Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
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High water is a reminder of past floods
Issue Date: January 4, 2006 By Christine Souza Assistant Editor, Ag Alert California Farm Bureau
Farmers and ranchers in several Northern California areas were forced to celebrate the start of 2006 with flooded fields and orchards, rising rivers and drenching rains. For these farmers, this also brought thoughts of the recent flooding events including the Jones Tract levee break, the floods of 1997 and the devastating levee breaks that destroyed New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
"People ought to be paying attention to this situation after what happened in New Orleans. The levee system in California is very neglected. There are maintenance issues with the system that haven't been addressed for years," said Brendon Flynn, a diversified grower and director of the Colusa County Farm Bureau. "The way the weather is going right now, I'd be surprised if something didn't blow out this winter. It's getting close and won't take much for a disaster."
In the past two weeks, several waves of Pacific storm systems drenched the West with rain, strong gusty winds and heavy mountain snow. Last week, downpours targeted the northern part of California as well as the Sierra Nevada, causing water levels in lakes, rivers and creeks to swell, and resulted in some flooding. Following a brief break, more powerful storms hit the state.
"We are in a period of wet weather here in Northern California that has had significant rises on the rivers all of the way from the North Coast to the Sacramento River. A fair amount of water worked its way through the system and through the bypasses where (high) flows have been occurring for a couple of days," said Gary Bardini, chief of hydrology for the California Department of Water Resources Flood Operations. "Storms have been coming as expected. Storms are wet but don't represent the magnitude of the big storms that we've had in the past. Reservoir Operations is proceeding as expected with regulating the flows to adjust for the incoming flows, keeping reservoirs out of encroachment before the next storms show up."
The Sacramento River levee system that meanders for hundreds of miles from Lake Shasta to San Francisco Bay has so far passed its first major test of the winter, with only isolated damage being reported primarily in areas that are typically inundated when the river reaches flood stage. But now that the rainy season has shifted into high gear, there is concern among levee watchers that potential disaster is only a heartbeat away.
Flynn, who farms just north of the Tehama Bridge on the Sacramento River, expressed concern as he watched river water climb towards the flood stage level.
"The river flows are not impacting us too much right now, but if it gets to 219 feet as forecast, then we start getting nervous because it puts a lot of pressure on the levees. When it hits 221 feet at Tehama Bridge, that's getting serious," Flynn said.
State and federal water experts, as well as those from the various reclamation districts, have been conducting 24-hour patrols at the most vulnerable sites since the middle of last week when the river was running at close to flood stage throughout the entire system.
As of Dec. 1, the levees remained intact with the exception of seepage being reported at some locations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, an area that has had major flooding in the past, including the levee break that inundated Upper and Lower Jones Tracts in June of 2004.
Last week, two Clarksburg-area grape growers each reported seepage in their vineyards located on the Yolo County side of the Sacramento River. Firefighters and members of the local reclamation district immediately sandbagged the areas to secure the locations. Near Isleton, a 5-foot wide sinkhole was discovered as well as a boil in a ditch next to the levee.
"The local levee maintaining agencies are monitoring the situation very closely on a continuous basis and keeping us informed. If they need additional resources they will be in touch with us and we are also sending our DWR staff to assess the situation on the ground," said Jay Punia, DWR chief of Flood Operations.
In addition, rural roads were flooded in Tehama County near Red Bluff where the Sacramento River was expected to surpass flood stage. North Coast rivers that were reported to be at or near flood stage last week included the Eel, Navarro, Garcia, Klamath and Russian.
Water officials said the latest storms created an additional threat for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, with peak high tide for the month expected to coincide with continued strong runoff in the Sacramento River. In Southern California, weekend storms brought the potential of mudslides and flash flooding.
Glenn County walnut farmer Don Anderson, whose property is adjacent to the Sacramento River near Hamilton City, said it is common for water to flood the orchards during times of great precipitation.
"When we get a big rain, the water comes up and spreads over the orchard. Sometimes we can be 50-75 percent under water. When this happens we can't get our work done, but we can put up with it until the end of February. Then we have to get back to work," Anderson said. "When there are breaks in the storm, that allows the water to drain and we can work around that. But when it is just continuous, then we get in trouble."
