The County Voice

California: From Drought to Flood in a Matter of Months

Almost two years ago in April of 2015, I wrote about the drought in this blog.

“As a second-generation Stanislaus County walnut grower, I can tell you that there are a few things I can count on and a whole lot of things I can’t. For example, I can count on the sun shining about 260 days a year here in the Central Valley. And I can still count on my 83-year-old father to put in a harder day’s work than I do most of the time. Both of those things help our trees grow and our business flourish. I just wish the rain was as reliable.”

Well, my father is 85 now and still working hard. And I still wish the rain would fall in nice predictable patterns, not too little and not too much. But, that’s not usually the way it works. In just a few months we’ve gone from dealing with a drought to managing floods and worrying about dams and levees. That’s as true in Los Angeles or Del Norte County as it is in Stanislaus.

The whole state is experiencing local flooding and damage to roads and infrastructure. My heart goes out to everyone who has had to evacuate because of actual or potential flooding. And I want to offer my thanks and respect to all of the first-responders, engineers, construction crews and the people who work in evacuation centers. In every “disaster” these heroes restore my faith in humanity.

I’m seeing that first hand now in Stanislaus County. This weekend the Turlock Irrigation District began spilling water out of Lake Don Pedro in the foothills about 30 miles east of where I live in Hughson. It’s the first time in 20 years they’ve had to do that. We are expecting some flooding in low-lying areas along the Tuolumne River—and extra pressure on the levees that protect farms, homes and businesses all the way to the San Joaquin Delta.

The cooperation and coordination among all the different agencies involved has been tremendous. From the Turlock Irrigation District to the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department, the Office of Emergency Services and too many more agencies to name, this has been an impressive effort to make sure everyone is communicating and working together to keep people safe. From what I have seen and heard, other parts of the state have experienced similar levels of professionalism, dedication, and compassion.

Counties are working hard to keep up with it all, and worrying about how to pay for it, too. The state and federal emergency declarations will help, but this winter really shows how a little preventive maintenance can be far less expensive than emergency repair work. We also know that the danger doesn’t go away when it stops raining. The Don Pedro reservoir holds about 2 million acre-feet of water. The snowpack in the mountain watershed above the reservoir right now is holding possibly more than 2 million acre-feet more. That’s all going to melt at some point, and I am hoping for a temperate spring and summer to prevent further flooding issues.

Living and farming along the banks of the Tuolumne River we have seen this cycle before. Mother Nature follows a dry period with more snow and rain than we know what to do with. The crazy thing is I can’t tell you if this is an end to the drought or just temporary relief. Next year we might be back in a dry pattern.

So to me, this winter is also pointing out how badly we need to improve and expand our capability to store and move water in California. The dams, levees, and canals we have now were mostly designed and built 50 years ago.  We need to fix what we have and look at smart investments that can help even out the ebb and flow of Mother Nature’s rain patterns.

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