Many CSA subscribers probably heard about last week’s report on how Climate Change is increasing the probability of an ARkstorm: a month-long series of atmospheric rivers that would cause extensive flooding throughout the state but especially in the Central Valley. The most recent ARkstorm was in 1862, and left Sacramento and much of the rest of the valley under water for a month. From a purely statistical perspective, we are “overdue” for another one.
To say that we’re not prepared for this eventuality is an understatement, and when I say “we”, I mean our government, our communities, our households…no one is prepared. Humans of course are not very good at planning for things they have never experienced. Covid is a pretty great example.
So I’ll just focus on what would happen to our farm if an ARkstorm hit in the near future. In the thirty years we’ve been farming here, we’ve actually had some pretty good wet cycles. Last October, when we got 10″ of rain in a single week, we had almost 10 acres of fields at one ranch that were partially submerged. We don’t know what happened at that spot in 2007 when a three-day AR hit, because we weren’t farming it yet. But another ranch that is less prone to flooding was covered about 4″ deep by water — it wasn’t planted at the time.
Floods can of course simply wash away crops entirely. But like humans, plants cannot stand being completely submerged in water for even a short time — even trees, if they are not fully dormant. And food safety rules ban harvesting many items even if they do survive, as they can be contaminated by the flood waters. The kind of vast flooding that happened in 1862 would not just affect crops being harvested, but also those at any stage of growth. For our farm and many others, that would mean impacting harvest for up to six months after the flood. ARkstorm would create food shortages over a very long period for much of the U.S. that depends on California for fresh produce.
All of our vegetable fields, including two that we have been farming since 1992 where we have never had flooding, are within a mile of at least one year-round or seasonal creek. In the scenarios outlined for ARkstorm 2.0, all of those waterways would be overwhelmed and would breach their banks, covering the flat farmland that surrounds them — likely including all our fields and our packing facilities.
Even in less extreme floods, all the roads in and out of Winters flood, including interstate 505. In 2007, Winters became an island for almost three days. I-80 was also closed due to flooding in Fairfield. Luckily that happened during our farm vacation in January, so our deliveries were not interrupted. In an ARkstorm, transportation in and out of this area (as well as many other areas) would likely shut down for weeks — similar to what happened during the Loma Prieta earthquake.
We have no good way of knowing how deep our fields and facilities might be flooded. While we could move trucks and tractors uphill to neighboring properties, our coolers in particular would be extremely vulnerable to flooding as they sit on simple concrete pads on the ground. If we had time, we could remove the refrigerator units and place them in higher areas, but that would mean shutting down the cooler and losing all our harvested crops.
Every year as the rainy season approaches, we take steps to make sure that our fields can drain as well as possible: cutting ditches along the field bottoms and cleaning out the culverts that empty larger drainage ditches. Is there anything more we could do to prepare for a potentially catastrophic event, though? Not really. Once the waterways around the farm are overflowing, the water will have no place else to go.
Flood control systems here and in much of the rest of the state were not planned with a biblical flood in mind. That is especially true in Northern California, where just about every dam was built to both store water and prevent flooding. If we didn’t have to worry about storing water for the dry season — or if they could accurately predict the weather two months out — authorities could just empty all the reservoirs after the first few inches of rain every year. Instead, they try to hold onto as much water as possible as long as possible.
After all, an ARkstorm might happen every century or two, but these days it seems like a drought happens more years than not. So for now, I’m going to focus on the more immediate problem — keeping our crops wet in the hot, dry weather.