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Swollen Streams Continue to Flood Farmland

photo of almond blossoms in Central California

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."

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."

"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.

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.

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.

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