“This is the third time this year,” he said.
Nearby, parishioners shuttled sandbags from the back of a truck to the church’s gates, working to block more water from entering the flooded parking lot.
But the 4 inches of water that fell the night before on the mountains northwest of Tehachapi were now flowing around Bell’s church.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to have services tomorrow,” he said.
Even a moderate storm can send floodwaters from the 470 square miles of mountain range between Walker Basin and Tehachapi down Caliente Creek into Lamont.
This isn’t a natural problem.
It’s a problem that has been systematically built, over decades, by farmers seeking to protect their land, crops and investments from flooding.
They’ve pushed the problem onto county roadways and into Lamont, a small unincorporated community of largely Hispanic agricultural workers with a median annual household income of $33,351.
A large-scale solution to the problem has eluded county leaders for decades, though a hodgepodge of multimillion-dollar projects has been able to protect some parts of Lamont from small to moderate storms.
But relatively minor storms, in January, did $2 million in damage to county roads and took the life of Vivian Mary Robinson.
Robinson, 81, reportedly drove around flood-warning signs in an attempt to get to her home. She got stuck in the water flooding the county road and made the decision to leave her car.
Her body was found a mile away.
Now there is renewed interest in protecting Lamont from all but the most epic “100-year” floods.
A century ago, the water that flooded Lamont this year would have never gotten close to the community.
North of Highway 58 lies the wide alluvial valley where Caliente Creek has, over the centuries, cut its way out of the mountains into the wide plain of the San Joaquin Valley.
“Historically when the water reached the valley floor, it spread out across a wide expanse of land and had a chance to be absorbed into the soil, which is very sandy,” said Greg Fenton, director of the Kern County Engineering, Surveying and Permit Services Department.
But decades ago, farmers in the area cut channels through their mile-wide swath of land and tamed the creek, restricting it, speeding it up and sending it downstream to become the next guy’s problem.
Then the next guy did the same.
When floods hit farmers north of Arvin in the 1930s and ‘40s, they built the Tamarisk Tree Line, a massive east-west berm of earth and broken concrete topped with tamarisk trees.
That protected Arvin.
And it aimed it like a hose at Lamont.
Retired Kern County engineer Clark Farr was responsible for battling Caliente Creek for years, and designed many of the current control systems.
Once the tamarisk line was built, he said, other farmers got hit with flooding every time Caliente Creek ran strong.
So they, too, built berms.
Ultimately the tree line become a canal.
That canal now ends at Malaga Road.
When Caliente Creek is “ripping,” all the water dumps out onto Malaga.
The road becomes an asphalt-lined river that shoots the water onto westbound Panama Road and Mountain View Road.
And those major roads take it, fast and furious, into Lamont.
Lamont School District Superintendent Ricardo Robles stood in the center of Weedpatch Highway with floodwaters flowing around his rubber boots.
Behind him, gas-powered pumps roared away at full blast, sucking the floodwaters of Caliente Creek away from the tan block wall that protects Mountain View Middle School and pushing them into a nearby field.
The school was surrounded by water. Again.
His work crews are so used to it they don’t even wait for the emergency call, Robles said.
On Feb. 18 they just showed up at 6 a.m. and started pumping.
The school sits at the spot where Mountain View Road meets Weedpatch. The system of canals and berms built up by farmers over the decades sends Caliente Creek roaring right at the school.
The middle school has had to close for two days this year, Robles said, wreaking havoc on working families who have to find a way to care for their children.
If the weather stays wet, it will happen again.
“We’re concerned about our school and our community,” Robles said.
Farr, the former county engineer, has taken Caliente Creek on as something of a retirement mission.
He says farmers’ berms and levees are illegal under county ordinance and state law and need to be declared a public nuisances by the county and eliminated.
Someone, he said, has to stand up for the people of Lamont.
“Human beings are being flooded now. They don’t have a voice in this. The main job creator in the area is Grimmway Farms,” he said. “Do you sue your employer over the fact they’re flooding your home? No person should have to choose between the safety of your family or food on the table.”
In the past few years, Farr has filed a series of complaints against farmers in the area for violating county ordinances by failing to get permits before building berms and levees and for pushing floodwaters onto other people’s land.
