Farmers, ranchers and rural communities are bracing for more flooding to come. As California enters the hot summer months, the statewide snowpack remains more than 300% of average for this date. In the San Joaquin Valley below, Tulare Lake—now as wide as Lake Tahoe—continues its creeping expansion into farmland. Farmers and officials are racing to find solutions.

Yet systemic problems in how state and federal agencies manage waterways and provide relief money to communities drew frustration during a hearing on the winter storm impacts in the Legislature last week.

California Farm Bureau Administrator Jim Houston stressed that the clock is running out for any actions to prevent further disasters. Above Pine Flat Reservoir in Fresno County, about two and a half million acre-feet of water will soon rush down in the form of spring snowmelt. The reservoir, however, can only hold a million acre-feet.

“In 30 days, it's going to fill up and start spilling over,” Houston warned the lawmakers, who assembled for a joint meeting of the Assembly Agriculture and Emergency Management committees. “Folks are trying to figure out when to move.”

But moving is hard and traumatic for cows. According to Houston, the livestock are reluctant to leave their home turf, they have special needs for their milking routines and diet, and they only trust equipment already familiar to them. After going through such an ordeal, “oftentimes the cows not the same.”

Norm GrootMonterey County Farm Bureau Executive Director Norm Groot 

Agriculture more broadly faces significant impacts. In the Pajaro and Salinas valleys, strawberry growers are experiencing the residual effects after winter flooding. Growers have lost more than $200 million, according to Peter Navarro, a farmer in Watsonville. Saturated soils pushed plantings back a month, adding more expenses for his operation and with no revenue coming in. With “extraordinarily” less fruit to harvest, his employees have earned little money.

Monterey County Farm Bureau Executive Director Norm Groot estimated $1 billion in losses to agricultural operations in his county, with 20,000 acres impacted.

The slow response in state and federal aid has frustrated Houston.

“What we need is action,” he said.

He called for direct relief to farmers who have suffered losses, rather than through an intermediary, and pointed to regulatory hurdles to building flood infrastructure projects in the state, though he commended Gov. Gavin Newsom for taking “bold action” to streamline permitting processes. Houston also applauded the efforts of legislators to offer additional relief. Republican Sen. Roger Niello of Fair Oaks is hoping to extend disaster loss deductions from state taxes for impacted counties. Sen. Maria Elena Durazo of Los Angeles is proposing a fund for undocumented workers who are ineligible for unemployment insurance.

“There's a tremendous amount of jobs that are lost and oftentimes forgotten when these things happen,” said Houston.

Emergency Management Chair Freddie Rodriguez agreed that farmworkers were not receiving the assistance they needed to recover. He teamed up with Agriculture Chair Robert Rivas on AB 513 to establish a state fund for delivering relief dollars to local agencies, community-based organizations and individuals recovering from disaster. Rodriguez said they are working closely with the Newsom administration to add a $125 million contingency fund in the budget to help families and communities.

“For many of us back home, the impacts of these storms are not yet over,” said Republican Asm. Devon Mathis of Visalia, vice chair of the Agriculture Committee. “There's flooding that is still going to take place that is moving very slowly.”

He estimated around 120,000 workers and their family members in Tulare County are suffering economic impacts from lost work.

“That's a large city—just gone and devastated,” he said.

According to Ryan Buras, deputy director of recovery operations at the Office of Emergency Services, more than 55,000 people were under evacuation orders in January, while about 530,000 households lost power and 131 homes were destroyed. As of May, counties have reported $1.9 billion in damages to public infrastructure, he explained.

“Although the economic losses to agriculture are already significant and are likely to grow, we are more sobered, of course, by the human impacts of these disasters,” said CDFA Undersecretary Christine Birdsong. “It's not just people losing their homes, it's people losing their jobs and it's the loss of life.”

A levee breach that flooded the farmworker town of Planada in January could have been prevented, argued Asm. Esmerelda Soria of Merced. She was frustrated that local ordinances prevented seasonal workers from moving into empty farmworker housing.

Both Groot and Navarro believed the Pajaro and Salinas river flooding was preventable if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had repaired, maintained and improved the levees after previous floods. Groot also blasted expensive and restrictive permitting processes for blocking landowners from clearing vegetation and sediment to restore capacity and improve fish passage.

“Many in the community wonder if they will ever fully recover,” said Navarro. “If something isn't done immediately, we may see more devastating floods occur again.”

Ahead of the Tulare Lake flooding, Phil Hanson, a dairy farmer in Corcoran, warned Pacific Gas & Electric the utility’s solar panels and transformers had to be moved. But the delayed reaction forced PG&E to send crews out in helicopters and in swamp boats with dive crews to handle the equipment, costing “way more than it could have” to ratepayers.

Nicholas Pinter, a geology professor at UC Davis, pointed out valuable lessons the state can learn from the flood disasters. He asserted that “California needs to build back better wherever possible” and seize on a window of opportunity to rebuild the levees stronger than before and to set them back further to create floodplains for excess flows. According to his research, rural communities in the state have received disproportionately low federal assistance after floods, likely due to a shortfall of manpower and expertise.

Pinter has also spent several years working with landowners in the Midwest who farm the bottoms of floodplains.

“They recognize the trade-offs inherent to their land,” he said, explaining how the farmers harvest high yields nine out of 10 years but cannot get a crop in the ground during a big water year.

Pinter also suggested rebuilding Tulare Basin communities in locations beyond the reach of future flooding, an approach known as managed retreat. But the windows of opportunity for such ideas are already beginning to close, he warned, and without action, the next disasters will be just as devastating.

“When we count on every drop of surface water and groundwater and every acre of potentially arable land, we create brittle systems, where ordinary annual variability turns into disastrous consequences,” he said.

For more news, go to