Flooding is watering down the bottomline
SALINAS – While it will be a few weeks at least before the local agriculture industry has a firm grasp of the mess left by torrential rain and repeated flooding this year, the meter is running.
According to unofficial estimates, some 20,000 acres of local farmland flooded in recent storms, threatening a costly road to recovery. Not catastrophic, in the grand scheme of Monterey County’s 366,000 acres of productive farmland, but far from insignificant either, with impacts already felt industry-wide and more surely on the way as slowly receding flood waters reveal just how much havoc winter weather wreaked over the past three months.
Waiting to see how damages tally up, some county officials and local agricultural leaders have come to their own wary but educated guess on the final economic blow, once fields are dry and consequences are apparent.
Appraisals start in the 10-digit range.
“From north to south, wildlife was not spared, farmers were not spared, farmworkers were not spared,” said Chris Lopez, the Monterey County supervisor representing most of the Salinas Valley. “All those things affect people’s jobs.”
Lopez estimates that flooding damages could hit $1 billion.
“Everybody is losing,” he said.
As Monterey County’s largest economic sector, area agriculture is directly responsible for thousands of jobs and pumps billions of dollars into the local economy each year. But as fruitful as working the land can be, successful production also means working with the land, and the land working with you – a reality made clear now twice in 2023 alone.
First was January, when weeks of back-to-back atmospheric rivers renewed flooding fears along the Salinas River not seen in decades. Then came another round of intense storms earlier this month, which pushed the waterlogged state’s stamina to the limit. Meanwhile, Monterey County’s agricultural workers have grappled with it all, waiting and watching as fallout from one deluge bled into the other.
“There wasn’t sufficient enough time (to dry out) before we started having more storms,” said Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau. “Some fields were still saturated.”
More than 15,700 acres of county farmland flooded during January’s battle with repeated rain, primarily from a swollen Salinas River. The flooding equated to $336 million in actual and projected losses for the local ag industry, a Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office survey found last month. The nine-figure number reflected $324.1 million worth of crop losses and $9.6 million worth of damages to farm infrastructure and facilities. South Monterey County bore the brunt of injury.
Because most of the Salinas Valley farmland was not in production during January’s floods, the majority of crop impacts were expected hits to the upcoming growing season, set to begin in earnest around March, rather than produce itself.
Still, scheduling delays were in order, as flooded farmland must undergo a waiting period before replanting can begin. The Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, which grew out of the contaminated spinach crisis in 2006, stipulates that crops and cropland that have been flooded must wait 60 days to ensure the land is not contaminated by pathogens from animal feces, broken septic tanks and other sources when flood water inundates fields. Growers then often turn to third-party labs to test that the produce, soil and water sources are safe for human use.
For local fields that flooded in mid-January, the two-month lag meant the next steps could have gotten underway around mid-March. But by then the flooding had resumed – before any testing could get started.
New storms over sodden ground packed a dangerous pairing of runoff and rain into regional rivers, gorging waterways more than they were in January. Rushing water overwhelmed banks – and in Pajaro’s case, a vital levee – and overflow once again spilled onto fertile land. While floodwaters inundated the small community of Pajaro and nearby agricultural fields, the Salinas River near Spreckels stayed above flood stage for days, swamping the same areas affected just two months prior – and then some.
Groot, alongside other local ag leaders, has reported that the extent of flooding this time around will include at least the 15,700 acres damaged in January, as well as some new trouble spots in North County. Together, preliminary numbers put farmland flooding from this month in the scope of 20,000 acres, Groot explained.
As of Friday, two weeks after inundation began, water is still standing in fields. Groot couldn’t say exactly which crops or what infrastructure have been disturbed so far, but he did say that March flooding runs the risk of water emptying onto fields in use.
“That’s the difference between now and January,” he said. “Some of the fields that flooded this time were actually planted. They had new crops in them.”
The impacts will vary farm by farm, as will crops lost. There’s also a vast majority of local farmers who will be able to go on with their regular growing season largely unaffected by flooding, barring a couple of weeks of waiting for soil to dry out from rain, Groot explained.
Mike Scattini, a partner in Scattini Family Farms, grows many of the standard produce the Salinas Valley is known for – lettuces, cauliflower, broccoli and celery, as well as being a major artichoke grower.
Scattini Family Farms had some acreage flooded, but most of it was fallow as the growing season is just now getting started. He had some young plants impacted but remains optimistic that when the waters recede the aftermath will not be too severe.
Scattini said it’s expected that some acreage along the perimeter of growers’ cropland will need to be disced under for a loss. At-risk crops run the gamut from mushrooms and strawberries to broccoli and cauliflower. In total there are more than 20 of the county’s top crops that could have been afflicted, as well as a number of lesser crops. Crops vary because many are heat dependent. Lettuces do well in the northern part of the valley while crops like celery and garlic thrive in the warmer southern parts of the county.
John Bramers with Merrill Farms, one of the top growers in the county, said they have experienced losses, but they are still assessing cropland and will not have a clear picture until floodwaters recede. Much of the good farmland is near the Salinas River, but it wasn’t just the flooding river that caused losses. Bramers said many of the river’s tributaries on the eastern side of the valley also flooded and damaged acreage.
Merrill grows a number of different crops that could be damaged by flooding, including lettuce and broccoli.
