State to pay $17 – $20 million for repeated rebuild of Corcoran levee

May 11, 2023
by Lois Henry
Flood water is held back from two state prisons south of Corcoran by the town levee. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry

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The state will front Kings County $17-$20 million to pay for raising the Corcoran levee but said it didn’t want to throw “good money after bad” and would require local groundwater agencies do more to stem subsidence, land sinking.

Gov. Newsom’s administration made the announcement Thursday as a separate measure among several water-related spending proposals that are part of the May budget revise.

When asked how the administration would ensure that the levee won’t need rebuilding again because of subsidence, Tim Godwin, with the Department of Water Resources, said officials were “exploring all alternatives to helping remedy the situation to assure that we’re not going to go through this again.”

Local groundwater agencies are already under a mandate to halt subsidence as part of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. But those deadlines are 15 years in the future.

Meanwhile, the area around Corcoran is sinking, on average, a foot a year because of excessive groundwater pumping.

One of the largest pumpers in the area is the J.G. Boswell Company. According to testimony before the Water Resources Control Board in 2021, Boswell pumps an estimated 140,000 acre feet a year, on average, to irrigate crops.

In fact, the groundwater agency that covers Boswell lands almost exclusively, the El Rico Groundwater Sustainability Agency,  submitted a plan to the state that allowed for so much pumping Corcoran was expected to sink another 11 feet.

As a consequence of all that subsidence, the Corcoran levee has had to be raised multiple times over the years, most recently in 2017. It had sunk from 195 feet to 188 feet. It was rebuilt to 192 feet, but was found to have sunk again this year back to 188 feet.

As the Tulare Lake filled with water from multiple rivers this March, and with an historic snowpack promising massive runoff when the weather warms, the Cross Creek Flood Control District scrambled to rebuild the levee to 192 feet over the last month.

Water in Tulare Lake is currently at 179 feet and rising.

Flood water has been standing on the levee’s western and southern flanks for weeks now. Two state prisons, considered critical infrastructure by the state, sit just inside the southern arm of the levee.

Dirt being trucked in on the Corcoran levee May 9, 2023. Lois Henry / SJV Water

When asked if the state would take a stronger hand in ongoing flood actions to keep water from pushing higher onto the levee, administration officials couldn’t answer.

The Tulare Lake bed has been filling in sections rather from the bottom up, according to Kings County farmers and others. One of the sections that filled first was along the southeast portion of the old lake bed,  where Corcoran sits.

Farmers have accused Boswell, which owns the majority of the lakebed and controls its maze of levees, of purposely flooding the fringes of the lake rather than its center in order to continue farming.

Indeed, Boswell is farming tomatoes in the south central parts of the lake where vast swaths of land remain dry.

The Kings County Board of Supervisors ordered one Boswell levee cut March 17 in order to relieve the Tule River, which had backed up and broken out of its banks in more than 50 places far to the east of the lake bed.

Since then, however, Boswell has retained control of its levees.

The company even built a low dam in early April at the confluence of the Tule and South Fork of the Kings rivers in the lake bed to move water to the east and west rather than allow it to run south where the company’s tomatoes are planted.

Twitter screengrab of satellite mapping showing water covering the northern and southeastern sections of Tulare Lake.

Water has flooded out northern sections of the lake bed and risen up against not just the Corcoran levee, but levees protecting the small town of Stratford as well.

The Stratford levees were built by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Kings County is looking at building additional levee protection, according to a Kings County spokesperson. It has reached out to state agencies including the California Office of Emergency Services.

SJV Water asked Kings County if it would order cuts in other Boswell levees to protect Stratford and other communities and was told via email: “Please consult with Boswell.”

Calls to Boswell vice president Jeof Wyrick and CEO Jim W. Boswell have not been returned.

A map by Department of Water Resources showing what Tulare Lake would look like with water up to 200 feet elevation. Lois Henry / 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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