February 13, 1998
Spencer Michels reports on how a Californian community is coping with El Niño's destructive rampage.
SPENCER MICHELS: News storms are predicted over the weekend and beyond for rain-soaked California after a brief respite this week. Along the Russian River, where some homes have already been destroyed, nearly 150 more have been evacuated in the face of a giant mudslide. So far, agriculture has not been hit as hard it was three years ago, with damage this year estimated at up to $60 million. Still, farmers concerned about storms on the horizon are not having it easy. The mud is deep, and the coastal valleys of Northern California where almost all of the nation's artichokes and a good portion of its strawberries are grown. Weeks of rain, more in February than they usually get in a whole year, have inundated the artichoke crop, making some of it unfit for market and some of it unharvestable. The company running this operation, Ocean Mist Farms of Castroville, has been around since 1924, and partner Hugo Tottino says the heavy rains of the past month are unheard of in these parts. And that's caused expensive problems.
HUGO TOTTINO, Artichoke Farmer: Artichoke does not like wet feet or wet roots, and it depends on the weather from now on how much more rain we're going to get.
SPENCER MICHELS: What does that do to you and to people who buy artichokes?
HUGO TOTTINO: They'll probably be more expensive, but the expenses are the same to the grower, if not more right not, because we have all these added costs and trying to keep our water down, keep the ditches drained, and what have you.
SPENCER MICHELS: A few miles to the North there is more damage. Strawberry farmer Ed Mehl, who farms right along the Pajaro River, found that the levees by his farm were completely inadequate to handle the rains and the runoff from further upstream.
ED MEHL, Strawberry Farmer: So out of the 80 acres I've planted 60 of it's been underwater and covered with mud. It's a total loss, at least $7,000 an acre times 60, so four or five hundred thousand dollars just in out-of-pocket cost.
SPENCER MICHELS: Because of the high water, Mehl couldn't even get to his farm during the worst of the flooding.
ED MEHL: I already knew what it looked like, because I could just picture it, but when I brought my wife, she started crying. Boy, pretty tough.
SPENCER MICHELS: No one is working on Mehl's farm this week; it's just too wet. And work will be difficult to find this spring.
ED MEHL: Normally I have a hundred and ten to a hundred and twenty people work for me; now, I'll probably have forty. So that's a real concern. They're probably more worried than I am because these people work nine--or eight or nine months for me, and a lot of them aren't going to have a job.
SPENCER MICHELS: The farm workers at the Pajaro Valley suffered perhaps more than others because of the storms. Faced with a major flood, Latino farm workers who live in the community and others who live in low-lying areas nearby were ordered into shelters, even though there was no serious flooding. For most of them it was not a pleasant experience, or one they want to repeat. Once they got back home they formed a committee to express their concerns, concerns that center around their children and families and their jobs.
INTERPRETER SPEAKING FOR ANTONIO ROMAN, Farm Worker: First of all, he says, you know, it affects us psychologically because our children are afraid, and they're just expecting that we can evacuate at any time. The problem that we had to be taken out of our homes, you know, every time that it rains very bad, and it's not good to be in the shelters, we thank everybody that has helped, but we need a better solution.
SPENCER MICHELS: The solution these workers is very simple and very direct: just to fix the river so it won't flood them out. ut
INTERPRETER: That they repair the levee, the river, prepare it for the water that it runs through it and repair it completely.
SPENCER MICHELS: When the Pajaro River burst through a few spots in levees built to contain it, emergency crews patched the holes at night. And when the water receded--and no one knows how long it will last--the Army Corps of Engineers started shoring up the levees to keep the river from spilling into urban and agricultural areas. County officials like Michael Armstrong worked with the corps to prevent a disaster for this small valley.
MICHAEL ARMSTRONG, Monterey County Water Manager: The levee is ready to fail, you know, and the town of Pajaro and the ag land in the surrounding area definitely would have been flooded.
SPENCER MICHELS: You were worried?
MICHAEL ARMSTRONG: Very worried. The water was right up to here--right up to here--
SPENCER MICHELS: Armstrong says the levees along the Pajaro were built in 1947 as a federal flood control project, and so the federal government has a responsibility to fix them. But artichoke grower Tottino and his manager Art Barrientos say that fixing the levees is not the only solution. They point out that the holes in the levees were caused by clogged ditches and rivers which can't carry the runoff in heavy storms. The men say the rules protecting the environment get in the way of cleaning the channels.
ART BARRIENTOS, Artichoke Farmer: If you want to move some dirt around here, you need to go through a permitting process that can get very bureaucratic and very tiring. And that is one of the principal obstacles that we are up against.
HUGO TOTTINO: It's just hard to get much done. It takes time, money. It always involved attorneys, what have you.
SPENCER MICHELS: Monterey County official Armstrong admits that farmers have a legitimate beef when they complain about regulations that prevent good maintenance.
MICHAEL ARMSTRONG: I think there is truth to that, absolutely. As the years go by, the bureaucracy is getting thicker. And if you are the property owner whose land is endangered, whose home is endangered, it's really tough to go before the county, the coastal commission, state fish and game, and other organizations and get what you need.
SPENCER MICHELS: Kind of interesting coming from a guy who works for the government?
MICHAEL ARMSTRONG: Sorry. You know, that's the way it is.
SPENCER MICHELS: Many of the disputed regulations in this area stem from the California Coastal Protection Act, which was passed by voters in the 70's to protect the coast and its waterways. Environmentalists say such rules preserve endangered species and prevent degradation of the river. But strawberry grower Karen Miller says it's up to the federal government to find a way to fix the river and to pay for it.
KAREN MILLER, Strawberry Grower: The only thing I know is that in 1947 the Army Corps of Engineers decided to build a federal flood control channel here. We bought land here in good faith here. We have 275 employees that come back and work for us year after year, that depend on us to be here. And I want to be here, and I think I and our company and the employees in the Pajaro Valley are worth it.
SPENCER MICHELS: So fix that river?
KAREN MILLER: Fix that river, please.
SPENCER MICHELS: So far in this storm alone the federal government has spent $4 million for repairs to the Pajaro River. The corps says fixing it long-term would cost at least $100 million, and there is no plan or money or consensus for that.