Kern River water heads north through flood channel but won’t hit Tulare Lake – yet

April 27, 2023
by Lois Henry
The Kern River flood channel north of Highway 46 is filling with water. But managers say it won't get all the way to Tulare Lake. SJV Water / Lois Henry
Lois Henry

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The heavily overgrown Kern River flood channel that heads north past Highway 46 and eventually meanders into the southern end of the Tulare Lake bed is filling with water.

But it’s not “flood water” and it won’t make it into Tulare Lake, said Tim Ashlock, General Manager of Buena Vista Water Storage District.

The district is moving water up the channel to “clear a path” and will recapture it further north and put into recharge ponds, he said. After the water soaks in a bit, Buena Vista will put heavy equipment in the channel and begin clearing out the thicket of trees, shrubs and weeds to about three miles north of Highway 46.

Kern River flood channel north of Highway 46. Top photo taken 4/21/23; bottom taken 4/27/23. Lois Henry / SJV Water

Beyond that point, channel clearing will be the responsibility of the J.G. Boswell Company in coordination with the Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District and Delta Lands Reclamation District 770, Ashlock said. Calls to Boswell, Tulare Lake and Reclamation 770 were not returned.

As the scale of potential Kern River flooding became apparent, water managers and Kern River Watermaster Mark Mulkay scrambled to figure out who had responsibility for a 16-mile stretch of the flood channel north of 46.

No one could find a document that specifically lays out  those authorities.

Terry Chicca, Buena Vista board president whose family used to farm north of 46, recalled the channel historically had been kept clear by farmers in the area.  As landowners and water rights changed, including a lower river right purchase by the Kern County Water Agency 2000, responsibility for the channel was lost in the shuffle.

But the channel will be important as the snow melt raises Kern River flows in the coming months.

If the river gets so high that local water interests can’t take anymore, they may request the Department of Water Resources take water through the intertie and into the California Aqueduct. The intertie, as reported by SJV Water, is a large concrete box north of Highway 119 that ties into the aqueduct.

Ashlock said the intertie was built in order to keep Kern River flood water from reaching Tulare Lake, which is already inundated by waters from the Kings, Tule and Kaweah rivers plus numerous smaller streams.

Before DWR would allow Kern River floodwater into the aqueduct, however, the agency would run through a check list of other options with Kern River interests.

“They could say no,” Ashlock said. “So, that’s why we’re preparing the flood channel now because if we get to that point and DWR does say no, it would be too late.”

So far, he said, most hydrologic models suggest runoff, estimated to be 429% of normal for April through July, will come into Lake Isabella at amounts that will be manageable.

The goal is to keep outflow from the dam at between 7,000 and 7,500 cubic feet per second but there could be a few weeks when outflow goes up to 10,000 cfs, Ashlock said. It’s hard to predict as it all depends on the weather.

Flows had to be halted at midnight Wednesday after a vibration was noted in the power plant at the dam. Flows were redirected from the power plant to the dam’s side gates and began ramping back up on Thursday.


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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