Courtesy Kevin Hecteman, CFBF AgAlert
SACRAMENTO — Growers in California are still assessing damage to their orchards from this winter’s floods and heavy storms — and the crisis may not be over yet.
Releases from New Melones Lake near Sonora and other full-to-the-brim reservoirs may ramp up in the coming days as the state endures its first expected heat wave, sending more water to walnut and other orchards that are in the floodplain.
“The next seven or eight days are going to make for really interesting times,” Stanislaus County Farm Bureau government affairs director Tom Orvis said on June 13, noting that triple-digit temperatures are expected to linger for the first time this season.
A heat wave in the valley means higher temperatures at high elevations, accelerating snowmelt into reservoirs that are in many cases more than 90 percent full.
Some orchards around the Central Valley just dried out in May after having been flooded at least since February, when the most severe winter storms sent rivers and creeks over their banks and nearly caused a spillway breach in the earthen dam at Lake Oroville.
In the corridor between Oroville and Yuba City, orchards on the Feather River’s floodplain were inundated several times this year, as were some orchards beyond the levees that accumulated water because of seepage, said Janine Hasey, a University of California Cooperative Extension adviser.
Roots that are underwater long enough and get waterlogged lose their ability to draw up water when they need it, she said. Growers might start to get a handle on damage as the summer progresses and trees start collapsing, she said.
One the other hand, a few orchards that growers had assumed were done for have started to recover, she said.
“We’ll have a better idea at the end of the summer,” Hasey said. “In the river bottom, where there are swales of water, that’s where we see a lot of tree damage, but we’re starting to see other tree damage from just being flooded for a long time outside the river bottom where there was long-term seepage.”
The same is true in walnut orchards east of Modesto near the Tuolumne River, which swells when releases from New Melones run high.
“I don’t know if damage has been done, but they finally in the past few weeks have gotten water out of there and away from their trunks,” Orvis said.
In many areas, flood damage to orchards was localized. For instance, about 100 acres of almonds along the Merced River south of Hilmar may have been affected, but there have been no other reports from area growers, UCCE adviser David Doll said.
Neither the state Department of Food and Agriculture nor the UC’s Agricultural Issues Center have estimated the total crop damage from the rough winter, agency officials said. The CDFA has yet to receive any reports of winter-related damage from county agricultural commissioners, spokesman Josh Eddy said.
The most severe orchard damage may have been along the Feather River, where numerous instances of erosion occurred amid wild fluctuations in water levels as officials closed and reopened the Oroville Dam’s spillway.
The levees sustained significant damage that may prevent them from protecting farmland in the next high-water event unless emergency repairs are done this year, said state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber.
However, a budget conference committee in the Democrat-controlled Legislature last week turned down a request by Nielsen and Assemblyman James Gallagher for $100 million for levee repairs. The proposal had bipartisan support and was supported by groups that included the California Farm Bureau Federation.
“The failure to prioritize our state’s infrastructure is incomprehensible,” Nielsen said after the committee’s June 8 vote.
While Hasey is reticent about wading into political waters, she notes that some growers have lost trees because of the erosion, and the effects of a collapse could be felt for years or even decades.
What may help this summer is if hot spells remain intermittent, allowing for slow and steady runoff rather than having all of the water come down from the mountains all at once.
“What’s weird this year is we’ll get heat waves and then … it’s supposed to be raining and 68,” Hasey said. “We have these reprieves from the weather, which is probably helping.”