Northeast of the San Francisco Bay is “The Delta,” a patchwork of islands and rivers where farmer Steve Mello has put down roots. But climate change is threatening the levees which protect Delta farms. Can we defend our farms from the impacts coming with climate change? Producer Claire Schoen and Associate Producer Erica Mu bring us Steve Mello’s story.
Special thanks to Jan Stürmann, Stephen Most and Scott Koué
Steve Mello, 3rd generation farmer and co-owner of Mello Farms; Dr. Jeffrey Mount, University of California at Davis Geology professor & Center for Watershed Sciences founding director; Gary Mello, Steve Mello’s son; Ann Mello, Steve Mello’s wife; Roberto Guzman, laborer at Mello Farms.
Script: see below.
For More Information:
RISE: Climate Change and Coastal Communities - 6 short webstories
UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences
Coalition for a Sustainable Delta
California Department of Water Resources on Climate Change
Association of California Water Agencies
Climate Change May Transform California’s Bay Area
Transitions for the Delta Economy
Congressional Research Service- Biological Opinions for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta: A
Case Law Summary
Original music by Jonathan Mitchell
Script: The Delta — Steve Mello’s story.
Host: This week on Making Contact.
Steve: We are on a levee that uh is holding back the Mokelumne River from inundating the land.
Host: Northeast of the San Francisco Bay is “The Delta,” a patchwork of islands and rivers where farmer Steve Mello has put down roots.
Steve: My father literally worked a lifetime to create a legacy to pass onto their offspring and future generations.
Host: But climate change is threatening the levees which protect Delta farms.
Jeff: If we’re going to go in and fix every one of these, we’re looking at billions of dollars over time.
Steve: The environmentalists that say that the Delta is not sustainable long-term are full of hooey.
Host: Can we defend our farms from the impacts coming with climate change?
Producer Claire Schoen brings us Steve Mello’s story. I’m Andrew Stelzer and this is Making Contact, a program connecting people, vital ideas, and
Narration: This is the story of a farmer. And his land.
(Runs under opening water sounds)
Narration: Sea level rise. We hear about it more and more. It’s described like a looming disaster movie – in slow motion. Climate change is causing the seas to rise. But, what will this mean for all of the cities, towns, villages, farms along the world’s coastlines? It may mean a big change: families forced to move off their land, communities broken apart, a way of life erased like footprints on the beach. Are we willing to face this reality? So far, not many of us. As the seas rise along the coast of San Francisco, the waters within the San Francisco Bay are rising as well, of course – affecting 7 million people who live and work in cities ringing the Bay. And while many of us do understand what’s coming, there are countless reasons why we want to ignore it. Why are we turning our backs on the rising tides that threaten our coasts?
Narration: Steve Mello’s family has been farming in the Delta for three generations; his son is being raised as the fourth. The Delta is an extension of the San Francisco Bay, where the waters from the Sierra Mountains to the east and the ocean tides from the west mingle. But the waters from both river and tides are lapping at the levees protecting Steve’s land.
Steve: Hey you copy?
Gary (on other end of phone): Yeah.
Steve:How’s progress? You get the digger fixed yet, or no?
Gary (on other end of phone): I’m just about done with the first digger.
Steve: Alright, I’m going to be there in a minute and a half, two minutes.
Steve: We’re going to go check on my son’s progress on fixing a crack in the frame of a trenching machine. And that’s what’s on tap for right now.
Narration: That’s Steve Mello.
Steve: I’m Steve Mello, I’m a farmer here in Sacramento County California. Uh, this is Tyler Island. It is comprised of 8,500 acres of cropland. On this island, you have grapes, cherries, pears, alfalfa, asparagus, potatoes, corn, tomatoes – both fresh and cannery.
Jeff: In places like Tyler Island you cannot ignore the fact that conditions are changing…
Narration: And… who’s that?
Jeff: Okay so who am I, uh real quickly, my name is Jeff Mount, Dr. Jeffrey Mount. I’m a professor here at the University of California, Davis and I’m the founding director of the Center for Watershed Sciences here on campus.
Narration: Jeff Mount worries that the levees protecting Tyler Island will wash away with rising sea levels, brought on by climate change.
Jeff: The likelihood of Tyler Island and Staten Island and Brannan Island and all those islands in that area, their probability of failure is
steadily going up every year.
Steve: The environmentalists that say that the Delta is not sustainable long-term are full of hooey.
Jeff: Tyler Island will fail at least once in the next fifty years. Nine in ten probability that in the next fifty years Tyler Island will fail.
