Big melt may be less dramatic – and damaging – than initially thought

May 22, 2023
by Lois Henry
Department of Water Resources predictions show runoff could cause less flooding than originally anticipated.
Lois Henry

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State flood responders are still planning for the worst, but newly released inundation models are predicting a less dramatic and damaging snow melt as California heads into the summer months.

On the Kern River, predictions are now showing releases from Isabella Dam can be maintained at 7,750 cubic feet per second, or less, throughout the rest of May and June, according to new figures released by the Department of Water Resources.

That’s down from a possible high of more than 9,200 cfs, which could have swamped homes in low lying areas east of Manor Street, as well as Highway 178 through the Kern River Canyon, according to Kern County first responders. Those areas and the highway are still being closely monitored.

For the old Tulare Lake bed, the new models could mean water elevations are likely to peak at 181 feet by May 31, according to Mehdi Mizani, deputy flood manager for DWR, who spoke during a briefing on Monday.

Even the much less likely 10% probability model shows peak water levels on the old lake bed at 184.1 feet by the end of July 17.

That’s far enough below the Corcoran levee’s newly rebuilt height of 192 feet that state regulators predicted Monday there would be “no overtopping based on what we’re seeing,” Mizani said.

That combined with  efforts by the Cross Creek Flood Control District to close off roads that had created openings in the levee, gave state regulators greater confidence that residents in Corcoran would not be flooded out, Mizani said. That includes the two state prisons just inside the southern arm of the Corcoran levee.

Mizani also said the small town of Stratford, which sits next to the south fork of the Kings River, would  not suffer “encroachment” from the south, where the lake bed is filling from that river as well as the Tule River.

Inundation maps provided by DWR showed the old Tulare Lake bed filling up the top portion and spilling to the south and east just below Corcoran. Water is shown standing against both the sides of the town’s levee.

When asked whether the state has authority to cut private levees owned by the J.G. Boswell Company to allow water into the vast south-central section of Tulare Lake in order relieve pressure on the Corcoran levee, which the state just paid $17 million to rebuild, Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES), said he wasn’t sure.

But “we’re not going to save farmland at the risk of neighborhoods,” he said. “There has been a fairly stern push on our local partners, including water agencies and ag folks so they understand that we are here to protect communities.”

SJV Water asked one of those local partners, Kings County, if it intended to flood the south-central part of the lake to take water off the Corcoran and Stratford levees and was told: “Please consult Boswell.”

Boswell vice president Jeoff Wyrick did not return calls seeking comment.

From one observer’s point of view, flood management on Tulare Lake has, so far, been much more focused on protecting farmland than communities.

Mark Grewal, a former Vice President for Boswell who helpd fight the 1983 flood, has been very outspoken about his concerns with how this flood has been managed.

“What Boswell is doing, in my opinion, is they’re building a compartment, closing off the south-central part of the lakebed,” he said.

Along with vast acres of tomatoes, the company has also planted cotton in that area, Grewal said.

Those sections of land are bounded by the El Rico and South Central levees, which can impound water up to 190 feet of elevation, according to Grewal.

“You could store all this water in there and never bother Corcoran,” he said. “But Boswell is protecting that land and it’s not right for the citizens and all these tax dollars being spent. Historically, that’s where the floods went and they knew that when bought the land.”

Grewal noted that in 1983, which the south-central part of the lake was flooded, only 88,000 acres of land took on water compared to more than 103,000 acres so far in this flood.

Map showing the outlines of past floods on Tulare Lake. Courtesy of Mark Gewal

Others aren’t convinced the flood would have gone any differently regardless of Boswell’s actions.

“The topography has totally changed from 40 years ago,” said longtime farmer Ceil Howe Jr., who operates Westlake Farms on the western side of Tulare lake. He referred to massive land subsidence in and around Corcoran cause by overpumping groundwater.

“That water went where it wanted,” Howe said of the massive flush of water that barreled down the mountains after a drenching, warm storm on March 10.

He wouldn’t “point fingers,” he said. “Boswell is doing what they can to try and make a living and protect themselves and that’s smart.”

Yes, there’s been subsidence, Grewal acknowledged, noting Boswell is by far one of the largest pumpers in the regions. But he said had water been directed into the south-central part of the lake, no amount of subsidence could have pulled it back out.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know this stuff,” Grewall said. “Just drive out there and look at it.”

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


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