A 26-ton trencher this week ripped up a stretch of land on Jim Nickel's tomato fields as part of a $250,000 fix for a seepage problem he blames on the federal restoration of the San Joaquin River. And he may be stuck with the bill.
Federal officials a few months ago agreed to pick up the tab for removing excess water beneath Nickel's fields east of Los Banos -- but only if months of studies could be completed prior to the work.
Nickel decided to push ahead with the project to prepare for next growing season. He said he couldn't take the chance that his tomatoes would be stunted again by seepage. He estimates he lost $300,000 of production last summer.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the river restoration program, is investigating ways to repay him without doing the studies, but it might not be possible.
"We have to follow the National Environmental Protection Act," said bureau spokeswoman Margaret Gidding.
Seepage for farms near the river has been the biggest problem so far in one of the nation's largest river revivals, which began last year. Another farmer in August filed a federal claim for damage.
The farmers have been warning federal officials for several years about the possible seepage damage near stretches of river that have been dry for years. The river dried up and salmon runs died after Friant Dam was built in the late 1940s.
Officials reconnected the San Joaquin to the Pacific Ocean in March. Salmon are scheduled to be reintroduced by late 2012.
The river flowed in places where it has been dry for decades. Nickel says water seeped from the river into the groundwater beneath his field, raising the water table into the root zone of his crops.
Federal officials say they are still studying Nickel's claim about river seepage causing the problem but have not decided whether the river was to blame. Their findings are expected next month.
It's not clear how much acreage is affected by seepage. Nickel's drainage project is along about two miles of the river. There is about a 45-mile stretch from Sack Dam to Bear Creek that is susceptible to the problem, farmers say.
In the past two weeks, a crew has buried perforated plastic pipe to drain away excess water. Pumps have been installed to move the water out of the pipeline. The work should be finished in days.
Nickel said he had no choice but to move forward with the project. He feared the bureau studies wouldn't be complete by the time he plants his next crop in the next few months.
"I hope they pay me," he said. "I think they should have done more studies on this part of the river before the restoration started."
Bureau officials said they have been monitoring the underground water around the river as the flow has been restored. They have cut back when there are problems, they said.
The rejuvenated river runs 30 or 40 yards from Nickel's tomato fields. The flow is kept in a channel between tall levees. Nickel said that he hasn't had much problem with a rising underground water table until now.
He hired Ike McElvany of Los Banos to install the 15-inch perforated plastic pipe to capture the excess water. McElvany's crew finished the first phases last week, and underground water levels already have dropped several feet.
The crew drives a powerful trencher that resembles a giant chain saw. It cuts a trench 9 feet deep as a separate apparatus on the trencher pushes flexible plastic pipe to the bottom of the hole.
Workers pour gravel over the plastic pipe. The gravel filters the sediment from the underground water, which readily moves into the pipes. The water is drawn to the gravel because it is easier for the water to pass through gravel than the soil.
Pumps connected to the buried drainage piping already are retrieving about 300 gallons of water per minute. The water can be funneled back into Nickel's irrigation system.
"There's nothing too fancy about this," McElvany said. "It's basically a horizontal well."
Such buried water collection systems have been used around the globe for thousands of years, evolving from clay and concrete tiles to the perforated plastic pipe, McElvany said.
Nickel also must cope with other problems created by the seepage and the fix.
The trencher shredded his drip-irrigation system. It will probably take about two months to rebuild the drip system, Nickel said.
At the moment, he is running sprinklers to soak the land and move potentially damaging excess salts down below the root zones.
The salts -- a natural feature in west-side soil -- were pulled into root zones last summer by the rising underground water table, he said. The salts can stunt crop growth.
"I've been told it might take up to three years to move the salts back down," Nickel said.
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