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In a matter of months, the San Joaquin Valley flip-flopped from severe drought to severe flooding. And now, as the big snowpack in the Sierra Nevada becomes the “Big Melt” in the Valley, who’s underwater, who’s helping clean up, and what does it all mean for our region’s future? This weekly segment featuring interviews with reporters, water authorities, growers and others who live and work in the Valley explores historic flooding and its aftermath.

Water Whiplash: Losses — and ironies — add up for Valley agriculture after flooding

A closed and flooded road in Kings County shows the magnitude of disaster created by the return of Tulare Lake this year.
Joshua Yeager
Valley Public Radio
A closed and flooded road in Kings County shows the magnitude of disaster created by the return of Tulare Lake this year.

Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of the San Joaquin Valley’s floods is that agriculture, so long parched by extreme drought, is now assessing the damages from too much water.

This installment of Water Whiplash features a panel event hosted by KVPR and 1A on May 30 about the effects of flooding on ag. Watch the full conversation in the video player or read below for a few highlights.

The discussion began by chronicling those first hours of extreme flooding in the southern Valley back in mid-March. Here’s panelist Tricia Stever Blattler, executive director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau, on the particular challenges of moving cattle from flooded dairy farms.

"You're dealing with live creatures that aren't going to just cooperatively jump in a trailer as rapidly as you would like. So there's a lot of management, and trying to coordinate equipment and transportation and fuel and drivers. And then where are these cattle going? Dry stock and those young replacement heifer stock, they went off to either someone else's dry corrals or even off to someplace like Harris Ranch just to be put out on a feedlot for a temporary period. The bigger logistics were where to put their gestational cows that are in the middle of a lactation cycle. Those female animals are milked twice or three times every single day. This was tens of thousands of cows. And creameries have different forms of permitting for where that milk is shipped, so dairies had to rapidly come up with a transportation plan and how to move their milking herd to another dairy where they could either cooperatively manage that milk flow or be prepared to dump some of that milk."

Panelist Dennis Hutson is a small farmer in the Tulare County community of Allensworth, near the edge of Tulare Lake. His fields of Montezuma oats haven’t suffered any flood damage—yet—but he’s making preparations just in case, while trying to build community resilience.

"If the flooding does occur, I did purchase insurance. Now, I'm a minister and I'm a person of faith and I believe that we're not going to be flooded and my field is not going to be flooded. But there's a scripture that says “thou should not put the lord thy God to the test.” So I bought insurance just in case, and if this area does flood then we'll rebuild our house and just focus maybe on fish farming. And so therefore I will continue to work with the Allensworth Progressive Association and we will grow crops and think in terms of creating a co-op so that the farmers who live in town can have a larger market and have a better chance of revenue generation."

So far, agricultural authorities are estimating agricultural losses are estimating damages have topped $120 million in Tulare County, and total nearly $170 million in Kings County. So what resources can help farmers recover? In April, President Biden made federal assistance available to flood victims. But panelist Paul Towers of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers said those, and other federal programs, don’t work for everyone.

"So what happens is, a lot of our federal programs, in particular, things through, say, the Farm Service Agency, are really designed for folks growing one or two crops and many thousands of acres. They're also designed for you to already be in their system, for you to speak English as a first language, for you to be able to have some of the wealth to be able to weather a storm. And the challenge that we face for a lot of our Growers is, many speak English as a second language, many are not already in the system and many can't fill out that paperwork because it's far too complicated if you're growing 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 different types of crops. And then the actual terms of reimbursement, should you lose your crop or should you lose something else, just don't actually cover the true losses. So the barriers to entry into a lot of these federal programs are just so great, they make it nearly impossible for farmers to actually recover their losses. And I think that's what we're trying to figure out is how do we design emergency assistance, and how do we design the right types of insurance that will help farmers truly weather storms?"

As we wrapped up our discussion, our panelists offered reflections on what can be learned from this situation. Dennis Hutson reflected that no one is immune to natural disasters. Paul Towers said small farmers in particular need a better safety net, in order to both weather natural disasters and build climate resilience. Finally, Tricia Stever Blattler said we should all take a good look at ourselves as consumers, and how we take fresh food for granted.

"Through the pandemic and through forest fires, and now through this flooding episode and other disasters that have played out in California's recent history, our consumers have for the most part enjoyed a relatively uninterrupted flow of all the types of specialty products and foods and fiber that California farmers grow so amazingly well and efficient on some of the most expensive and valuable land and water resources across America. And I just want to invite the larger community of California to think about what value they place on that domestic, affordable, available, reliable food supply. What does our food supply look like if we don't protect small, mid- and large-size farms in California? They're all contributors to the fabric of our safe, domestic food supply."

This discussion was part of 1A’s “Remaking America” project looking at how our government is – and is not – working for everyone. It’s a partnership with six public radio stations, including KVPR in Fresno, California. Remaking America is funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.