Christopher Bunn, whose company leases land to growers and is a member of the advisory committee for the Salinas Valley Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency, said impacted growers lost significant amounts of investment. Strawberries and lettuces are among crops that are transplanted from nurseries, and that investment doesn’t come cheap, Bunn said.
“They will be out a colossal amount of money,” he said. “It will be devastating.”
Take just strawberries, for example. Industry experts are estimating that about a fifth of strawberry farms in the Watsonville and Salinas areas have flooded since the March 11 Pajaro River levee breach, the Associated Press reported. Farms across California provide the overwhelming majority of U.S.-grown strawberries, with a third of the state’s strawberry acreage in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties.
Several crops can survive temporary flooding, but many buyers will be skittish about purchasing produce, like strawberries, from acreage that has been flooded, even if the crop is fine, both Bunn and Bramers said.
“Different shippers have different risk factors,” Bramers said.
Bunn noted that among the losses are incomes for farmworkers and undocumented workers will not be eligible for unemployment benefits.
“There will be a lot of people out of work when there’s nothing to harvest,” he said.
Some growers are recounting the kinds of things they see washed up onto their cropland, including dead wildlife and livestock. One grower reported seeing tires washed up onto farmland. Another saw a refrigerator floating by.
Past immediate shock, how the varied complications of flooding will play out industry-wide and later into the season is hard to predict, county ag leaders say.
“I can’t look into my crystal ball,” said Groot, though he did accede this month’s flooding “is going to increase the dollar value (of losses), as well as the acres affected” from January.
Chris Valdez, president of the Salinas-based Grower-Shipper Association, took estimations a few notches further. Using the $324 million in crop losses projected from January’s floods as a starting point, Valdez said the added acreage under water this month could translate into net losses to local agriculture’s crop production value totaling around $500 million.
“If you take the same ratio of new acres flooded today from January and apply that economically to the ($324) million in previously assessed impacts…you get a direct crop loss figure from March of another $160-200 million on top of what was already suffered,” he explained. “That puts us at a minimum crop loss figure of half a billion dollars.”
But crop losses are only a part of the picture, Valdez went on. Broadening outlooks to the overall toll flooding could take on the local economy, Valdez recounted economic analyses of the county’s ag industry from a few years back.
In 2018, agriculture contributed a total of $11.7 billion to the local economy, two Monterey professors found in a 2020 report. That number accounted for contribution through factors such as direct economic output and employment. Crop value is appraised separately. In 2021, the county’s agriculture production was valued at $4.1 billion.
With these figures, the ripple effect a $500 million hit to production value can have on the local economy down the line isn’t hard to imagine, Valdez said. His logic is as follows: $500 million lost of a generally $4.1 billion production value is a markdown of about 12.5%. Now apply that 12.5% to agriculture’s $11.7 billion contribution to the local economy. That’s $1.46 billion.
“If you combine the $1.5 billion in prudential economic harm and the $500 million loss to crop value, there could be an up to $2 billion impact from the combined effect of the January and March flood events,” Valdez said.
Valdez stressed that his conjecture is unofficial and speculative but maintained his estimations “are not outside the ballpark of what we’re going to see.”
“We’re going to hit that $500 million figure, most likely,” he said.
Still, if all the theorizing is hard to grasp, Monterey County is uniquely positioned to pull from flooded events of years past – namely, 1995.
That year, an eerily similar stream of torrential rain and widespread flooding through the months of January and March resulted in countywide devastation. It was then that inundated roadways rendered the Monterey Peninsula an effective “island,” a worry renewed but not quite realized this winter. As for agriculture, floods destroyed a quarter of the Salinas Valley’s projected crop value, damaged more than 30,000 acres of the valley’s farmland and caused an estimated $240 million in damage (about $476.9 million in 2023).
County officials at the time described the 1995 floods as more destructive to crops and other public facilities than “any event of record” locally, according to Herald archives.
Simon Salinas, a member of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors in 1995, recalled fallout then. Strawberry fields were ruined when the levees along the Pajaro River collapsed and flooded adjacent cropland, a disheartening harbinger of catastrophe nearly three decades later. In the wake of the 1995 floods, the county was sued by growers for tens of millions of dollars, Salinas said.
“The two floods were comparable,” Salinas said. “It might be a little worse this time.”
He recalled flying in a helicopter over the Pajaro area and seeing 50-gallon drums floating down the river into the ocean from the old Smuckers factory.
This year is shaping up to leave a similarly calamitous impression.
Anxious to discern farmland damage officially, the county has released a new survey – essentially a continuation of January’s inquiry – to area growers in both English and Spanish. Launched last Monday, Monterey County Ag Commissioner Juan Hidalgo said it may take four to six weeks to draw together a final damage assessment report from flooding.
Timing of assessments will also depend on weather over the next few weeks, Hidalgo added.
“The longer it continues to rain, fields will continue to be wet,” he said. “That just adds to that delay.”
After cold and dry conditions this weekend, California’s next atmospheric river is set to roll in starting Monday night. According to the National Weather Service, the system could bring moderate to heavy rain to Monterey County. From there, recon and recovery for county agriculture is a question of whether clouds will part long enough to blot saturated fields already off schedule.
“We’re being tested,” Hidalgo said. “Unfortunately, I think these types of events are going to continue into our future. We’re all tired of seeing one impact after the next. We need to figure out how we can better prepare and be in a better situation given what we have seen and experienced. …We can’t forget this as a community, as an ag industry, as a county. We need to work together to minimize future impacts in our area.”