In the end, it wasn’t a state agency that saved the day and kept a section of the levee behind Hays Road from blowing wide open and flooding the homes hundreds of residents south of Manteca
It was farmers.
And they did it virtually all on their own.
On Monday evening, a foot patrol by two Lathrop-Manteca Fire District firefighters spotted a crack running through the top of the levee, not far from where a sinkhole had been repaired last week by OES crews after sloughing was discovered along the dry side of the levee.
By the time word got out to local farmers, who began mobilizing heavy equipment, the crack grew to the point that water had begun to rush from the river into a nearby field – spreading to as far as 20 feet across before emergency patchwork stopped the flow of water and gave work crews something to work with.
With no material to work with, a pack tractor and a loader worked on opposite sides of the crack to break the top of the levee into the hole and tamp down as much earth as possible to temporarily hold back the San Joaquin River – which is expected to rise throughout the day today now that water released on Monday afternoon from Don Pedro has made its way downstream.
South Manteca farmers Loren Haworth, Johnny Cardoza, Tony Coit and Bill Cambra were among those making the last-ditch effort to stop widespread flooding.
“It was a significant breach of the levee when we arrived on scene Monday night,” said Dante Nomellini – a Stockton attorney and water rights activist who was speaking on behalf of Reclamation District 17. “And by the time that we got there, the farmers pretty much had it handled – they had stopped the water from flowing through. Had they not responded in the timeframe that they did, there’s no doubt that breach would have gotten wider and released even more water than it did.”
According to Nomellini, the levees of the districts in South Manteca aren’t like those that protect more urban areas along the San Joaquin River to the north – levees that were built specifically to keep rising floodwaters from impacting development. The levee that breached on Monday night, Nomellini said, were built by the Army Corps of Engineers more than half-a-century ago and were never designed to protect a growing area in mind.
Evacuations of a large portion of South Manteca affected 500 homes that could be in danger of flooding clogged roads into Manteca and across through Ripon into Modesto, but by Tuesday afternoon much of that order had been lifted.
Only the property west of Airport Way – from Woodward Avenue down south to Airport Court – remains under an evacuation order. Both Turtle Beach Resort and the Wetherbee Lake subdivision behind the old Oakwood Lake Resort are both included in the reformed boundaries.
The majority of new home construction south of the Highway 120 bypass was spared by the evacuation order on Monday evening – impacting a small neighborhood just south of Woodward Avenue in addition to the rural properties and farms that were included in the evacuation order.
Despite mounting a victory on Monday night, farmers in the area – that are still under an evacuation order – are bracing for the river to increase once the water that was released through the Don Pedro Spillway earlier in the day arrives and keeps the river flowing above 30 feet.
The water-logged levees, which have seen far more rain than in 1997 when they broke in 13 places in South San Joaquin County, have already started to produce issues like sinkholes and boils that are bubbling with dirty water – meaning that the levee is starting to move material through seepage channels which weaken the overall integrity and structure of the levee itself.
“When the water gets that high, it’s going to find a way out,” said farmer Tony Coit – who lives directly the path of the water that would have come had the breach on Monday not been contained. “Everything is very, very saturated right now and that water will find a toe and works its way through.
“This isn’t over by any means – the worst has yet to come.”
Some farmers are irritated at what they see as a slow response from bureaucratic channels that have the funds and the ability to make the sort of improvements necessary to prevent episodes like the one that happened Monday night from taking place.
During the crisis, Congressman Jeff Denham was on-site watching the repair take place, and according to his office, has already begun to make phone calls to shore up federal resources if the need for them to be deployed comes. The only issue is that such a response can’t take place until the State of California declares a State of Emergency – something that a bi-partisan cooperative of Assemblymembers and State Senators tried to do over a week ago in a letter penned by Senator Cathleen Galgiani and sent to Governor Jerry Brown.
“They’re telling us that it has to be an emergency for them to do anything,” Coit said of the state response. “And in that moment, it’s good to have people like Jeff Denham that stood shoulder-to-shoulder with everybody out here and saw exactly what it is that we’re dealing with – that we called for help and they said that they would ‘write a letter’ and deal with it the next morning.
“We’re running around out here with our hair on fire and they just don’t seem to see the urgency.”
According to the National Weather Service’s California Nevada River Forecast Center, the San Joaquin River is projected to reach the danger stage by 7 p.m. on Thursday, marking 30.7 feet at the Vernalis monitoring station and continuing to rise into the weekend – the fourth-highest mark ever recorded during the period of record beginning in 1922. If forecasts hold as predicted, the river will be carrying more than 42,000 cubic feet of water per second towards the levees of South Manteca – far less than the 75,600 that the river carried through the same stretch the last time during the disastrous flood season of 1997.
The Turlock Irrigation District reduced the amount of water being sent down the Tuolumne River at Don Pedro on Tuesday afternoon from 18,000 cubic feet per second to 16,000 – a reduction that is forecasted to reduce the projected river height by more than six inches once it reaches its peak.
It took 23 hours for that water to make it to Modesto, where it caused flooding along low-lying areas of the Tuolumne River, and with the San Joaquin River already on upward swing Monday night thanks to storm runoff, the river is forecasted to eclipse the 30-foot mark at Vernalis by the end of today.
Students at Nile Garden elementary school are expected to return to campus today after Manteca Unified School District officials called off classes in the wake of the evacuation order Monday night. While the evacuation order still exists in some areas that serve the rural campus, the school itself not included in the new zone.
To contact reporter Jason Campbell email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 209.249.3544.