Steve: I don’t believe that Tyler Island will flood for a hundred years if we continue to take the steps to deal with whatever forces that nature throws at us.
Narration: The farmer and the scientist see this same land from two very different perspectives.
Steve (Driving): Uh what you’re seeing is field corn. We’re lookin’ at corn, corn and more corn.
Jeff: We’re in the conference room in the Center for Watershed Sciences. We are not in the Delta. But if we stand on top of the building we can see the Delta from here. Steve and Gary at work on the farm
Steve: This is Gary who came back to the ranch after being away for a few years in the construction thing.
Narration: Young Gary Mello. Steve’s pride and joy. Steve met up with Gary at the shop, where his son is repairing one of the big trenching machines.
Steve: What happened is our frame broke on this uh dirtbox on the digger, and it looks like you got it fairly well gussied up.
Gary: All I’ve been doing is welding.
Steve: You’re gonna have to uh.
Gary: I gotta get inside o’there.
Gary: So why don’t you stay here for a minute. Let me get in there. In case I need you to hand me anything.
Steve: Alright … This is where being skinny helps.
Steve: Okay here’s the helmet. Here’s the stick. You want me to turn it on?
Steve: Okay you ready?
Ambience: Welder on
Steve: Yeah when you’re welding you have all the sparks going everywhere. And they lodge somewhere and start a little fire and you start feelin’, “Boy something feels hot!” And then boy when you find out you’re on fire, you should see people move.
Ambience: Welder stops
Steve: You went through that hole?
Gary: I told you! I used to go through, what was it, 14-inch pipes.
Steve: Hey I used to go through a hole like that too, my hips have gotten quite a bit wider since then. [laughs]
Steve: Sympathy growing pains when your mother had ya.
Gary: Uh huh!
Mello: Well okay, I’ll see you later if you need anything holler.
Narration: That’s life in the Delta, from a farmer’s view. Jeff Mount sees the land in a broader context.
Jeff: So, where is the Delta in California? Well, you’d be amazed how many people haven’t a clue, including the people of San Francisco. It’s flanked on the east by the Sierra Nevada, and all of that runoff from the west slope of the Sierra Nevada is gathered into the Sacramento River on the north and the San Joaquin River on the south. Where those two rivers come together – that’s the Delta. And in that area, a tremendous maze of islands and, and levies and marshes. Then all that water in the Delta eventually moves to the west and into San Francisco Bay. So that’s what the Delta really is.
Steve: In the old days prior to uh, the Europeans if you will, around here you had the Miwok and the Midus, and they were huntergatherers, fishermen. So uh, it was markedly different place.
Jeff: When you would come into the Delta from San Francisco Bay 200 years ago, you got lost. It was a maze of channels. And lining these channels were tall gallery forests with cottonwoods and oaks, um, surrounded by these would be huge immense tule marshes that would go just as far as the eye could see so that you could just walk over the tules they were so concentrated.
Steve: In order to farm, we put up the levees. They put up the levees, I was a little young for that.
Jeff: They then drained the land so they could plant their crops, and in the process of draining the land, they oxidized their soils. The land started lowering. So today, all your islands are basically holes in the ground surrounded by levies. In the central Delta some are as much as
30 feet below sea level.
Narration: It’s those levees, running between the river channels and the sunken farmland that protect Delta Islands like Tyler from flooding. Most of the
Steve: We are on a levee that uh is holding back the Mokelumne River from inundating the land. On the right there is farmland that is
lower than the levee. And on the left I see water that is … Also way lower than the levee.
Jeff: You have eleven hundred miles of levees. All of those levees are on pretty rotten foundations. They just plopped dirt on top of what was there.
Steve: There’re actually Chinese pottery and old bottles.
Jeff: They started with Chinese laborers with wicker baskets, dumping sediment where they could
Steve: They would put pottery in it to displace dirt. There was less dirt to take, less shovels to throw in.
Jeff: And there’s all kinds of stuff in those levees. I mean there’s literally stuff. So the thing to keep in mind about the levees of the Delta, they are not engineered levees. These are agricultural levees, they’re not strong; they’re not stout levees.
Steve: We maintain the levees much differently than the old timers did. And Delta levees can be raised uh over a period of time.
Jeff: If you live behind a levee, you are at risk of flooding. Because there’s two kinds of levees: those that have failed and those that will fail. And they fail in a couple of ways. One is overtopping during the, during the winter here when you have high tides and high inflows. The second way is that the water actually erodes the levee from the inside out. Finally, I want to tell you the most diabolical and difficult way levees fail um is beavers. How unglamorous is that?
