Flooded Calif. acreage boosting produce prices


SANTA CRUZ, Calif. -- As Monterey County motorists were getting the good news that major bridges closed after weekend floods would all soon be open, farmers, agricultural workers and consumers were getting the bad news about crop losses and increasing prices for produce.

Emergency services officials in Salinas said a one-lane temporary bridge is in place over the Carmel River at Highway 1, where raging storm waters washed out the two-lane span as the river reached flood levels.

The California Department of Transportation said that flaggers would direct traffic over the bridge, which opened yesterday, and that motorists should expect delays.

The temporary span means coastal dwellers in Big Sur and the Carmel Highlands are no longer cut off from the Monterey Peninsula, though their lives surely will be changed by the traffic bottleneck.

To the north, southbound lanes of the Highway 1 bridge over the Pajaro River west of Watsonville were open, and Caltrans officials were hoping to reopen northbound lanes later today.

But thousands of acres of farmland to the south and east of that bridge were still flooded yesterday. The virtual lake -- surrounded on three sides by the Pajaro River levee, the freeway elevation and the Springfield bluffs to the south -- has been standing since the river overflowed its banks and spilled into the valley east of Pajaro last Friday night and Saturday morning.

Although levee repairs had stemmed the flooding, county officials said, the standing water was unable to flow back into the Pajaro River.

Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner Dick Nutter estimated yesterday that floodwaters had covered about 30,000 acres of planted farmland in the county. That is about 15 percent of the farm acreage in the county, he said. Mr. Nutter noted that water covered another 45,000 acres of farmland, but those fields were not planted or in production at the time of the flooding.

"We're supposed to be moving into the spring harvest period," Mr. Nutter noted, "and the damage to crops such as strawberries is devastating."

He estimated more than $220 million in crops ranging from berries to lettuce were lost as a result of the floods.

"The strawberry farmers are going to lose their entire crop this year," he said. "They've lost all their income for 1995. They won't be able to plant until the fall.

"The strawberry farmers are out of business for a while."

Mr. Nutter said lettuce ranchers who have lost crops will be able to plant again once floodwaters recede from their fields. That could take another month, he said, and it would take two more months after that before the head lettuce crop could be harvested and sent to market.

Even though shortages have not yet reduced the produce supply at grocery stores, he said, "market prices have been feeling the 'psychological' effect. It happens every time: People get worried and prices go up even before the actual shortages occur."

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