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Winter flooding brings Biden disaster declaration for CA farming counties

February 23, 2023 by Aaron

President Joseph Biden declared a major disaster in mid-January, due to severe winter storms, flooding, landslides and mudslides beginning on December 27, 2022. As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency Emergency Loan Program has been made available for California counties in Sequoia Riverlands Trust's service area including Fresno, Kern, Kings, Los Angeles, Madera, Merced, San Luis Obispo, Tulare, and contiguous counties including Inyo, Santa Barbara, Mariposa, Stanislaus, Tuolumne among others throughout the State of California. The declaration will help farmers offset both physical and crop production losses.

However, in accord with the principle that chaos brings opportunity, a late-January aerial survey measured 2.3 million acre-feet of snow-water equivalent holding in the mountains above Friant Dam, which can impound a maximum of 520,000 acre-feet of water. To help take up the excess for groundwater recharge purposes, SRT and other land and water managers are innovating in response to the new normal of drought and deluge. Along with new recharge ponds such as the one at SRT’s Kaweah Oaks Preserve, Kaweah Subbasin water managers are enlisting individual farmers and property owners to expand groundwater recharge on their own land.   

Aaron Fukuda, general manager of the Tulare Irrigation District, recently told the Water Education Foundation that local farmers lined up in droves during the last deluge to bring in floodwater from the Kaweah River and the Friant-Kern Canal, intentionally flooding their land, thereby creating demand for the excess water. In previous wet winters, Fukuda said, there was little interest in flooding farmland, but now the water is seen as essential to compliance with SGMA, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. 

“We’ve always done recharge but now we’re eking out an extra 15-20 percent,” said Fukuda, who is also general manager of the Mid-Kaweah Groundwater Sustainability Agency. “It’s a one-on-one relationship we now have with our growers…now all of a sudden we have 200 recharge agents.”

Stabilizing the water supply for disadvantaged communities is another objective for Tulare Irrigation District. Fukuda said the district has helped communities locate the best areas for recharge as outlined in its sustainability plans.

In coordination with Self-Help Enterprises, a non-profit based in the San Joaquin Valley, Tulare Irrigation District is planning a 20-acre recharge basin that will improve the drinking water supply for the community of Okieville. Residents of the rural town, located in western Tulare County, saw their drinking water wells go dry during the 2012-2016 drought and ultimately received emergency bottled water supplies from the state and Self-Help Enterprises.

“Instead of doing recharge out in the middle of nowhere, we try and focus it around disadvantaged communities,” said Fukuda. “We take some of the excess agriculture supply that we didn’t have a home for and put it beneath the communities.”  

A clearer picture of just how much water soaked into the ground from the nine atmospheric rivers that hit California in January won’t be known until the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) issues its spring groundwater level update. The report tracks data that groundwater sustainability agencies are required to submit each spring and fall and helps gauge how much recharge occurred during each rainy season.

Biden's disaster declaration means that emergency farm loans will be available for both physical and crop production losses as a direct result of the disaster, up to a maximum $500,000. This resource is for farmers and ranchers who conduct family-sized farming operations.

To apply for relief, contact your local Farm Service Agency (FSA) office. Deadline is October 2, 2023 for Tulare County farmers.

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