Steve: But the Delta is not as fragile as people would have you believe.
Jeff: They slip, they slump, they get holes in them. Rodents burrow in them. And you’ve got 1100 miles of them.
Steve: We in the Delta have built our levees up higher than they were before, broader than they were before. We study them closer, uh, we
have all the uh modern equipment at our disposal to uh deal with these flood threats…
Jeff: It’s not like levee failures are rare events in this system – they’ve failed 144 times in the last 100 years. So, on average, about one a year. But it doesn’t work that way. Levees fail in this system in clusters. I like to call them cluster floods [laughs] I’m sure you won’t repeat that! [laughs]
Steve: The people that are saying, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling” – I don’t worry about what they say because we can handle most anything nature can throw at us.
Jeff: Let me put it this way – all the things we’re fighting about today are worse under climate change. Increasing winter floods and rising
sea level are increasing the risk.
Narration: The risk from climate change is not only to the Delta levees – but also to an entire way of life. The Mello family is part of a farming community with roots in this land that go back generations.
Steve: My parents were Jack and Louise Mello, I have five siblings. Everybody lives within 30 miles of each other, we’re a very close family.
Jeff: The history that you see is one that it stretches all the way back to the mining era so you have a mixture of Chinese immigrants and Europeans, Japanese who came in before and after World War II. Some, African-Americans, a lot of Hmong, various Asians. um the, the norm here is a white landowner with Latino laborers–that’s the norm.
Steve: My grandparents came from Portugal with the shirts on their back. And while my dad only had an eighth grade education, he was a
very, very smart man. And uh, very hard worker. My dad basically built the company, uh, Mello Farms. Called it the Mello Ranch. It was
his ranch, he bought it, he could name it what he wanted.
Steve: Oh yoohoo!
Ann: Nice to meet you!
Steve: This is Ann … my better half … I’m going to wash up and I’ll start making you some sandwiches. Whaddya got ?
Ann: Turkey, roast beef…that’s about it.
Steve: And we have Dr. Pepper, Diet Pepsi, Mountain Dew…
Ann: I have extras…
Steve: And we have plenty of ice…
Narration: Steve and Ann grew up as neighbors.
Ann: I used to ride my bike from over there across these fields and go to his house to play with his sister.
Steve: You know, I’ve always hunted and fished, you know you ride bicycles, you do the simple things. You take a walk.
Ann: Right by my mom and dad’s place, right there, the railroad tracks there, we’d go up there, we’d jump off of ‘em. You’d go on the end of it and you could jump into the river from there, even though we weren’t supposed to be doing that, well we did it anyway! And we’d get in trouble all the time.
Steve: There’s no way in heck I was jumpin’ off that bridge. [laughs]
Ann: We got really in a lot of trouble when they found out what we were doing and where we were going. [laughs]
Ann: The train would come on Sunday’s. It would come every Sunday about two or three in the afternoon, and there was always a hobo that would get off, most of the time, not always but most of the time.
Narration: Ann and Steve’s childhood memories, shared over turkey sandwiches and Mountain Dew, begin to feel a bit like a Norman Rockwell painting.
Ann: My grandma lived there. She would leave out some homemade chicken soup in a glass jar, and he would come and get it.
The Last Big Flood
Narration:But life on Tyler Island is not always a picture of tranquility. The flood of 1986 ripped open Tyler Island’s levees – and ripped apart the lives of it’s residents.
Steve: The north fork of the Mokelumne River rose in 1986 and caused this island to flood for the first time since 1906. And as the levee broke, the water actually came over the top of the levee, so you can imagine the force of the water when it’s falling 15 to 18 feet into the island.
Jeff: It is spectacular when a levee fails because the levee will unzip, it’ll open up to the size of a football field uh as the water flows through it.
Steve: It looked like a roaring tumult of the biggest waterfall that you’ve ever seen.
Jeff: The velocity of the water is so high it’ll scour a hole inside the island 30, 40, 50 feet deep and chunks, literally chunks of the peat will be hurled out into the island. It’s really spectacular to see!
Steve: Way back at that time we had a Motorola radio system and I heard that we lost it – the island’s gone. And when I came the next day, the next morning, uh, my house was not visible. The water was over the top of it. And it wiped out the most of the lower-lying buildings. Uh, you could see the tops of the grain bins. Uh we lost 5,000 tons of grain storage, three sheds, equipment sheds, and a shop.
