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Farmers assess impact of flooded fields

Issue Date: March 1, 2017
By Kevin Hecteman
This vineyard in Thornton, in northern San Joaquin County, has been flooded for more than a month. The floodwaters found their way in from the Mokelumne River through a levee break on a neighboring property. Joe Valente, who manages the vineyard and other lands for Kautz Farms, thinks the vines can be saved but says he’s losing valuable pruning time.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman
Ken Oneto had just finished pumping floodwater out of this walnut orchard below Elk Grove before another storm came along Feb. 20 and reflooded it. Oneto has a pump in place, ready to go when the Cosumnes River recedes.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

Anticipating a rain-free start to March, California farmers whose orchards, vineyards or farmland flooded during January and February storms will work to patch and reinforce levees, and hope water can recede with minimal crop damage. But some farmers say they expect to suffer losses.

Joe Valente, a manager for Lodi-based Kautz Farms, said he stands to lose an almond orchard his farm planted last year in Thornton. The young trees flooded three times in a month.

"They're about year-old trees," Valente said. "They're about 6-7 feet tall, and the water depth in this area has been about 5 feet deep for quite a while now. I'm talking well over 40 days."

Typically, almond trees would be blooming now, he said—but the flooded trees aren't, which he called "a bad sign that more than likely they're not going to make it."

A levee break on a neighbor's property on the Mokelumne River, plus levee breaks on the Kautz property and floodwater from Dry Creek, combined to flood crops in Valente's care.

"Right now, our effort's in saving the vineyards," Valente said, "not only for this year's crop but for down the road, too."

Water in the flooded vineyard stood 5-6 feet deep. Valente said the window of opportunity to prune the vines will close around mid-March, when they start breaking dormancy.

To the north along the Sacramento River, walnut farmer Sib Fedora of Meridian said "the clock is ticking" on his flooded orchards.

"There is so much seepage, so much flooding, if we don't get this ground drained, the trees are going to die. I've got some orchards that have been underwater for a couple of weeks. And if we don't have the water off of the roots by the time they start to leaf out, then there's not much hope for them," Fedora said, adding that other orchards in his area face the same problem.

As a result of releases from Don Pedro Reservoir, several dairies close to the San Joaquin River had to move their animals to neighboring properties, said Anja Raudabaugh, chief executive of Western United Dairymen.

In Sacramento County, the Cosumnes River was making life tough for Ken Oneto, who farms just south of Elk Grove.

Typically at this time of year, crews would be pruning walnuts and grapes, but flooding has prevented them from doing that, he said.

"My workers haven't been working, because we haven't been able to go do anything," Oneto said. "Lots of time off this winter, which is kind of tough."

Oneto has one walnut orchard sitting in floodwater for the third time this year. It had been pumped out, only to reflood on Presidents' Day. Oneto was waiting for the Cosumnes to recede so he could restart his pump.

The trees are dormant and should be OK, he said, though it may be years before the full effects are known.

Farmer Jake Wenger of Modesto said those long-term consequences could be serious.

"Walnuts become very susceptible for Phytophthora, a disease from basically sitting in water too long," he said. "There's really no coming back from it. It makes the trees really sick, it stunts their growth and the trees just shut down."

For almond trees, the combination of wet ground and high winds during the Presidents' Day weekend caused other problems, Wenger said.

"There's been a lot of trees that went over," he said. "A few days ago, we had gusts that were up to 56 mph out here, and driving around you can see that a lot of almond trees are down. One neighbor said he has 55 trees down across 25 acres at last count."

With reservoirs full and spilling water out to the sea, and ground saturated, Wenger said farmers hope for a stretch of fair weather.

"At this point, you hope that the sun comes out, the bees start flying and we can get to work," he said.

On the coast, Monterey County was seeing limited effects from the storms, according to Norm Groot of the Monterey County Farm Bureau.

"Most of our fields are still unplanted," Groot said. "That usually starts end of February, beginning of March. I haven't heard at this point that people are postponing that schedule, but I would imagine with all the rain we just got and how muddy the fields are, that may put a couple of weeks' worth of delay into getting in the fields and getting them prepared and planted."

Among strawberry fields, those in Ventura and Orange counties took the worst of the impact, according to Carolyn O'Donnell of the California Strawberry Commission. Those areas were planted in November and provide most winter production.

"There's been some fruit that's not going to make it to the market," O'Donnell said. "The long-term outlook looks pretty good in terms of the weather, so we're expecting by the second week of March is when we'll see a ramp-up in supply."

At a news conference last Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown announced plans to deal with the state's "maxed-out" water and transportation infrastructure. He said he wants to spend $437 million on flood control and emergency response in the short term, using $50 million from the general fund and $387 million from Proposition 1, the 2014 water bond. Brown also wants to require emergency action plans and inundation maps for all dams; step up the state's dam inspection program; and ask the federal government for prompt regulatory action and increased funding to improve dam safety.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at Ag Alert assistant editors Ching Lee and Christine Souza contributed to this report.)

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

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