Oroville Dam: Evacuation Order Disrupts Farming in Affected Area

Taylor Hillman General

Evacuation of a large swath of land downstream from Oroville Dam during the weekend caused logistical headaches for farmers, ranchers and agricultural businesses within the affected area, while Department of Water Resources crews worked to head off a feared failure of the emergency spillway at the dam.

Officials ordered evacuation of low-lying areas near the Feather River on Sunday, after water in the reservoir eroded the emergency spillway. The evacuation order was lifted Tuesday.

Butte County Supervisor Bill Connelly said DWR officials feared a collapse of the spillway, “which would send a tidal wave down the mountain, through the diversion pool, over the diversion dam and to town.”

Jamie Johansson, California Farm Bureau Federation first vice president who grows olives near Oroville, said local officials acted quickly.

“You kind of see the power of the water behind the dam should there be a catastrophic failure as they were describing it (Sunday) around 5 o’clock,” he said. “I can’t tell you how important local officials become.”

Johansson said there was enough concern among the county sheriff and supervisors that they enacted the county emergency contingency plan, which included mobile text alerts.

Colleen Cecil, executive director of the Butte County Farm Bureau, said flooding was nothing out of the ordinary so far.

“There hasn’t been extreme flooding,” she said. “I think it’s normal flooding along the Feather River that folks are experiencing right now.”

Cecil said it was too early to assess damage.

“Right now, there’s standing water in orchards,” she said. “Almond bloom has started. It’s in the very early stages. These sunny days in between these rainstorms get bees really happy, and we’re going to see almond bloom here much sooner rather than later. Hopefully, pollination won’t be impacted, but that is definitely an area that we’re watching.”

Crops that could potentially be affected if the situation worsens include cling peaches, prunes, walnuts, almonds, olives, kiwifruit and possibly rice.

Kulwant Johl of Yuba City, who grows orchard crops and whose farm is located along Highway 70, said the affected region includes a number of processing, packing and fruit drying companies, such as Sunsweet, Pacific Coast Producers, Cal Fruit International and Sacramento Valley Packing.

“We have so many farms, agricultural facilities and equipment. We’ve got packing facilities and dehydrators and dryers, so if something happens, for agriculture it will be a disaster,” Johl said.

Steve Freeman, vice president of field operations for Pacific Coast Producers, which handles tree fruit and processing tomatoes, said the company temporarily shut its facility in Oroville, which includes a warehouse and canning and packaging plant.

“This is a moment-by-moment situation,” Freeman said. “Everybody’s situation is a little bit different, but I’m telling (employees) to make sure they have food, water and clothing, because they might not be able to get into town.”

Sutter County Supervisor Mat Conant, who grows walnuts in Rio Oso, said of his fellow farmers and community members, “Everybody is just concerned. We don’t know what to expect; we just don’t know what is going to happen,” adding that local irrigation districts are monitoring levees in the area.

Asked to describe how floodwater could affect orchards, Sutter County walnut grower Davin Norene said, “A wall of significant water rushing through an orchard would cause significant erosion and maybe topple trees, and standing water for a significant period would impact of the health of the orchard, since (trees) would be more prone to root fungal diseases.”

Butte County Agricultural Commissioner Louie Mendoza said his department is receiving updates from the Office of Emergency Services, adding, “As long as the water can continue to be safely released from the spillway and the Feather River can handle the water and not cause any flooding issues downstream, then hopefully we can get through this.”

Butte County rancher Steve Lambert, who lives in Oroville, said most cattle in his region are in the foothills this time of year and out of danger. Lambert resides north of Thermalito Afterbay and said he has not moved any of his cattle, which are not along the river or canal.

“There’s opportunity for us to get wet, but I don’t think it’s the wall of water that some areas are looking at,” he said.

As a county supervisor, Lambert said the region’s levees “are in the best shape they’ve ever been in,” noting recent improvements made to the Feather River West Levee.

Northern California ranchers and landowners have taken to social media to offer help to anyone needing to move livestock or a place to put them.

Tara Brocker, a rice farmer and rancher in Sutter County, was one of those offering the use of her stock trailer, though she said no one has taken her up on it yet.

“I think most people have gotten their animals out,” she said. “Calling around and talking to my friends, I don’t have anybody that’s in a bad situation that has animals that need to be moved.”

Brocker lives and farms south of Nicolaus at the confluence of the Feather and Sacramento rivers, a high-risk flood area. But her house sits above the floodplain, so she didn’t have to leave. She has, however, moved all of her livestock to property in Newcastle “because I didn’t want to risk it.”

“The agriculture community where I live is pretty on the ball about getting out and trying to be prepared, because we live in such a high-risk flood area anyway and we take it very seriously. We don’t usually mess around,” she said.

Yuba County rancher Henry Smith, who lives in Marysville, said he and his family are paying close attention to the news and watching the level of Oroville Dam. He said he’s not concerned about his cattle, as they are in the foothills of Browns Valley.

“Most people with livestock in Yuba and Sutter counties have them on higher ground, except for a few, so that’s not a problem,” he said.

Meanwhile, in San Joaquin County, vineyard and orchard farmer Joe Valente was seeing a virtual rerun of last month’s flooding. Valente, operations manager for Kautz Farms of Lodi, once again saw farmland in his care inundated.

“We’re back at it again,” he said, noting that his farm has about 800 acres of vineyards that are underwater, “anywhere from a couple of feet to 6 feet,” and has almonds underwater, too.

All that water was throwing Valente and his crews seriously off schedule.

“Our pruning is getting way behind,” Valente said.

University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor Paul Verdegaal said winegrapes tolerate floodwater better than nut and fruit trees do.

“Vines are pretty tolerant during dormancy of flooded conditions,” said Verdegaal, who is based in San Joaquin County. “They’ll easily tolerate 30 or 40 days, even maybe a little more if it’s cold and/or running water.”

But nut and fruit trees can begin to develop problems with root rot after a few days, even if the water keeps moving, he said.

Forecasters predicted more rain for Northern California this week.

“Right now, the seven-day total precipitation forecast for (the Oroville) area looks to be around 4 to 8 inches, and this will be late Wednesday through at least Monday,” said Idamis Del Valle, a National Weather Service forecaster in Sacramento. Snow levels were predicted to start at 7,000 feet and drop to 5,000 to 6,000 feet Saturday and as low as 3,000 feet Sunday, she added.

Permission for use is granted by the California Farm Bureau Federation. Kevin Hecteman,Christine Souza and Ching Lee are assistant editors of Ag Alert.