Ann: You brought me out here finally to see everything.
Steve: Oh yeah…it was kind of traumatic. And she was pregnant.
Ann: It was scary. It upset me. Everything was floatin’ around. Water everywhere. Garbage. I said, “There’s our bathroom wall in another yard!” And people at work kept asking me, “You went back there?” “Yeah!” “Aren’t you afraid?” “Yeah, you can’t just think about that!” You have to just go on!
Steve: You know I was young, there’s time to build back. Jesus crimony. And we were near the edge of bankruptcy, but through a lot of hard work we put it back together. How will climate change affect the Delta
Narration:Flooding has always been a risk for Delta farmers. And “The Big Flood of ‘86” makes for a thrilling tale. But Jeff Mount says that climate change is now a game changer.
Jeff: A lot has changed since 1986. There’s two drivers, climate drivers of change in this system, um, one is coming in from the Sacramento River and the San Joaquin River. We are seeing a shift in the ratio of rain to snow, so floods are getting bigger. The second aspect is sea level rise. What happens with sea level rise is you start getting an increase in the frequency and an intensity of extreme high tides. And it’s those high tides that do in levees in this system. So the combination of increasing winter inflows coupled with increasing frequency and magnitude of extreme high tides leads to the obvious – more levee failures. And we think that we can actually see that in the record now. And that’s having an effect on the Delta.
Steve: Sea level rise is not going to happen all at once, it’s going to happen incrementally. And there is plenty of time to go ahead and continue to bolster the levees to make them broader, to go ahead and make them taller. And what they’re made of is fine. I mean, uh, the levees are sustainable.
Jeff: People in the Delta they fail to consider that the past is not a predictor of the future. It’s going to be different tomorrow, and that tomorrow it’s going to be a lot tougher to hold those levees together.
Steve: The safety of this island has never been in such good shape as it is, right here and now.
Jeff: What we the scientific community are saying is that your risk is increasing every year. We did all this risk analysis. And in the end we stepped back and we said if we go on with business as usual, you know a little band aid here, raise a little levee here, within fifty years, at least half of these islands will have failed.
Steve: Statistics can be used a lot of different ways. Okay, let’s do a study and if that study finds what you didn’t want to know then you just suppress it and fund another study until you get somebody that will tell you what you want to hear.
Jeff: ALL LEVEES FAIL. Okay? All levees do is they reduce the frequency of flooding – they don’t prevent flooding. Flood control maybe the ultimate oxymoron. The moron’s oxymoron.
Narration: Those are fighting words. Steve Mello thinks outsiders, armed with their statistics, can’t see the reality of his world. But Steve’s perspective is also
colored by his need to support his family – and other families as well.
Steve: Roberto is in the process of cleaning out the bottoms of the ditches.
Steve: We’ll stop here and check with him and see what’s cookin’.
Steve (In fractured Spanish): For now, work on the bottom part of six.
Steve: (In fractured Spanish): Because here it’s very different. In the two sides and in the center the dams and cut-arounds. So…
Steve: There’s about a two, two and a half foot area of soft dirt that you need to excavate by hand. My son will be helping him tomorrow as will I. Gives the guys a little sense that if the Patron is ready to come out and dig with them that they can dig as well. And it helps work the gut off, you know. Roberto (Spanish with overdub): We work many hours. And it’s hard. It’s hot under the sun. And the temperature, there are days when the temperature is up to 95 degrees. And one has to be able to stand being in the sun.
Steve: Roberto, he lives in ranch housing while he’s here. And then when the season is done he goes back to Mexico to be with his family, but he sends most of his money home, very frugal, frugal person. And very hard worker.
Roberto (Spanish with overdub): My name is Roberto Guzman. I’m here for three years, two years, sometimes one year at a time. I must go to see my family in Mexico. There the situation is very difficult. The money you earn is not enough. So I send money to Mexico. So my family there can eat. [chuckle] It’s very difficult for us poor people. But there isn’t any alternative, we don’t have any choice. The situation in Mexico is difficult. That’s life.
Steve: Repercussions are not only for me and my family, but my men and their families and their extended families as well. Should we save Tyler Island?
Narration: So, lives, livelihoods, lifestyles are all at stake here. But whose responsibility is it to protect all of this?
Jeff: If we’re going to go in and fix every one of these, we’re looking at billions of dollars over time. And so there’s a new policy by the state that says we’re going to selectively sink our resources into protecting the important infrastructure first and the islands which have high economic value. And then the big icky unpleasant question is, when an island fails, do we decide to leave it or repair it?
