On Airport Court near the south-county line, homes normally stand a stone’s throw from the San Joaquin River. Currently they stand in the river. Even so, some residents refuse to evacuate.
The road is closed, barred by a sheriff’s employee, but the law admits reporters. I rumbled along a levee, past a half-flooded alfalfa field and oaks rising out of floodwaters, arriving at Cardoza Villa, a line of homes stranded in 2 feet of California rain.
“We’re used to it,” John Wright said. “I’ve been through five floods.”
Wright, 61, a disabled painter, spoke to me from his back balcony across a 150-foot moat of floodwater. Occasionally Wright yelled “Shut up!” at his dog, Dairy, a barking pit bull mix. Out front, a big lake of water pooled all the way to the river.
“The cops pulled people over here the other night at 3:30 in the morning,” Wright said. “You don’t know who’s coming out here.”
Looters, looky-loos and reporters are to be expected when the river floods, as Airport Court residents know. They are veterans of river life.
As such, they are a cross between Delta river rats, amateur hydrologists, meteorologists and hunkered-down survivalists.
Wright closely monitors the river gauge at Vernalis. When the San Joaquin River rose toward the flood stage of 29 feet, Wright stocked provisions. He moved his car and garbage bins to higher ground. He removed ground-floor items.
When on Sunday the river rose to 29.83 feet, and 8 inches of water invaded Wright’s home, he was not unduly dismayed. No one lives on his ground floor; likely that’s true of most Airport Court homes where most ground floors serve as garages for cars and boats.
Wright’s ground-level floor is concrete, and walls ceramic, so when the flood recedes, Wright said, he’ll simply power wash and carry on.
“What we’re upset about is the people who run Don Pedro,” said Wright, referring to Don Pedro Reservoir on the Tuolumne River. The Tuolumne flows into the San Joaquin River, so the management of Don Pedro’s releases directly affect Wright and his neighbors.
“They’re trying to serve somebody down south,” Wright said, meaning politically powerful corporate farms and big cities, “and who the hell needs water in California now? The way we call it, it’s corporate greed.”
He’s not wrong. In February Gov. Gavin Newsom, bowing to pressure from special interests, issued an “emergency” order for water system operators to conserve water, despite laws requiring water-quality flows through the Delta and despite forecasts of relentless rain.
The Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts, which run Don Pedro, cut back water releases. When rains continued, the reservoir filled — currently it is at 103% of normal — causing dam operators to turn the spigot back on at a higher volume, contributing to the river’s rise above the danger stage.
In fairness, the Tuolumne is just one of numerous tributaries along the San Joaquin. And if Don Pedro did not exist, a lot more of the valley than Cardoza Village would be flooded.
The San Joaquin County Office of Emergency Services issued an evacuation order for Airport Court and a nearby trailer park. The OES put other areas on notice they, too, might have to go.
Wright cannot and need not evacuate, he said.
He cannot because he has advanced cancer, making an evacuation center opened in Manteca a dicey option. “I’m not sleeping on a cot next to people I don’t know. If I got sick, it would really damage me.” Nor has he the money for a hotel, he said.
He need not because, he believes, California’s rains are winding down. Wright feels confident he can cope with river levels well below those of 2017 and far below the calamitous floods of 1997.
“’97 was the bad one,” Wright said. “It was 31 feet here (records say 34.88 at Vernalis). We had a 6-foot ladder out here” — he held two fingers a half inch apart — “It was like that much showing.”
“After this storm, there ain’t nothin’ and we’ll be okay,” Wright said.
Which is not to say life is easy. The mail has stopped. Disposing of garbage requires Wright to don galoshes and slosh a half block to bins moved to high ground. And he fears should he leave the neighborhood authorities might not let him return.
Yet like many, Wright said he loves life along the river. “Peace and quiet. Not a bunch of riffraff running around. We all pretty much take care of ourselves. Everybody helps each other out. Because we’ve all been through it.”
Still, Wright’s belief that human error, driven by greed for water, lies behind the flooding, is at least partly right. Mismanagement of water is as much a part of the Delta as catfish.
“I’m just a dumbsh– painter, I don’t know sh–,” Wright said. “But I know more about this river than they do.”
Michael Fitzgerald’s column runs on Wednesdays. Phone (209) 687-9585. On Twitter and Instagram as Stocktonopolis. Email: email@example.com.