Commentary: Farmers fight to fix a river channel before next flood
By Norm Groot
During atmospheric river storms that hit California in January and March, Monterey County farmland suffered extensive flooding that had not been experienced in 28 years. The flood patterns were somewhat similar, even though the actual rainfall amount was nearly two-thirds less than what fell in March 1995.
The damage was extensive. More than 20,000 acres of cropland, ranchland and vineyards went under water, sometimes for weeks before floodwaters receded from the land and back into the river channel.
Damage estimates to crops and agricultural infrastructure exceeded $600 million. Another $400 million was spent cleaning up debris, reshaping farmland, rebuilding levees and replacing damaged infrastructure and buildings. Our county suffered more than $50 million in damages due to bridge washouts, roadway flooding and drainage culverts needing replacement.Overall, we face an impact of more than $1 billion without any meaningful state or federal rescue aid.
Contributing to extensive damage was the diminished flow capacity of the Salinas River following decades of limited maintenance of sediment, sandbars, vegetation and levee integrity.
After the 1995 flood event, landowners were given permission to complete substantial maintenance work in the channel to improve capacity flow and direct water away from vulnerable levee systems. Three years later, this saved us from more flooding when 1998 brought substantial rainfall to our river system. Channel maintenance was proven to be effective in curbing the flood risk to farmland and vineyards, as well as protecting public infrastructure.
In ensuing decades, multiple state and federal agencies curtailed the scope of permitting for river channel work in the Salinas River watershed region. This caused an excess of native and non-native vegetation to gain control of the river channel, diverting water flow away from the main-flow channel and into secondary channels that may not have existed previously. The scouring of the river channel for sediment has been diminished due in part to the excessive vegetation and lack of maintenance in the main-flow channel.
Part of the complexity of permitting work in the river channel is that the Salinas River is privately owned and is not a water of the state or federal government. Multiple landowners need to participate in expensive permitting process each year to get permission to work on their own land to protect farms next to the river channel.
After the winter flooding events, Monterey County Farm Bureau approached all agencies with jurisdiction over the Salinas River watershed on behalf of landowners, farm operations, vineyards and ranches along the river channel. We hoped to inspire an open and collaborative process with multiple agencies to allow for concerted work to improve the channel capacity flow, eliminate the non-native vegetation creating water dams and remove significant amounts of sediment and sandbars in the main-flow channel that cause diversion into secondary channels.
There was some initial recognition by the agencies involved that the channel and levee systems were inadequate, but permitting restrictions stood in the way, barring access to do work in the low-flow channel.
Then, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order that allowed state agencies more flexibility for flood-mitigation work in those rivers that experienced catastrophic flooding. This helped ease the permitting restrictions by state agencies, but not the federal agencies. We asked those federal agencies to match the governor’s strategy and were turned down flatly; the existing permits would stay in place, prohibiting work in the most critical part of the river channel for flow capacity.
For federal permits for channel work to be expanded, a new river survey was needed, hydrologic analysis of flow capacity had to be studied, and owners of each individual parcel of the river channel would need to provide detailed work plans and environmental impacts to the river channel. Clearly, this would take years to complete. With a predicted El Niño event coming this winter, that may be too late to save our farm, ranch and vineyard lands from further flood risk and exposure.
Sadly, it appears that government agency objectives come before protecting vital food production from flood exposure and our public infrastructure remains at risk because the river channel cannot be maintained for proper flow capacity.
We are advocating for improving flow capacity in the river while protecting the environment. Our work calls for enhancing the channel for fish passage, native habitat and a reasonable balance between flood mitigation and a healthy river system. Landowners and farm operations are willing to pay for this maintenance work, without costing taxpayers.
We hope the agencies involved can recognize the bigger picture here. We hope they choose to act on flood prevention instead of waiting for our next flood recovery.
(Norm Groot is executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau. He may be reached at email@example.com.)