Fluctuating Kaweah River flows yield giant catches over Thanksgiving weekend

December 4, 2023
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
by Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
A pile of dead fish lies in the Kaweah River about 15 miles east of Visalia after releases from Kaweah Lake were stopped when the reservoir reached acceptable levels. The rapid fish stranding attracted numerous curious residents during the Thanksgiving weekend. Lisa McEwen / SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

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The Kaweah River was reduced to a trickle out of Terminus Dam in late November, stranding catfish, carp and crawdads in shallow pools and giving young anglers a rare look at the critters that travel through the channel.

Residents who live along the riverbank in eastern Tulare County could see — and smell — the changing river conditions as flows came to a halt. 

The reason? 

Lake Kaweah reached acceptable levels for this time of year, which translates to about 13 percent full or 24,000 acre-feet of water. That leaves plenty of room to accommodate runoff from anticipated winter storms. 

“We always maintain the pool so if a large storm comes in, we have enough space in the reservoir to prevent flooding,” said Bill Miller, Army Corps of Engineers Operations Project Manager.

The fluctuating conditions on the Kaweah are an example of the constant coordination required to manage water storage and river flows. 

“It’s a complicated and coordinated dance,” Miller said. “We want to save as much as we can but we can’t hold on to too much. We play the safe game because flood damage reduction is our mission.”  

Every morning, managers from the Army Corps of Engineers and Kaweah Delta Conservation District confer to determine the day’s outflows. The Army Corps manages the lake and dam; Kaweah Delta manages the Kaweah River Watershed, including river and creek channels, and flood control infrastructure across 340,000 acres of Tulare and Kings counties. 

Miller explained that snowmelt and natural springs continue to feed into the upper Kaweah River, which flows into Kaweah Lake. As the lake fills, it reaches “encroachment,” a level that varies from day to day depending on inflows, weather and other factors. 

For comparison, outflows slowed to just one cubic foot per second before Thanksgiving, which is why so many fish were stuck. 

Outflows from Kaweah Lake ramped up after Thanksgiving, refilling the river about 15 miles east of Visalia. Lisa McEwen / SJV Water

Outflows are increasing steadily through this week, said Shane Smith, Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District general manager. 

“We just started another water run so the low levels seen recently in the river(s) will start to increase for the next 7-10 days or until we’re able to take the reservoir down to acceptable levels once again,” he wrote in an email. 

The Kaweah River has multiple branches, including the St. Johns River which runs through Visalia. 

As of Dec. 1, 550 cfs was funneled from the dam into the lower Kaweah River. During the series of atmospheric rivers that pummeled California in 2023, releases were at 6,000 cfs. 

A cubic foot is about the size of a basketball. So, it may help to visualize 550 or 6,000 basketballs flowing past every second as you stand on the bank of the river.

Zack Stuller, a farm manager who lives along the Kaweah, enjoyed catching fish with his young children. But the increased flows were welcomed. 

“The river by my house is much more full than it was last week,” Stuller said via email. “Which is good, it washed the fish down stream.”

However, the low water levels did not allow enough time for much-needed channel maintenance. Like many other water managers in the San Joaquin Valley, Smith would prefer to have dry channels to perform annual chores. So far this year, waterways have continued to run or are too soggy for heavy equipment. 

“Although we do have a lot of work to do in most of our channels and rivers we maintain and we were able to get a little bit of work done, in this case it was not our call to shut off the water for maintenance purposes,” Smith said.

But for the young anglers exploring the river bottom, the timing couldn’t have been better.

Alex McEwen, son of the author, was one of many residents home for the Thanksgiving holiday, who explored the dried up Kaweah River and found a critter to bring home. Lisa McEwen / SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

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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