Kern County agencies seek nearly $50 million to repair damage and dig out from last winter’s storms

November 6, 2023
by Lois Henry
An excavator is no match for debris in Poso Creek that piled up behind a weir owned by Cawelo Water District after the March 11 storm. Last winter's storms and floods damaged that weir and multiple other facilities. Cawelo is seeking $8.89 million in reimbursement costs from FEMA. SOURCE: Kern County Fire Department Instagram
Lois Henry

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Kern County agencies are still digging out, literally in some cases, from last winter’s storms as they seek federal funding and hope for enough time to fix damage before another wet winter.

County agencies submitted requests for reimbursements totalling nearly $50 million for costs to repair damage from the 2023 storms and floods, according to a data sheet provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The two single largest individual reimbursement requests were from the Cawelo Water District and City of Bakersfield to repair weirs and structures on Poso Creek and the Kern River –  $8.89 million and $8 million, respectively.

The structures were damaged by torrential flows that brought tons of trees, rocks, dirt and trash barreling down those waterways.

Poso structures “trashed”

Dave Ansolabehere, Cawelo’s general manager, recalled standing on the district’s Poso Creek weir just south of Famoso Road, east of Highway 99, in the middle of the night after the March 11 storm hit.

“We were out there at 12:30 a.m that night with excavators on both sides of the creek pulling debris and they did nothing,” Ansolabehere said. “Normally, in past floods, with debris coming down, we’d be working for hours before it packed up on us. This took 3 minutes.”

After years of drought, the Poso Creek bed was littered with dead trees, including whole oaks, that the massive flush of water launched like missiles downstream.

Ansolabehere was on Cawelo’s weir that night taking photos and video when trees started slamming into the structure.

“You could hear it and feel it hitting so I thought I better get out of there,” he said.

After the storm passed and enough debris was picked out, Cawelo found the weir “trashed,” he said. 

“It bent the gates in.”

Another weir upstream of the Famoso location was completely washed away, he said. Pump stations and levees were also destroyed in the storm.

And then there’s the debris. Tons of it.

“We still have 12-foot piles out there including 40-inch diameter trees,” he said. “In the old days, you would just burn it. But now it has to be taken somewhere and I don’t know if green waste even takes trees that big.”

After that initial March storm, it would be two months before the skies cleared through spring and summer and even longer for flows in creeks and rivers to recede allowing agencies to assess and begin repairing damage.

By late fall, Cawelo was still waiting for appropriate permits to come through. Though the state suspended some permitting requirements, Ansolabehere said they still need proper authority from the Army Corps of Engineers.

 “We hope we can get it fixed before El Niño hits,” he said of the predicted weather pattern for this coming winter, which typically has meant a wetter-than-average year.

Kern River debris piled up

As for Bakersfield, its $8 million reimbursement request is expected to help cover repair costs to the River Canal weir, which backs up water in the river at Coffee Road, as well as several other structures along the river that were damaged in the storms and subsequent high flows.

Coincidentally, the city had received $1.2 million in state funding in February 2023 to build a new weir across the river at Coffee Road and was supposed to have begun construction in March. With the river still running, the city hasn’t been able to begin construction, which must be done by 2026.

The city also applied for $500,000 in FEMA reimbursement funding to help pay for the 90 tons of debris it hauled out of the river, according to Daniel Maldonado, deputy director for Bakersfield Water Resources Department. The city owns the river bed from Manor Street to Enos Lane and owns or operates all of the diversion structures in that space.

Caliente Creek silts up ponds

Debris removal was the largest cost listed by Kern County Public Works among its requests for reimbursement of $10.5 million from FEMA.

The Caliente Creek runs beneath Highway 58 after the March 11 storms. SOURCE: Kern Count Fire Department Instagram

Public Works requested $5.1 million for debris removal, of which about $4.5 million was spent cleaning out silt from ponding basins that kept Lamont from being inundated by the Caliente Creek, according to Alejandro Bedolla, an engineering manager with Public Works.

Several years ago, the county built a series sumps east of Lamont on Panama Road to capture the Caliente’s notoriously silty water before it hits homes and businesses in town.

The sumps, along with some recently acquired “buffer land” further upstream worked, and this year Lamont remained dry.

But that left the Panama Road ponds full of dirt that has to be dug out before more storms hit, Bedolla said.

The department has also requested $4.4 million for road repairs, which it hopes will complement other funding from state and federal sources to fix a host of storm-damaged roads in rural areas.

Those include Sierra Way west of Weldon, a main artery for Kern River Valley residents to get around Lake Isabella. There’s also Breckenridge Road, which remains closed 20 miles up, Comanche Point Road, Jack Ranch Road and several others including Jawbone Canyon Road, damaged during Hurricane Hilary in late August.

“We had a tremendous amount of roads damaged,” Bedolla said.

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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