Steve: They talk about prioritizing uh what districts would be allowed to expend public monies and what districts would not. But there is uh
inherent dangers wherever you live in the world.
Jeff: Somewhere between a quarter and a third of the islands of the Delta, it makes no economic sense to repair them. That is, from a statewide, macroeconomic view, you can’t recover the costs through the economic production of that island in enough time for it to make sense.
Steve: I would suggest that all the other areas of the state that are subject to natural disaster be on their own also. If there’s an earthquake in San Francisco, and everybody’s house falls down, the Bay Bridge falls down, why should I pay for it? If LA uh has a big wildfire, why should I care?
Jeff: It’s okay to walk away from a field, but you don’t walk away from a city. Downtown, I mean San Francisco, the value of the land is so high, it’s worth it to build big dikes and protect it. Manhattan–it’s worth it to build it there because the value is so high. The assets that you’re protecting is of such high value.
Steve: We’re not an empty slate out here. You know there is a vibrant economy. This is privately owned property that’s still on the tax roll, still basically contributing to the local economy.
Jeff: For Tyler Island you have to make a decision. This is a triage question: is this one of the islands we’re going to save? Tyler is one of those that falls on the edge. It’s producing good crops. But it is considered at reasonably high risk of flooding um and I could easily see how Tyler, because it doesn’t have really important infrastructure within it, would be one of those that falls on the cusp.
Steve: Jeff Mount has got a PhD, he can say whatever he wants to say. I don’t believe Jeff Mount understands the Delta, I don’t believe Jeff Mount has spent enough time in the Delta.
Jeff: One doesn’t want to be the island God, but I’m ambivalent about Tyler.
Narration: Putting a price on a family’s history and heritage is not so simple.
Steve: My father literally worked a lifetime to create a legacy to pass onto their offspring and future generations. And uh, I’ve continued in his footprint. And I am trying to build upon and pass the legacy down to my son.
Jeff: And I completely understand why people love living down there. I get it, I completely get it. But, that said, the state is not necessarily in the business of supporting peoples’ lifestyles.
Steve: The battle of farming is staying in business, right? Staying in business, making money, raising your family, moving forward…
Jeff: But at the state level, you have to make decisions that are best for the state of California.
Steve: When you sit on a tractor all day long, you’ve got a lot of time to think. If they think they’re going to make this into wetlands. They have a heckuva lot to learn.
Narration: Steve’s right – Tyler Island can never be converted back to its original state. The land is just too far below sea level today for wetlands to develop. Letting the levees go will turn this land into a flooded island, essentially a lake.
Jeff: I see three general options for the Delta. There are some parts in the central and western part of the Delta where we are going to transition to flooded islands. There is a large arc of the Delta from the south to the north Delta which is high-quality farmland and will be for generation upon generation in the future. We will continue to farm the Delta. Portions of the Delta that have not subsided will be ideal for restoring critical habitat for the native species that we desire so much in this system.
Steve: There’s two sides to this story, you need to take everything with a grain of salt including what I say, but I’ll tell you what – what I’m doing is protecting the ranch.
Jeff: You will never get consensus. There will be winners and there will be losers, and somebody has to have the political fortitude to say, “This is the way it’s going to be and we’re going to try and compensate the losers.” Um, so you can move on.
Narration: Steve Mello has a family legacy to protect up in the Delta. It’s really all about his son Gary.
Gary: After what, my seventh grade summer, I started working with him. I’d ride the wheat planter – wasn’t very good at it, because the rope would pull me across the back of the wheat planter, I didn’t weigh enough.
Steve: Gettin’ outta high school, oh I said, “Don’t think you’re going to sit your skinny ass on my couch watching my TV.” [Gary laughs] You stay here for five years, five years, he starts to get shares in Mello Farms Inc. And he will shortly be owning part of the company.
Narration: The Mellos are just one family living along the shore. Their story is personal. But the challenges they’re up against are not unique. Human society has built along the shores of waterways throughout the world. How will we handle sea level rise? We don’t know, yet. But we must start asking the question.
MUSIC: (Making Contact)
This program was produced and directed by Claire Schoen. Associate producer was Erica Mu. Original music by Jonathan Mitchell. Special thanks to Jan Stürmann, Stephen Most and Scott Koué ((koo-AY’)). You can see photos of the Mellos and their farm on the Making Contact website at: www.radioproject.org