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'At their own risk'

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Posted: Tuesday, April 11, 2006 10:00 pm

From Thornton to Clements, very little of the levee system along the Mokelumne River is regulated by government authorities. In fact, none of it is regulated east of Woodbridge Dam, say county officials.

When a private levee just south of the Mokelumne River in Woodbridge failed Sunday, it flooded 35 acres of land leased by Jim Ehlers.

San Joaquin County's deputy public works director Steve Winkler said it's up to landowners to keep watch on the private levees that protect their land.

"They're (levees) looked after by adjacent property owners out of their own (financial) interests," Winkler said. "They're sort of at their own risk to plant in the flood plain."

Ehlers, who leases the Woodbridge property from the Hargrave family, said his entire grape crop is destroyed because buds had already bloomed at the top of each vine.

If the buds had remained dormant, the grapes could have survived the flood.

"It could potentially cost us as much as a half-million dollars, not just to fix the levee, but to replace the vineyard," Ehlers said.

Ehlers, who lives on Turner Road in Lodi, said he discovered his vineyard had flooded at about 4 p.m. Sunday. The vineyard was about half full with up to 3 feet of water at the time. Then the water level got higher and higher, so he called the San Joaquin County Office of Emergency Services.

The county has a flood-control zone about 5 miles long from Woodbridge Dam to about where the Mokelumne River meets Peltier Road in Acampo, Winkler said. That zone is maintained by the county Public Works Department.

A 4-mile gap with no levee governance follows northwest of Peltier Road until the Reclamation District 348 boundary in the Thornton area, Winkler said.

Although Ehlers' vineyard is west of Woodbridge Dam, it isn't a county-operated levee, Winkler said.

"I don't call it a levee; I call it an ag berm," Winkler added.

Ehlers said he had no idea he's on his own when it comes to repairing his levee and replacing the vineyard.

"I just found out it was a private levee," he said Tuesday.

Ehlers describes his levee as a "big sandy bar" between the vineyard and the Mokelumne River. The increased river flows during the past week eroded the sandy bar, causing the river to flood the vineyard, he said.

Ehlers said he believes his crop was destroyed after the East Bay Municipal Utility District increased river flows upstream at Camanche Dam from 4,000 cubic feet per second on April 5 to 5,000 cfs by Friday morning.

"It's a panic release," Ehlers said.

Knowing there was a major snowpack in the Sierra Nevada in February, EBMUD could have released a smaller amount of water, say 2,500 cfs, in February or March, Ehlers said. That would, in turn, have allowed a smaller amount of water to be released from Camanche Dam last week and not beaten up the levees in San Joaquin County, he said.

Ehlers said he is concerned that a tropical storm or just typical spring-like weather in April or May could cause a rapid snowmelt, overflow Camanche Dam, and send even more water downstream on the Mokelumne River.

"Lodi is now in grave danger of flooding in the next 30 days," Ehlers said Tuesday.

EBMUD spokesman Charles Hardy predicts no flooding into populated areas of San Joaquin County.

Releasing 5,000 cfs of water from Camanche Dam into the Mokelumne River will reduce the amount of water stored in the dam if a tropical storm takes place, Hardy said.

If EBMUD could foresee that march would have 184 percent of March's average rainfall in the Lodi area, Hardy said, then EBMUD should have released more water in March.

Contact reporter Ross Farrow at rossf@lodinews.com.

First published: Wednesday, April 12, 2006

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