
The potential for wide swings in rain from one year to the next demonstrates why the state must be prepared for either flood or drought any year.
"Although this year may be wet, dry conditions could return again next year," the DWR report said. "2017 may be only a wet outlier in an otherwise dry extended period. Unfortunately, the scientific ability to determine if 2018 will be wet or dry (via sub-seasonal to seasonal forecasting, or long-range weather forecasting) isn't yet capable of delivering reliable predictions."
More flooding than reported
Dave Simpson, SJFB board member and chair of the SJFB Water Advisory Committee, said the county's flooding is more extensive than is known due to "quite a bit of overland flow in the Northeast county resulting in minor flooding. Acampo and areas east of Hwy 99 there is a lot of flooding that hasn't been reported. Water is covering driveways and some roads. There's been more rain than the ground can soak up."
The ancillary effects of the floods and near floods have caused trees to fall and, said Simpson, "a fallen tree had a direct hit on one of our pumps and this isn't uncommon in situations like this."
He said the saving grace of the watery situation is that the storms were spread out and the dry intervals between major storms has saved the county from even more suffering and loss.
The litany of problems, actions and occurrences is long and varied: Some orchards are experiencing flooding; cherry orchards are enduring standing water; grapevines are thankfully dormant and will remain so until mid-March; cultural practices are delayed; labor may become a serious issue, if it hasn't already, as doubt about the availability of sufficient people to get the work done; workers and vehicles can't get into fields and orchards; plantings have been delayed and harvests could be pushed back; and the state has experienced withering criticism for not improving infrastructure.
Dredging, or lack of it, has contributed to the county's water difficulties according to Simpson. "There's been no effective dredging for so long due to environmentalist efforts and the Endangered Species Act slowing things down. Dredging could hold a win-win for everyone by making the channels safer and providing material to enhance the levees at the same time."
"There is a need to challenge some of the long held beliefs used to create policy and water regulations," said Simpson. "Peer-reviewed science needs to be one of the tools used."
A look at levees
Meanwhile, Hildebrand commented on the levees "that are too narrow and they start to blow-out due to saturation. Also, Dry Creek drains into Don Pedro creating too much water for the system to handle. This was supposed to have been addressed back in 1997."
Sediment and sand bars have filled in channels near Vernalis where experts say dredging and using the dredged materials to widen the levees is a viable method.
Hildebrand said, "We'll make it but it'll be a challenge for every grower, rancher and business associated with ag."