Swollen streams continue to flood farmland

Issue Date: April 12, 2017
By Kevin Hecteman
Beavers made off with these and other vines from a vineyard near Thornton, which remained flooded late last week. Vineyard manager Joe Valente says the beavers ate the vines at the base and nearer the top, then took the wood in between.
Photo/Joe Valente
The San Joaquin River floods an almond orchard and vineyard on Nick Blom’s farm west of Modesto. “The almonds actually bloomed, and they seem to be looking OK,” Blom says. “I think we weathered that one pretty good. The grapes, they were technically still dormant when that water came in, so it shouldn’t have any effect on them.” A walnut orchard elsewhere on the property, flooded by the Tuolumne River, may not be as fortunate.
Photo/Nick Blom

Even though the calendar turned to spring more than three weeks ago, the impact of winter storms lingers in California orchards, vineyards and farmland near the state's swollen streams.

West of Modesto, the Tuolumne River elbowed its way into one of Nick Blom's walnut orchards. The trees have been in water up to 2 feet deep for almost three months, he said.

"I think they're pretty much going to be done," Blom said. "They're starting to bloom, but without any oxygen down at the root zone, I think they're probably going to be finished here in a little bit."

Blom, who sits on the Modesto Irrigation District board of directors, also had almonds and grapevines inundated for two to three weeks by the San Joaquin River. Those crops are likely to survive, he said.

Blom farms below Don Pedro Reservoir, co-owned by MID and the Turlock Irrigation District. In February, TID had to release water from the nearly full reservoir to make way for new storms (see related story). That set the stage for Blom's flood woes.

"Don Pedro was at its peak," Blom said. "They opened the floodgate, and I think it brought (the flow) up to about 16,000 (cubic feet per second), which is quite a bit. That's when I had about 3-1/2 to 4 feet of water in my walnut trees down there, and a lot of guys with river-bottom property were underwater then."

Heavy flows on the Tuolumne also backed up the San Joaquin River system, Blom said, "and that's what ended up putting the San Joaquin in my other orchard and vineyard."

A couple of fields along the San Joaquin remain underwater, he said.

"You hate to see that happen, but that is the risk," Blom said. "The river-bottom property's a lot cheaper than the other type of farm ground we have."

Farther north in Thornton, Joe Valente saw the end of the road for a young orchard he tends.

"The almonds are dead. They didn't even push out green tips," Valente said of a year-old orchard that has spent most of 2017 underwater.

That's due in part to a levee break along the Mokelumne River, which runs near the property Valente manages for Lodi-based Kautz Farms.

Valente said he's been trying off and on since January to repair the levee, but releases from Camanche Reservoir upstream have made the job impossible.

In the middle of all this, Valente has had to contend with an industrious group busy building new dams at his expense.

"We probably have, I would guess, maybe 5 acres, maybe 3,500 vines, that the beavers damaged," he said. "They ate the trunk at the base, ate the trunk above, and they're taking the trunk. It's amazing how much damage beavers could do."

Valente still has a lot of vines underwater, but said he's doing his best to catch up on work.

"We've been trying to prune around the water," he said. "There's probably still a couple hundred acres we have not pruned."

The Mokelumne was also making life tough for Aaron Lange in Acampo. A break in an internal levee allowed river water into one of the vineyards he oversees for LangeTwins Family Winery and Vineyards.

"We now have the breaks fixed, but water is still seeping through saturated levees, causing part of the vineyard to still be flooded," Lange said in an email. "We are in better shape than a month ago, but we still have a lot of cleanup work and damage to repair this spring."

In addition, a vineyard of old-vine zinfandel grapes was inundated for nearly two months because of heavily flowing Gill Creek, Lange said.

Blom said farmers who find themselves in such a fix can go to their county Farm Service Agency office for help with damage or loss to orchards or permanent crops.

"Even though they are planted in what's considered a floodplain," Blom said, "this is not normal to have this kind of thing happen."

At the Almond Board of California, Bob Curtis said he sees reason for optimism, even though storms during the President's Day weekend hit during the almond bloom. Curtis said the 2017 crop outlook has been improving as the rains recede.

"Orchards that were in full bloom for particular varieties during that President's Day weekend, their crop and set is lighter than would be normal," said Curtis, the board's director of agricultural affairs. "But on the other hand, outside of that extremely rainy period, even though we did have rains off and on, people are seeing pretty good, representative crops."

Some trees had blown over, he said. Trees suffering from heart rot, which afflicts mainly older trees, were particularly vulnerable, he said, as the rot ruins the tree's infrastructure and foundation. The extent of heart rot is not as extensive as initially feared, Curtis said.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.