A race to save communities from flooding has turned into a marathon. Coastal farms that recovered from storms in January were hit again in March and have yet to dry out. Dairies are learning to function as islands amid an expanding Tulare Lake in the San Joaquin Valley.

And the flooding will continue into summer as a record snowpack begins to melt.

“What farmworkers need is a bailout, and it comes in the form of economic assistance,” Hernan Hernandez, executive director of the California Farmworker Foundation, told the State Board of Food and Agriculture on Tuesday. “With anything aside from that, we're just putting a bandage on a wound that is going to continue to bleed.”

Hernandez had thought the extreme drought made 2022 the worst year for farmworkers — but 2023 will be far worse.

A recent UC Merced study found that 75% of farmworkers are undocumented, meaning they cannot access federal assistance. According to Hernandez, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been handing out gift cards totaling up to $250 to cover expenses. But hundreds of farmworkers show up for each event and FEMA cannot meet the demand. As plantings are prolonged or shut down entirely, farmworkers have no income and are unable to save money to cover rent later when harvest ends. Hernandez called for the state to pick up where federal programs fall off.

Farmworkers in the Pajaro and Salinas valleys were hit hardest. Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner Juan Hidalgo said January storms led to $236 million in damages and impacted 16,000 acres. March storms added about $500 million more in damages and flooded 20,000 acres, with some farmland under six feet of water.

Hernan Hernandez Farmworker FoundationHernan Hernandez, California Farmworker Foundation

To commute to work at some dairies, farmworkers must drive an extra 60 miles to avoid flooded roads, according to Tricia Stever Blattler, executive director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau. Some employees are leaving for other jobs, creating uncertainty if dairies will survive without them.

Channels breached, levees burst and creeks overran their banks nearly a month ago in some parts of her county. Farmers deployed their own equipment to shore up the banks, pull debris from swollen channels and form berms around dairies, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on diesel fuel, labor and round-the-clock work.

Around 40,000 head of dairy cattle were impacted. Farmers and their neighbors moved entire milking herds a dozen at a time to dairies left shuttered and abandoned as the industry rapidly consolidated. Blattler said the stress to herds has been extreme, creating more health risks like mastitis and pneumonia and leading to heavier culling practices. Milk production has dropped and losses due to logistical complications have mounted, as rendering services and feed deliveries cannot get through. Ground used to grow silage and alfalfa could be impacted for three growing seasons, adding pressure to prices and availability and devastating the socially disadvantaged farmers who grow their own feed.

“They're struggling with day-to-day survival — managing their livestock, figuring out how to keep their farmworkers employed, if they can,” said Blattler. “But they're also confused and overwhelmed by so much information coming out about disaster relief.”

While food, blankets and shelter are helpful, they need immediate economic assistance, she urged, adding that some income caps on disaster relief are leaving out larger dairies that need help too.

Fruit and tree nut farmers, meanwhile, are not yet sure of the extent of damage. Reports so far indicate that 4,200 acres of almonds, 2,500 acres of pistachios and 1,000 acres of citrus have been damaged in Tulare County. Some farmers are grappling with two feet of sediment that has buried irrigation lines. Fungus and root rot are setting in.

Jeff Yasui, who directs the Davis regional office of the USDA Risk Management Agency, described the outlook for tomatoes as “a scary one.” He has been fielding near-daily calls from Mike Montna, president and CEO of the California Tomato Growers Association. The ground has been too wet to plant and tomatoes are not insured under prevented planting coverage.

Yasui added that very few strawberry growers had policies either, though some were able to acquire noninsured disaster assistance from the USDA Farm Service Agency.

The situation is far different in the Sacramento Valley. The rainfall has yielded “a great year” for livestock grazing in the foothills, according to Butte County Supervisor Tod Kimmelshue. The aquifers are making a comeback, as dry wells return to normal, showing that recharge can happen much more quickly than expected. With water allocations up, rice farmers anticipate a normal acreage this year.

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But board president Don Cameron warned that the state is “not out of the woods yet.” The snowpack in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains is triple its annual average. On Monday the Department of Water Resources gave a warning to San Joaquin Valley communities that runoff into the Kern River watershed will exceed 400% and other rivers pose similar threats.

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross said her department is assessing ahead of time where the packing plants, processing facilities and other key infrastructure are that stand vulnerable to flooding. The administration is modeling potential outcomes and will present various scenarios to communities in about a week.

With the state facing a growing budget deficit, Ross anticipates challenges ahead for securing disaster aid. The common theme that surfaced from the discussions was the need for the ongoing maintenance of water infrastructure. Flood protection has always been funded through bonds, with no ongoing source — an issue that needs to be addressed with these extreme events, she said.

Hidalgo also stressed the need for a bigger conversation about preparing for floods by cleaning up vegetation and debris from rivers ahead of storms.

“Unfortunately, I don't think we're ever going to have a 100% bulletproof plan,” he said. “But we can do our best to better prepare and mitigate those impacts.”

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