‘Flood likely’: Salinas River communities brace for flooding and crop loss

Monterey County residents brace for another floodwater onslaught as an impending storm threatens to overflow the Salinas River, putting the lives of farm and crop workers at risk and triggering evacuations.

“Projections now include likely flooding of roads between the Monterey Peninsula and the rest of the county,” officials said hours before an atmospheric river hit the farming region. More than 10,000 people remained there under evacuation orders and warnings on Tuesday.

Location map of Pajaro and the Pajaro River.

The news comes just days after a levee breach on the nearby Pajaro River triggered massive flooding and prompted dozens of water rescues. The breach left much of Pajaro – a town of about 1,700 people, mostly farm workers – under several feet of water.

Residents and officials fear that flooding along the Salinas River could further threaten the area. By late Monday afternoon, the river had exceeded flood stage in Salinas, Bradley and Spreckels, according to the National Weather Service.

“Crop fields in the Salinas Valley and Pajaro Valley area are currently experiencing significant flooding and flooding,” Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, said during a press briefing. “The Salinas Valley flooding appears to be more severe along the Salinas River than what we experienced in January, with more impacts on fields and rural roads.”

Groot said January’s storms — which included nine consecutive atmospheric rivers — affected more than 15,000 acres and contributed to more than $330 million in agricultural losses in the region. Current storms are expected to affect even more area, he said, especially areas west of the city of Salinas.

“There will be more crop losses as areas that have not experienced flooding are now experiencing flooding for the first time,” Groot said.

Meanwhile, the already flooded Pajaro Valley has ‘many hectares of cultivated fields which are currently under water due to the breach of the levee over the weekend, and the waters may not recede until that this break in the dike cannot be rebuilt,” he said. “This poses a serious threat to agricultural production throughout the spring season and possibly longer.”

Among the crops at risk are strawberries, raspberries, lettuce and broccoli, said Monterey County Agriculture Commissioner Juan Hidalgo. The Salinas Valley is sometimes called the “salad bowl of the world”.

“Some of the damage we’re seeing right now is quite alarming,” Hidalgo said. “We are seeing much greater damage in our agricultural area than during the January storms.”

Floodwaters not only inundate fields and keep growers out of their crops, but will also require testing for pathogens after the waters recede, Hidalgo said — a process that could take up to 60 days.

“Depending on how quickly the waters recede, we could be looking at reduced yields for the rest of the season,” Hidalgo said. “Based on experience from previous floods that we have seen in the past, we are looking at between 30% and 50% yield losses.”

Potential impacts for agricultural workers in the area are also of concern, many of whom have been evacuated and may go without work while waiting for fields to resume production.

“Our hearts are hurting right now,” said Kim Stemler, executive director of the Monterey County Vintner and Growers Assn. The county’s wine industry grows 43,000 acres of wine grapes — about the same amount as Napa County — and employs about 7,200 people, with an economic impact of about $1.4 billion, a- she declared.

“Our wine community is multi-generational, cares about our land, our employees and our community, and it is very painful for all of our wine people to see how many people and families are truly devastated,” she said. declared.

Fortunately, she said, many vineyards are at higher elevations and many vines are still dormant or just beginning to flower, so they can be spared flooding. But some wineries have lost culverts and pumps and suffered loss of business revenue as people avoid the area.

“We really want to make sure that the employees, people and families who have been displaced get all the support they need, get it very quickly, and that those who have not been able to work because of these storms – who lost income very, very quickly — get any kind of relief you can,” she said.

Not only have many residents been displaced by the flooding and evacuations, but the drinking water in the area is currently unsafe, Monterey County Deputy Sheriff Keith Boyd said. A school, two mobile home parks and around 800 homes in Pajaro are under ‘do not drink’ orders due to flooding.

To add to the challenge, water managers in the region are making critical discharges from nearby Lake Nacimiento to make room for more inflows from the storm, officials said. This contributes to the amount of water in the Salinas River, which is already approaching capacity.

Groot of the Monterey County Farm Bureau said the conditions underscore the need for more comprehensive management of levees and other channels that have been flooded by storms.

The Salinas River channel has not “been properly maintained over the past several decades, and capacity flows have been significantly reduced due to the build-up of sandbars, excessive vegetation – particularly non-native vegetation that has taken over many stretches of the river channel,” he said.

Jeremey Arrich, head of the flood management division at the California Department of Water Resources, said Monday the agency has deployed crews to help repair the levee breach in Pajaro, including laying rocks and rocks.

“Public safety will take priority in all actions to protect local communities, and again, the situation is dynamic and evolving, and we have plenty of resources across the state with our local partners to address this. situation,” he said.

A second levee breach along the Pajaro River eased some pressure, said Monterey County water resources engineer Shaunna Murray, but there’s no clear timeline for when it will be fixed.

“We’re going to see the systems continue to stay high and wet, so we’re going to have to continue our vigilance by watching the rivers and being prepared,” Murray said. “When these systems come in and the system is already very wet, the flows really don’t go down for a while.”

On the Salinas River, the peaks started around Spreckels late Sunday evening and early Monday morning, Murray said. Additional peaks are expected from the Arroyo Seco tributary, which will reach the lower Salinas River in the coming days, followed by the waters of the upper Salinas and San Lorenzo Creek afterward.

Undersheriff Boyd said officials are preparing for flooding, including preparing whitewater rescue teams.

But while many efforts are in place to protect people from storms, harvests are largely self-sustaining, Hidalgo said.

“The plants can be quite hardy and can recover, but if they stay underwater for too many days it will definitely have very big impacts on those growers,” he said.

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