Anderson adds that he and his neighbors keep a close watch on DWR's weather reports and river levels.
"All of us who live along the river monitor the river levels. You can plan a lot of your operations around river projections, such as where to move equipment and make plans on pruning crews and those types of things, so it is a real handy tool," Anderson said.
Corning walnut grower Paul Martin said the flooded orchard is not hurting his walnut trees.
"The water doesn't cause the trees to die this time of year. When they're dormant in the middle of winter it doesn't really damage the trees that much," Martin said. "Every flood is different, every winter is different."
In some areas of Shasta County, ranchers are experiencing flooding and with that comes a few minor issues, said Shasta County Farm Bureau Executive Director Missy Lockie.
"Water is standing everywhere here. We have flooding happening on grazing lands, so our main problem with that is erosion. In some places it is hard to feed our cows because we can't get to them. It is not a serious problem at the moment, but if it continues to rain it might be," Lockie said. "We won't turn water away, we need to get the ponds filled up. We need the water."
State water officials indicated that a benefit to the latest pattern of storms is that breaks between storms allowed for water releases to drain through the system in preparation for the next storm. This is what separates these storms from what was experienced during the floods of 1997, when there was constant rain.
"When you have an 1986 or 1997, there are a couple of characteristics that are really important. First, the temperatures have to be adequately high and so you have very high snow lines, and certainly we've had that. Another key attribute of the 1986, 1997 storms is that they were one right on top of another and we didn't get any of these breaks in between," said Rob Hartman of the National Weather Service's California-Nevada River Forecast Center in Sacramento. "That is why we are not anticipating the same level of problems. (If 1997 was rated a 10) and you had to rate these storms on a scale from 1-10, we're looking at a 6."
During the California floods of 1997, more than 30 breaks occurred on federal project levees. According to DWR, the 1997 floods forced more than 120,000 people from their homes. More than 55,000 were housed in 107 shelters, the largest sheltering operation in the state's history. An estimated 30,000 residential and 2,000 business properties were damaged or destroyed.
More recently, people look to the June 2004 levee break on Upper Jones Tract in the delta. DWR reports that the devastating levee break cost nearly $100 million for emergency response, damage to private property, lost crops, levee repair, and pumping water from the island.
"The real problems with the levees are that there's no funding available to maintain or repair them and the permit process is too onerous," Flynn said. "It's a three-to-five-year process and it has gotten so bad the only way we can get levee maintenance done is when they fail. That's the only time we can actually fix anything."
Mike Robinson, San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation president who farms hay and grains on Roberts Island, less than two miles from the flooded area of Lower Jones Tract, said he is not worried about the recent downpours.
"We don't have any serious situations out here. Although it was a warm rain and it brought a lot of snowmelt down, it is not enough to cause us any seriousness for Roberts Island right now," Robinson said. "Usually the time we have concern is in the spring when the warm rain brings down winter snowpack early, but they didn't really have that amount of snowpack up there. Even though we had a warm rain, it has caused localized high water and some localized flooding, but it is not really a concern for us yet."
Robinson said that levees are being monitored by the local Reclamation Districts.
"There's always concern about the levees. If you can have a burrowing animal cause a flood in June, I suppose you could have a problem any time of the year," Robinson said. "We are just watching the water to see if it starts to get high, then we'll go into patrol mode for some of the Reclamation Districts, but it is not to that point yet."
Storms that pounded the state last week came with warm temperatures that melted the snowpack and increased runoff. The good news for this week is colder storms hit the Sierra Nevada, increasing snowpack and decreasing runoff.
Hartman said, at the start of last weekend snow lines were forecast in the 7,000-foot range in the Sierra Nevada, with Sunday's storm forecast to have snow lines around the 5,000-foot range.
"It is rare that we are this optimistic this early. There is an abundance of water and the prospects for the water supply are excellent," said Pete Weisser, DWR spokesman.
DWR is scheduled to conduct its first snow survey of the new winter season today near Lake Tahoe. Snowpack and water content figures should be available by noon. The survey, which is important in determining the coming year's water supply, is the first of five monthly measurements that help water supply planners estimate the amount of spring snowmelt runoff into reservoirs.
(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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