Jeff Jardine

South Modesto farmer’s invention scrapes costs off levee road repairs

Farmers, even moreso than the rest of us, are obsessed with water. Water, to grow their crops and keep their orchards alive. Water, from the reservoirs or pumped from the ground. Water, water and more water, and especially during these past four drought years, when water became the new plutonium.

In fact, it’s difficult to remember a time when the foothills reservoirs were filled and the state had enough water, let alone too much. Many Valley residents forget the flooded fields, roads and even neighborhoods in west Modesto, where armoires and dressers floated from the bedrooms into the kitchens in 1997.

Joe Sallaberry won’t forget it, though. The energetic 78-year-old is a farmer who also heads Reclamation District 2063 south of Modesto in southern Stanislaus County. The district maintains 12 miles of levees that separate the San Joaquin River from about 18,000 acres of farmland and cattle pastures, along with 18 miles of county roads. In 1997, the San Joaquin crept to within a foot of topping the levee. A storm in 2011 raised the river 30 feet, gobbling up big chunks of embankment and leaving behind a fishing hole the size of a small lake.

Sallaberry limited the damage that year by dumping literally hundreds of truckloads of broken-up concrete down the embankment, which stopped the erosion, but eroded his relationship with the state Department of Fish & Game. The agency threatened to fine and even jail him, he said, but eventually backed off. The concrete remains.

He and other old-school farmers understand the river is vital to the Valley but also must be kept within its borders. If not, it can be sneaky and destructive, and therefore a potential enemy.

The facts that temperatures soared into the 90s over the past week and that the depleted San Joaquin barely seeps through the district didn’t matter. Sallaberry spent the last 12 days working on the levee and preparing for the predicted El Niño and the violent winter it could bring.

The district is funded by the city of Turlock; the Turlock Irrigation District; assessments paid by farmers within the district; Stanislaus County; and another reclamation district near by. It has reserves of around $200,000, which prompted Stanislaus County to cease contributing its 16 percent, which frustrates Sallaberry. Even so, he initially declined when a California Department of Water Resources official asked if the district needed money to shore up the levees.

“I told ’em no,” Sallaberry said. “The levees are in good shape.”

The official told him the agency could offer grant money, and that Sallaberry should consider applying for it. The tops of the levees could use some new gravel, he decided, figuring he might be able to get enough from the state to rework several miles of it. By improving the levee roads, it will be easier to patrol the levees for weaknesses leading to possible breaches the next time the river threatens.

“I was expecting $40,000 to $60,000,” Sallaberry said. “I got a letter that showed I was granted (up to) $589,000.”

Serious wow. The state, he said, figured that would be enough money to fund re-graveling about 7 miles of levee road. Reclamation District 2063 would contribute $65,600 for a total project cost of up to $654,600. But like many old-school farmers, Sallaberry also is an inventor, tinkerer and adapter.

Years ago, realizing that most of the district’s budget went to buy herbicides to keep the levee banks weed-free, he and others concocted a simple and basically cost-free solution. They roped together a bunch of old tires flat on their sides, hooked them up and then dragged them along the sloped levee banks at about 25 miles an hours to sweep the weeds away.

The levee road project provided Sallaberry with another opportunity to test out a cost-saving device. For years, he’d been working to build a scraper that would spread the gravel on the levee crowns evenly and perfectly, keeping the crushed rock on top where it’s needed instead of losing much of it down the embankments. This, he reasoned, would reduce the costs of labor and materials significantly.

He worked with an engineer to develop the machine. The engineer predicted the scraper would be able to keep up with five to six trucks delivering gravel, with each making four or five runs per day. This job became the shakedown cruise. The gravel haulers ultimately dumped truck-and-trailer loads down the middle of the levee road. Sallaberry’s scraper, pulled by a John Deere tractor, needed only two passes to spread each load into an 11-foot-wide swath. Then a roller packed it down tight, to about 4 1/2 inches thick.

“The first day, we had five trucks (delivering),” he said. “No problem. It worked better than I envisioned. I could handle 50 trucks with my machine (250 loads per day).”

A job expected to take 45 days finished up Wednesday after less than two weeks. Because of the efficiency of the scraper, the work required 2,500 fewer tons of rock than projected, saving roughly $40,000 despite losing one full load when a rig overturned down an embankment in a non-injury accident. Along with the reduced labor, diesel and equipment rental costs, Sallaberry now estimates the total tab will pencil out to about $172,000 below budget.

It’s finished. Now, he and the other farmers in the Reclamation District can go back to obsessing about not having enough water next year. If they get too much this winter, so be it.

They’ve done that worrying already.