Tony Cardoza sits in his pickup truck on a levee in South Manteca and looks out of the swollen San Joaquin River that has completely engulfed one of his fields.
Before the river began to creep past its banks, Cardoza had plans to grow organic alfalfa on this particular lot – doing all the prep work at the end of the last season to ensure it would be ready when the time came.
And with the San Joaquin River threatening to run high for the foreseeable future – the byproduct of a record-setting snow pack and a major feeder reservoir full to the brim – he doesn’t know whether he’ll be able to get any productivity this upcoming season not only on this particular field, but another roughly 300 acres that are either inundated by high water or the seepage from the high water.
“It’s just part of the way that it goes when you farm with the river,” said Cardoza – whose family has been growing things on both sides of the levees for generations. “You don’t try and fight it, because you aren’t going to win if you do.”
While residents in places like Lathrop – where hundreds of new homes have been built between I-5 and the levee since the last major flood in 1997 – and Weston Ranch, which was on edge 20 years ago as people scrambled to get out, are coming to terms with the reality of Mother Nature, people like Cardoza have been dealing with the uncertainty of the San Joaquin their entire lives.
And it shows in the way they talk about flood years like they were yesterday.
“The levee held in ’69 and it was all the way up to the top,” Cardoza tells a neighbor as they compare the various years that the threat of flooding was the talk of the town. “We got lucky that year.”
Whether luck will be in the cards for these men of the earth in the coming month remains to be seen.
Where did it all go
When Tony Coit got out of bed on Thursday morning and went out to check the levees near his house, he was surprised to see that the water level had declined from the day before – evident by the mud markings along the inside of the levee.
But since the flows out of lake Don Pedro have been increasing steadily since the beginning of the week and the river has been subsequently rising, the conventional wisdom from those who grew up around the river was that there must have been a breach somewhere.
The only problem was, nobody could find out where it would be happening.
While seepage has been particularly worse in some pockets of South Manteca this year – flooding entire fields on the outside of the levee and turning the San Joaquin County Office of Education school at Durham Ferry into a series of lakes – it still wouldn’t be enough to account for the drop in the driver.
And determining where that break may have been is something that takes on a whole different level of significance for Coit.
In 1997, while patrolling the levee just down the way from his house with his father Paul, the pair discovered a crack in the levee that appeared to be much deeper than just the surface. By the time they realized what it was, Coit said that the bottom of the outside of the levee broke open and shot a water cannon-sized stream of water more than 300 yards out into an adjacent field.
And then the crack just kept getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger.
By the time a neighbor – Cardoza’s brother John – arrived to try and patch the hole, it had grown to more than 30-feet across, and the pressure from the release simply blew out anything that he tried to pack into the hole.
“You don’t ever think that you’re going to see that happen right in front of you,” Coit said while driving past the same old break behind his house on Thursday while patrolling the levees. “It’s one of those things that you’re looking for while you’re out here but you never think that you’ll be the one that will see it happen.”
And things changed for the family after the river ended up spilling millions of gallons of water out into adjacent fields that they and many of their friends have farmed for generations. Ultimately, the water flooded the family’s compound on Perrin Road, prompting both Paul and Tony to build their homes up on platforms that would be able to withstand the floodwaters if they ever were to come again.
In 2006, after another wet winter, South Manteca residents waited with bated breath as the river swelled again – threatening the same homes and the same farms less than a decade after it had swamped many of them. Ultimately the levees held, but since then, Coit says, there hasn’t been enough rainfall or snowpack to test them again – until now.
An ounce of prevention
While it isn’t quite the busy season yet for many farmers, things have been anything but slow on many of the ranches and dairies south of the Highway 120 Bypass since the river began to swell.
One particular dairy on Airport Way that was subjected to floodwaters the last time a series of continuous levee breaks plagued the area two decades ago has used the natural topography of their operation and a bunch of dirt and rocks to build a makeshift levee system designed to protect them if the same thing happens again.
Along the side of Airport Way also sits two piles ready to be pushed across the road to join berms on the other side if need be – an effort to stop water from advancing in either direction depending on where a break may occur.
Over on West Ripon Road, another dairy has done virtually the same thing, but expanded out its reach to circle around adjacent fields and even link up with neighboring properties – keeping the same stash of dirt build up on both sides of the road to block it if it comes to that.
While the work may be all for not – the levees have held after prolonged periods of high water in the past – the long-term forecast and the plethora of snow in the mountains makes it appear that the river will be flowing high for the foreseeable future.
Just how long and how high the river gets will likely determine what will happen next.
According to Cardoza and Coit, the old rule of thumb that was always quoted by the water men that came before them was the 30-for-30 concept – that the levees should be able to hold water at 30-feet for 30 days without any issue. Anything beyond that, Cardoza said, and the levees get too water logged and all bets are off.
All hands on deck
While some farmers were planning for temporary livestock housing and figuring out where they were going to stash equipment, a crew from the United States Geological Survey were taking measurements in the middle of the river at the Airport Way bridge – using instruments to measure the depth of the river, the speed at which the current was traveling in addition to taking sediment samples that will be brought back to their lab in Sacramento and analyzed.
In addition to checking the area that become a haven of “lookie loos” trying to gauge a sense of the situation, the bridge has also helped those who live near it see exactly how much the water has come up in the last two weeks. Off on what is normally a field inside of the levee, a small raised patch that housed trailers, multiple vehicles and an RV is now almost completely underwater – gradually, day-by-day, getting closer and closer to the rising waters.
Two weeks ago, that elevated portion became an island surrounded by water, and on Thursday, when Zach Koster drove by, he stopped and marveled at the power of nature and just how quickly the river he has grown up watching has risen.
“On one hand having all this water at one time is a great thing considering how we’ve been needing it so desperately,” said Koster – who lives on a road up the street that bears his family’s name and spends his days farming the family fields. “It’s bad for the people who might ultimately get flooded and I hope that doesn’t happen, but it’s also amazing when you look at see what nature can do – you can’t help but be taken in when you see it.
“It’s not something that you see every day.”
To contact reporter Jason Campbell email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 209.249.3544.