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Longtime Tule River Water Master Richard L. Schafer dies at 95

 •  by Lois Henry
Richard L. Schafer talks to attendees at the rededication of Success Dam as the Richard L. Schafer Dam in 2019. CREDIT: U.S. Army

Richard L. Schafer left an “indelible” imprint on water systems — and the people who run them — in the southern San Joaquin Valley over his extensive career.

The longtime Tule River Water Master, who had worked with just about every agricultural water district in the area, died Thursday. He was 95.

Aside from his work on Tulare County water systems, Mr. Schafer, as he was called even by longtime associates, was also a mentor to those coming up in the water world behind him.

“Mr. Schafer was a great leader and advocate of water for farmers in the Central Valley,” David De Groot, who was named the new Tule River Water Master in February, wrote in an email. “To me, Mr. Schafer was a great mentor and we became great friends as he helped develop me to fulfill his roles and duties. He was a true gentleman from the greatest generation and will be truly missed.”

“Gentleman” was a common description of Mr. Schafer.

“There are icons in California’s water world and he will be remembered as right up there with them,” said Dan Vink, formerly the General Manager of the Lower Tule River and Pixley irrigation districts, which Mr. Schafer ran from 1961-1971. Mr. Schafer continued working for those districts, and numerous others, as a consulting engineer until the early 2000s.

“I considered him a mentor and a friend. He helped me a lot in my career,” said Vink, who now runs his own natural resources consulting firm, Six-33 Solutions.

During his long career, Mr. Schafer designed many of the Tule subbasin’s water distribution systems as well as the accounting methods for river systems in the lower San Joaquin Valley, according to Vink.

“He left an indelible footprint,” Vink said. “And he was a consummate gentleman. Regardless of what side he was negotiating on, he treated people with respect. He was thorough in his work and he was formidable.”

Yes, “he was definitely a force,” said one of his daughters, Sue Tharp.

Kern River Water Master Dana Munn agreed, suggesting he did not suffer what he might consider nonsense. Mr Schafer “did not like bureaucrats who delayed his projects.”

He was also a tireless advocate for the enlargement of Success Dam, which was renamed in his honor in 2019. An enlarged spillway is now under construction by the Army Corps of Engineers at the Richard L. Schafer Dam. It will allow the lake to hold an extra 28,000 acre feet, up to a total 110,300 acre feet. Construction on the $135 million project is expected to be complete in 2023.

Mr. Schafer also served on numerous agricultural and water committees over the years and kept active on an array of affiliations from the American Concrete Association to the Kiwanas.

He was born in 1925 in South Dakota and served in World War II in the Pacific Theater, according to the Association of California Water Agencies, which presented him with a lifetime achievement award in 2018.

He received a degree in Civil Engineering from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and moved to Porterville after joining an engineering firm in the area. In 1960, Mr.Schafer started his own company, R. L. Schafer and Associates, and worked for about a dozen water districts as a consulting engineer through his early 90s, according to a 2019 Porterville Recorder article.

He and his wife, Dorothy, married in 1950 and had two daughters, Sue Tharp, of Visalia, and Shelley Loescher, of Walnut Creek. After Dorothy died in 2009, Mr. Shafer remarried in 2011. He is survived by his daughters and his wife, Mary Schafer.

Services will be limited to a private family ceremony.

The 2019 dam dedication in his honor was “the best memorial service he ever could have had and he was able to be there and speak to people,” Mrs. Tharp said.

Lois Henry
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