Gordon and Connie Armstrong are digging a ditch to save their grape crop this year.
The sun may have been shining the last several days, but that bit of good news has not been enough to dry out their 40 acres of cabernet souvignon which backs up against the Reclamation District 2064 levee along the Stanislaus River near its confluence with the San Joaquin River in rural south Manteca. The grapes have been standing on several inches of water for the last couple of months, and for that reason, the vines have not been pruned yet.
The Armstrongs decided not to leave all the drying process to Mother Nature. About two weeks ago, they started digging a ditch that would take the water out of the vineyard to an underground pipe under the road, through a narrow ditch dug on the western side of the road next to a field which ran down several yards straight to Redbridge Slough. The slough would take the water west across South Airport Way to the San Joaquin River through the reclamation district’s flood water pumps. An electrical water pump at the couple’s property was used to speed up the water movement.
For the last couple of weeks, the Armstrongs have continued to monitor the ditch to make sure it’s deep enough to continue effectively draining the water from their grape field.
“Hopefully, if we can get (the water) pumped out of there, (the field) will dry up. That’s what we are hoping,” Connie said.
“You can’t prune (the vines) when there’s a lot of water,” Gordon said while working on the ditch with a shovel earlier this week, a task that keeps him busy just about every day.
At this point in time, Connie said pruning the grapes is fortunately “not too late because they haven’t started to bud yet,” although they understandably feel a bit anxious. How soon they can get that done “depends on how long the water will drain,” she explained.
And even after the water has all been pumped out of the land, she said they would still need to wait for the ground to dry before they can start working in the field.
Pruning when the buds are out is not recommended because you could “knock off the buds” in the process, she said.
The water inundating the vineyard is not due to a breached levee. The elevation of the area where they live and farm is just 31 feet above sea level. They are on low ground.
“The water comes up underneath; it’s not like there’s a hole on the levee,” Connie said.
The fact water at the river is high only compounds the problem, too, she pointed out.
Their house, though, remains dry since it’s built four feet off the ground.
Back in 1997, during the devastating 100-year New Year’s floods, their vineyard “barely” made it that year.
“We were under water until April that year, but we got them pruned,” Connie said.
Like hundreds of residents in many of the low-lying areas impacted by several levee breaks, the Armstrongs had to evacuate. Two of the levee breaks occurred right down from their property – one at Two Rivers RV Park at the confluence of the Stanislaus and San Joaquin Rivers, and the other at the levee by the McManis Vineyards.
Last month’s storm resulted in just one levee break in late February, which occurred on Hays Road west of the Armstrongs’ property.
Gordon and Connie Armstrong moved to their farm home in 1987. The vineyard was already there when they purchased it. The grapes were planted around 1979, said Connie who worked in San Joaquin County’s Welfare Fraud Investigation Unit for 25 years until her retirement three years ago. She and her husband, an engineer, have two grown daughters.