Farmers prepare for the possibility of El Niño storms


Issue Date: October 28, 2015
By Christine Souza
To prepare for storms generated by El Niño, Alonso Arrelano of Quality Ag Inc. clears dirt and leaves from a drain at an avocado grove in Fillmore.
Photo/Carlos Chavez
Quality Ag Inc. employee Matt Vanwhy uses an excavator to create a channel to divert water and minimize erosion at a farm in the hills of Fillmore.
Photo/Carlos Chavez
Fellow employee Alonso Arrelano uses pressurized water to clear dirt and leaves from drainpipes adjacent to a Fillmore avocado grove.
Photo/Carlos Chavez

Heavy downpours, potentially catastrophic flooding, mudslides, debris flows: Forecasters have begun issuing predictions about the possible impact in California from storms generated by the El Niño condition brewing in the tropical Pacific Ocean. Farmers around the state who have endured four years of drought say they're now preparing for how an El Niño winter might affect their land.

Almond grower Dan Cummings of Chico said he's begun planning for potentially strong storms.

"We've been having meetings about all of the preparations we're going to do to be ready: working on drains, some mechanical topping of trees and certainly applying zinc sulfate to get the leaves off of the tree early," he said.

Cummings recalled losing 25,000 almond trees in one day in 2008, which blew over as a result of high winds and saturated soil.

"It's worse than you can imagine, because it is not one 250-acre block that you can pull out and start over. It was 6 or 8 percent of the trees spread evenly throughout all of the orchards," Cummings said.

California State Climatologist Michael Anderson said the predicted conditions in the tropical Pacific place the current El Niño as "one of the strongest events that we've seen," and could produce a series of storms every three to five days beginning in December. For other events "as big as this," he reached back to the water years 1983 and 1998.

"In '83, the water year started out wet, stayed wet all of the way through May and is our wettest year on record. In '98, it actually didn't kick in until after the New Year. But when it did, it was very wet and ended up being one of our wetter years," Anderson said.

Parts of Southern California could be hit particularly hard by El Niño storms, he said, noting the potential for mudflows on steep slopes. To prepare, Anderson said, landowners need to pay attention to local conditions.

"Make preparations as you would for a possible wet winter and storm impacts. Sometimes, if you've been through some dry years, you let some things slide, but this would be a good year to try and tend to as much as you can," he said.

Farmer Mike Richardson of Fillmore, who operates Quality Ag Inc., which specializes in ranch management, construction projects, irrigation installation and earthwork, said he has been busy the past few weeks helping farmers prepare properties for winter.

"We've been doing a lot of work either cleaning up ditches and retention ponds or installing drain line systems," Richardson said. "Projects that we have done over the past few months are so that people are really prepared."

Richardson's company is working for one farm owner in Santa Barbara County to regrade roads so that water stays on one side of the road and travels into drainage ditches that are being installed, as opposed to running free.

Other work in Ventura County includes clearing overgrown shrubs and brush in natural drainage ditches and clearing leaves from drainage lines. In Richardson's own avocado and lemon orchards, he said, he is planting a cover crop to help with erosion control and to add nitrogen to the soil.

"We are doing a little bit extra than what we would normally do, such as making the berm a little higher and touching up slopes to make sure that water goes where it is supposed to," Richardson said.

Steve Mello, a diversified farmer from Sacramento County, farms on Tyler Island in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and serves as president of Reclamation District No. 563. Like other farmers in the district, he is assessed about $55 per acre for flood control and levee maintenance projects.

"When you live below sea level, you remain forever diligent. This is our livelihood. If the island floods, we would be in dire economic straits," said Mello, also a director for the California Central Valley Flood Control Association.

Mello and his fellow delta farmers fund a variety of projects, including improving levees by raising and stabilizing them with rock revetments, as well as replacing failing pipes. With El Niño approaching, the district continues this work and is using excavators to clean district canals.

"I just got off of the phone from ordering 5,000 sandbags," Mello said, calling that a typical seasonal supply. "The district over the years has undertaken several different projects to raise our levee, and so we feel we are much safer from flood than we have been. But there's still work to do."

Mello suggested that farmers should make sure that ditches are clean and free of debris, that their crops are insured to a level that is cost effective, that any drainage systems that carry excess rainfall are in good shape, and that pumps are inspected.

While preparations continue for what could be an unusally wet year, Anderson said he is trying to determine if the El Niño conditions will also lead to a plentiful snowpack.

"Oftentimes, El Niño tends to be favorable for snowpack development; it has in the past. We won't really know that until we get closer to winter," he said. "Then, the big challenge is figuring out how much rain is on the landscape and how much goes into groundwater recharge."

San Luis Obispo County vegetable farmer Tom Ikeda said he is hopeful about the predicted El Niño storms, but added that after four years of drought, he is "somewhat skeptical."

"Even when they are calling for a huge El Niño and a wet winter, we are cautiously optimistic. We are planning for a wet year as well as another dry year. You've got to try to plan for both and hope for the best," he said.

To learn more about flood risk, see the California Department of Water Resources website at www.water.ca.gov/floodsafe/ca-flood-preparedness/fpw_home.cfm.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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