Farmers volunteer to monitor levees
By Ching Lee
Sutter County farmer Mike Daddow checks on a boil that Reclamation District 1001 identified this winter through regular patrolling of levees along the Sacramento and Feather rivers. Daddow serves on the district’s board and, like many farmers who live and farm near levees, he volunteers his time to patrol the levees and report problems that could lead to flooding.
Sutter County farmer Mike Daddow examines one of a number of boils found along the levees of the Sacramento and Feather rivers.
As with many farmers, Mike Daddow typically spends the winter months making repairs to equipment and other preparations for spring planting. But lately, the Sutter County farmer has spent some of that time driving along the levees of the Sacramento and Feather rivers, checking for signs of danger.
Specifically, he's inspecting the land side of the levee for boils, weak spots where water is bubbling up out of the ground. If it's clear water running through, he's not too worried, he said, as seepage is normal. But if the water is murky and it's pulling sand with it, the boil could lead to internal erosion of the levee, eventually causing the earthen barrier to collapse if left unfixed.
"You get used to looking for moving water or a different coloration, material that's moving," Daddow said. "It gets really difficult if it's raining and the wind is blowing, but you still got to do it. It's a babysitting job."
When river levels are high, he said it doesn't take much to round up enough volunteers—most of them farmers—to patrol the levees. At what is known as the "monitor" stage, patrolling is done 24/7, said Joe Henderson, general manager of Reclamation District 1001.
The district maintains some 60 miles of levees in the Sacramento Valley. All five of the district's board members are farmers, including Daddow, and they all participate in levee patrol, as do others in the district, Henderson said, noting that he has a list of 40 to 50 farmers who have volunteered.
"Everybody has been here for a very long time and they know that when high waters come in, they're called to duty. We got phone calls of people offering their assistance," he said. "They're out there in the middle of the night, they're out there as the sun comes up, they're out there as the sun goes down. We were at monitor stage for so long at various rivers that we couldn't have done it without them."
Farmers bring with them multi-generational knowledge about the levees and they know what to look for, Henderson added. For example, Daddow is the third generation in his family to sit on the RD 1001 board, following his uncle and grandfather. He said he's gotten good at spotting problems, even in the dark.
Usually working 12-hour shifts, RD 1001 volunteers drive back and forth along their assigned stretch of levee, looking for holes and boils. Sometimes they have to do it by foot to get a closer and more-thorough inspection, especially if tall grass obstructs their view. If the river goes above the monitor stage and reaches flood stage or the next level, danger stage, more volunteers are dispatched to increase frequency of the monitoring, Henderson said.
Daddow would sometimes bring along his wife or his son during one of his shifts, usually at night. With this being the slow season for farming, it's easy to find volunteers, he said, "because you can't farm when it's raining." Plus, when the river gets high, he added, "people don't like to sit at home and wonder about the levees. They want to see what's going on."
"We have a vested interest," said Daddow, who grows rice and walnuts. "All of our houses and crops and everything are right there."
As a result of the levee patrols, the district so far has identified some 30 to 40 boils and other trouble spots. Rings of sandbags are placed around the boils to contain them. To stop some of the through seepage, fabric and rocks are laid against the levee to help stabilize it. Henderson noted that these are merely temporary repairs until engineers can figure out a permanent fix.
Formed under the state water code, reclamation and levee districts are responsible for operating and maintaining the levee system within their jurisdiction—and they are as diverse as the state's agriculture, said John Paasch, chief of the flood operations branch for the California Department of Water Resources. The special districts range in size and budgets, with funding generally coming from property taxes on land they protect.
Larger districts have full-time staff that conduct levee patrols during flood season and year-round maintenance. Smaller districts tend to rely more on their communities, Paasch added.
"You've got the rural ones out there that are real limited in their budgets, so I could see outfits like that leaning on the landowners or the trustees themselves to do those patrols," he said.
Although Sutter County walnut farmer Brian Fedora has done his share of levee patrol in the past, this year he decided to put four of his employees on the job to help Reclamation District 70 manager Andy Duffey, who had trouble filling the positions, which are eight-hour shifts, seven days a week.
"We're all interested; we all have a stake," Fedora said. "A lot of growers have their shops, their equipment, their homes around the levees."
He said he couldn't work the full-time shifts, but he has no problem having his employees help during this slow season, and will keep them on levee patrol for as long as the district needs them.
"That helps me out because being so wet, I was running out of shop work," he said. "You can only sweep the floors so many times. So really, it's been a win-win."
With 44 miles of levees to monitor in the Meridian basin, Fedora noted it takes about two hours driving at 15 mph to make the entire loop. There is no lunch break during the eight-hour shift. Meals are eaten in the vehicle in order to keep moving. If his employees find boils or other potential problems, they place a stake on the spot, log it and then report it to the district manager, who then notifies DWR to further assess the problem.
Unlike farmers who already have extensive levee expertise, Fedora's employees had to go through training by riding with district staff, so they know what to look for. Now they, too, are experts, Fedora said.
DWR provides on-site group training at no cost and now has an online video training program at musrflood.com/index.php for emergency levee workers. A handbook on flood fighting and guidelines for levee threat monitoring also are available, Paasch said.
At RD 1001, Henderson said not only have farmers been willing to contribute their time, but landowners on whose property levee repairs must be made have been 100 percent cooperative in allowing any work that needs to be done.
"They didn't say, 'Go around that tree,' or 'Don't ruin my ramp,' or whatever it was," Henderson said. "It was, 'Do whatever you need to do, because there's a bigger picture here.' People know that it's not just them that the levee protects."
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.