The county has, largely, ignored them.
Fenton said most of those complaints are filed against property owners who are closer to Lamont.
He struggles, he said, with punishing someone for a systematic problem that has been created by other farmers who work land closer to the mountains.
“There’s a hundred other violations upstream,” Fenton said. “I’m trying to be fair.”
Beatris Espericueta Sanders, of the Kern County Farm Bureau, said farmers are forced to build the berms by state legislation that can fine them if they let water from their property flow onto other property.
So they keep the water off their property in the first place.
“A lot of the flooding is created by the berms that farmers are required to put on their acreage,” she said. “We cannot, as growers, have any water leave our acreage.”
Farr calls that argument a red herring.
The Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program is designed to keep polluted water from traveling and contaminating surface and groundwater supplies.
And, by his reading, it doesn’t apply to floodwaters like those from Caliente Creek, Farr said.
And the program was created in 2003 — well after farmers constructed many of the major berms and levees.
Fenton said while the county understands and respects the farmers and the critical economic role they play in Kern County, their actions are making the problem worse.
“By berming (Caliente Creek) and channelizing the water and sending it on downstream, it’s creating some negative impacts and jeopardizing the safety and the livelihood of the community,” he told Kern County supervisors.
And it could have a negative impact on thousands of residents across Kern County who live in a designated flood plain.
“Many of these diversions are a violation of the flood plain, which could also jeopardize the county’s standing in the National Flood Insurance Program,” Fenton said. “That could result in significant increases for flood insurance premiums for the flood insurance payers of the county.”
If the county doesn’t solve the problem, Farr said, anyone who is required to have flood insurance could lose a 15 percent discount they currently receive.
On Jan. 31, Kern County Public Works Director Craig Pope outlined plans to create a flood mitigation plan that would keep all but the largest floods away from Lamont.
The county intends to work in cooperation with farmers in the area to make the plan happen.
Pope points, for a solution, back to the beginning of the problem.
If Caliente Creek could, once again, be allowed to spread out across its historical alluvial fan north of Highway 58, Arvin, Lamont and all the downstream farms could be protected, he said.
That would require farmers’ cooperation.
On Feb. 18, as Caliente Creek roared through the channels on their land, three of those farmers stood surveying their property from the overlook where Bena Road drops down into their valley.
They complained about the damage the water does to their land, the lack of a solution from the county and the need to pay taxes even when their crops are underwater.
They wouldn’t share their names.
Sanders, of the Farm Bureau, said Vivian Robinson’s death in floodwaters on Edison Road has brought an urgency to the discussion.
And farmers, she said, are committed to the talks.
“Nobody has asked these farmers to come to the table and be a part of the solution — until now,” she said. “The farms that are out there have been out there farming for 50 years or more. Their ideas for solutions were things that the county hadn’t thought of yet.”
But now the talks are happening, she said, and “it’s been a great dialogue.”
Farr said the farmers aren’t evil.
“Grimmway has done great things for Kern County. They have done great things in the county without accolade. They are good people,” Farr said.
But once every seven years — when the rains land heavy in the mountains — the carrot giant and a host of farmers in the area are not good neighbors for Lamont to have, he said.
Joel Sherman, director of safety, workers’ compensation and regulatory compliance for Grimmway, said the company is committed to helping the community find long-term solutions to mitigate chronic flooding in the Lamont area. Many of the berms in question, he said in a statement, have been in place for more than three decades, long before Grimmway acquired the properties.
He reiterated that many of the berms are required by law to prevent irrigation water from leaving Grimmway land.
“The berms are an important land management tool, and cannot merely be removed,” Sherman said in the statement. “However, we are committed to working alongside our partners and regulatory agencies to find solutions or modifications that address the needs of landowners and residents alike.”
Farr and Sanders agree on one thing: Progress toward a solution cannot fade away this year when the rain stops falling and the sun comes out.
“The county loses focus on the problem because it only happens every seven years,” Farr said.
Attention dries up. Money goes to different priorities.
Nothing happens until the floodwaters come back, he said.
That’s not the way the Farm Bureau wants this to go, Sanders said.
“We (can’t) just enter another dry season and forget about it for another 10 years,” she said. “There are solutions out there.”