Ag Today February 23, 2017

As local farmers contend with endless flooding, Rep. McNerney seeks solutions

Posted: Wednesday, February 22, 2017 11:34 pm

By Christina Cornejo/News-Sentinel Staff Writer

During a break in the storms, Congressman Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, was invited out to Kautz Farms in Thornton on Wednesday to observe the flood damage off of New Hope Road. Approximately 1,000 acres of farmland was under water.

From above the water’s surface you could just barely see the bare top branches of young almond trees.

“Right now the trees should be blooming,” said Joe Valente, vineyard and orchard manager of Kautz Farms. “They’re not going to make it.”

A field of Pinot Noir grapes in an adjacent area was filled with water up to the tops of the trellises, but some rows were submerged in as much as 8 feet of water following Tuesday’s rain. Those may survive, with some likely problems with mold once waters subside.

“I want to get a feel from farmers of what will be helpful in terms of infrastructure funding and to prevent this kind of damage in the future,” McNerney said. “ Living in urban areas, you don’t see what’s happening. You don’t see the water flow and what we saw on the levee break and how difficult it is to repair those. You don’t get a true appreciation of what’s involved and how much damage has been done.”

The Kautz Farms property lies in what local grower Bruce Fry jokingly referred to as the “Bermuda triangle” between three major waterways — the Mokelumne and Cosumnes rivers and Dry Creek, which historically drained into the Mokelumne River.

What caused the flooding has been a series of levee breaks from multiple sides. Managers of Kautz Farms were able to repair their own property’s levee after a major break along the Mokelumne during the severe storms in early January. Recently, a 100-foot break in a neighboring farm’s levee brought floodwaters into the fields from both the Mokelumne and Dry Creek. It may take several days for the waters to recede.

The land has been farmed by the Fry family for multiple generations and in remembered history, a flooding situation of this degree has never happened. They worked and owned the land from the 1950s up until 2012.

“We’ve never seen it like this before, ever,” said Fry, who had spoken with his parents before about the land’s flooding history. “1967 was a really bad one, but it’s never been like this.”

During the congressman’s tour of the levees, local growers Joe Valente, Gary Valente and Fry identified several issues which may have contributed to this flooding.

The area’s levees are not managed by a reclamation district and instead the burden is on local landowners to work with the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies and ensure that their levees are being properly maintained and that rules are being followed. The Cosumnes River does not have any sort of water storage or flood control via dams.

“When the water goes, it just goes. There’s no control on that river. It’s why Wilton floods,” Fry said.

The Valentes and Fry hoped to convey the message to McNerney that water storage and recharge projects were needed to be better prepared for drought years. They also said farmers needed to be encouraged to take advantage of surface water in rainy years like this, so that they aren’t pumping the limited supply of water from the aquifer at all times.

“You hear, ‘Save it for a rainy day,’ but we need to save it for a dry day,” said Gary Valente.

McNerney is in the process of working on a water bill that may be used to create incentives and generate funds for infrastructure projects such as groundwater recharge and urban/suburban stormwater capture to help reduce reliance on the Delta.

When asked why more efforts hadn’t been made to create water storage in the past few years, McNerney pointed to the multi-billion dollar bond from California Proposition 1 (2014) which hasn’t really been put to use for the state.

“It hasn’t been wasted, but is still there waiting to be used, so I’m hoping the legislation that I’m proposing will help guide how that money might be used in a better way,” he said.

McNerney would like to make sure the public knows the scope of what is going on, not just with Kautz farms, but several other similar farms dealing with flooding as a result of recent storms, especially following several years of drought and heading into an uncertain future.

“Water is so essential to our future. We need to find resources and consensus on those resources to make the water system more reliable, more self sustainable and regionally sustainable.” McNerney said. “It’s a good opportunity for us to talk about what our needs are and get to a consensus.”