Months after major storms, California braces for snow-fed floods

California farmers worry that melting snow could inundate them with a new round of flooding.

A lone building pokes out of the water amid submerged farmland in California
After a series of atmospheric rivers drenched California during the winter, the once-dry Tulare Lake has reemerged, flooding farmland [Jae C Hong/AP Photo]

Los Angeles, California, US – In early March, dairy farmer Tom Barcellos watched as the Tule River burst its banks, flooding the area around his farm in Tulare County, a centre of agricultural production in the California’s San Joaquin Valley.

“The river broke out in a number of places. My farm didn’t get flooded, but a lot of neighbours did,” Barcellos, a lifelong farmer, told Al Jazeera on a recent phone call. “We were on river watch, keeping debris and trees from plugging up the diversion structures.”

At the time, the state was weathering the last storms in a series of 13 atmospheric rivers, bands of intense moisture that brought heavy rain to some regions, heavy snow to others.

Now, the winter storms have ended. But farmers like Barcellos are still dealing with the fallout, as flood waters linger — or resurge in some areas, as the record-setting snowfall thaws in the mountains.

Communities like Tulare County, downstream from California’s mountain ranges, are bracing for the worst. “It all depends on how quickly the snow melts. A big melt hitting all at once could overwhelm our capacity, and we could experience another round of flooding,” Barcellos said. “Mother nature is in control.”

Tulare County officials estimated that the storms and flooding have already caused about $40m in damages.

Barcellos explained that, even if farmers in the area evacuate their livestock, their businesses are still harmed. Many dairy farmers also grow feed for cows on their land. So when one farm is flooded, the impact is felt by many others who have to find new sources of feed, often from further away.

“One neighbour had to move all of his cows, and his feed is still underwater,” said Barcellos. “So we’re indirectly impacted, but we’re going to feel it in our pocketbook.”

‘Feast or famine’

The melting snowpack has already started to make its presence felt across the state. Yosemite National Park, one of California’s most famous outdoor destinations, nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, is scheduled to close on Friday as rivers are swollen with runoff from the warming snow.

The possibility of further flooding has caused headaches in parts of the state where excess rainfall from the atmospheric rivers was already an issue.

Communities in places like Tulare and Kings County, two hubs of agricultural production that border each other in the San Joaquin Valley, have already seen wide swathes of farmland submerged under floodwater.

“In regions of the Central Valley that have experienced flooding, we hear from farm labourers who are worried about the potential impact more flooding could have on opportunities to work,” said Ephraim Camacho, a community worker with California Rural Legal Assistance, an organisation that advocates for low-income communities in rural parts of the state. “It’s hard to stop working if you have bills and you’re already not being paid much.”

In Kings County, residents have started to witness the reemergence of Tulare Lake, once the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi River. Stretching more than 2,072sq kilometres (800sq miles), it was drained to make room for farmland and disappeared by the mid-20th century.

An aerial shot shows farmland inundated with water
Water fills the Tulare lakebed outside of Corcoran, California, in March [David Swanson/Reuters]

But aerial images last month from NASA, the US space agency, show the lake reclaiming dry, brown patches of lands, filling the landscape with greens and blues. The rainfall in the area had brought relief to California’s extreme drought, the driest 22-year period in nearly 1,200 years.

“California’s weather is feast or famine. You have long stretches of dry winters punctuated by very wet winters,” Chad Hecht, a meteorologist at the Centre for Western Weather and Water Extremes at University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told Al Jazeera on a phone call. “That’s been especially true over the last 10 years.”

What happens next, Hecht added, is largely dependent on what kind of weather the region experiences during the next several months.

“If there’s a lot of hot weather and the snow melts very quickly, there could be more flooding. If it melts at a more incremental rate, that makes things more manageable,” he said.

Impacted residents

The stakes of that snowmelt are considerable for California’s agricultural sector.

In 2021, Kings and Tulare counties produced more than $2.3bn and $8bn worth of agricultural products respectively. But the winter storms from December through March devastated recent crops. More rising water could create further challenges for farmers after a difficult few months.

“You can take steps to prepare, but when that volume of water comes, all you can do is hope it comes at a manageable pace,” said Barcellos, the dairy farmer.

Still, Barcellos said that people in the region have been coping with flooding for decades, and he remembered Tulare Lake reemerging in years of exceptional rainfall such as 1969 and 1983.

“People were taking olds cars and stacking them to help build up the levees,” he remembered. “Everybody was pitching in.”

Michael Claiborne, a lawyer at the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, which focuses on issues of inequality in California’s rural areas, told Al Jazeera that residents in towns like Allensworth, located on the shores of the former Tulare Lake, are worried about the possibility of further evacuations after being displaced by floodwaters during the atmospheric rivers.

“In the areas around Tulare Lake, some people were evacuated out of their homes on very short notice. So there’s anxiety about the possibility of more flooding,” said Claiborne. “If you’re from a low-income household, it’s even more difficult to leave home and put your life on pause.”

Source: Al Jazeera