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Blog Post · April 24, 2023

The Mad Dash to Save Dairy Cattle as Tulare Basin Flooded

photo - Flood Waters Forming Tulare Lake, pixel ca dwr 2023_03_24_KJ_0363_Tulare_Lake

Anja Raudabaugh is the CEO of Western United Dairies, a trade organization that represents over 75% of the milk produced in California. In mid-March, a sudden snowmelt flooded the Tulare Lake basin—putting 100,000 cattle and over a dozen dairy farms at risk. During the crisis, Raudabaugh shared eye-popping images of flooding and cattle evacuations on her Twitter feed, and she recently gave us a gripping account of what happened as the lake began to refill.

photo - Anja Raudabaugh

What’s happening with dairies in the Central Valley right now?

In January and February, beautiful, cold snows brought the snowpack in the southern Sierras down to 1,000–3,000 feet. Then before St. Patricks’ Day, all that low-elevation snowpack melted at once when the region was hit with a large, warm storm. And when all that water came down, the river channels just couldn’t handle it.

Two flood-control structures—Terminus Dam and Success Dam on the Kaweah and Tule Rivers—received about 500,000 acre-feet of water in a 48-hour period—so much flow that Lake Success’s old-fashioned spillway got stuck open. This torrent of Jupiter’s hand came down and covered the eastern Tulare region.

On Thursday, March 16, I started getting text messages saying, “We need real help.” On Friday morning, I got a frantic call from Eric Borba, a dairy farmer and chair of the Eastern Tule Irrigation District, saying that Highway 99 was about to get blown out where it hits Deer Creek.

We had to move 100,000 cows. We had planned for flood events—but not for moving 6,000 cows in five minutes. In some cases, these cows were going to die. We asked the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) for help, but they said, “It’s not a state flood control facility, so we can’t help.” The US Army Corps of Engineers said they couldn’t help because their jurisdiction stops at Lake Kaweah and Lake Success.

Farmers are very resourceful: they picked up the phone and said, “I need anyone with a trailer to come.” The community effort was gallant. Hundreds of livestock haulers showed up and moved cattle for three nights. You can only move 10 cows at a time, so that’s a lot of trips. In the end, 75,000 cows were relocated.

We only moved cows to permitted facilities. We found vacant dairies and transferred some cows there, working with Tulare County’s Department of Public Health. There were sanitation issues: in Porterville, multiple lagoons overflowed. I would ask for some grace here. We normally have a perfect handle on where manure goes, but we couldn’t worry about that during the crisis—we had to save the animals.

Now, the layers of silt and mud in people’s homes and on the dairies are like Pompeii. You can’t run a clean dairy in an environment like that, and you can’t live in those conditions either. Whole roads were wiped out, and farmers can’t get people to milk the cows. California’s Office of Emergency Services has sent high-water vehicles to help get workers to the farms.

What might these floods mean for California’s dairy industry in the next few years—and longer-term?

In the near term, I’m really worried. Tulare County is the largest milk-producing region in the world. A lot of dairies that were milking three times a day had to drop to two because they were moving the cows around. Yet we haven’t seen a precipitous decline in production yet; this month’s USDA reports will tell me how much of a problem we have.

Some dairies are not going to come back to life. We went from the whiplash of no feed last year because of drought to no feed this year because of floods. And if you can’t feed your animals, you send them to beef or out of state. These problems could force consolidation to move even faster than it currently is.

Dairies are now bracing for the “Big Melt” by moving cows and bagged silage to higher ground. Dairies in flood watch areas in Kings County are doing everything they can to prepare. In the longer term, we’ll be okay, but it would have helped to have had better crisis planning and coordination.

How do we avoid such problems in the future? What policy actions might help?

Each new set of crises teaches us something different. The operational control structure for wildfires has been well worked out because we’ve had so many fires—in fact, it was Cal Fire officials who were the first to offer assistance in this disaster. The same needs to be done to codify the chain of command for flood control.

For example, it took almost a week for Tulare County’s Office of Emergency Services to designate a commissioner as the primary point of contact for floods, property damage, and cows. And FEMA and the Army Corps wouldn’t engage on flood control until we logged $100 million of damages. But everyone’s so busy reacting that you don’t have time to file a damage report with FEMA.

Flood control needs to be a higher priority for communities in this region. It’s still the Wild West right now. There’s a very unique culture in this part of valley, but it has its quirks—people don’t appreciate being told how to run things. It’s insane to have a bunch of desperate farmers out there with backhoes, ignoring the liability of what might happen if they accidentally make things worse. We need a rational flood control plan and sustained, long-term investment. You’re going to have to take down some levees, and think about an economic model that sustains the whole region in the long term.


Floods infrastructure natural disaster San Joaquin Valley Water, Land & Air