State Water Resources Chief in the valley to assess flood response and whether state intervention is needed

March 23, 2023
by Lois Henry
A farm shop sits in a sea of water south of Corcoran. The water covers some of lthe and owned by Hansen Ranches and has never flooded before. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry

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In what could be a precursor to state intervention in the San Joaquin Valley’s – at best – patchwork response to historic flooding, the director of the Department of Water Resources made a fact-finding visit to the area Thursday and Friday.

While DWR Director Karla Nemeth and her team are hearing from counties about needed resources, they are also assessing the state’s authority to intervene, if needed.

“We are looking into the (Central Valley Flood Protection) board’s authorities right now,” she said. “We do believe it does have the authority to identify appropriate places for flood waters in the event of extensive flooding.”

Karla Nemeth, Director of California Department of Water Resources.

At the time the CV flood board was created in the early 2000s, water representatives from theTulare and Kings subbasins fought hard to keep those areas out from under its authority. As such, the southern San Joaquin Valley relies on a patchwork system of flood protection districts and receives very little state funding toward flood protection, as SJV Water wrote about in February.

Nemeth said the state could be a back stop if local governments can’t work together to adequately protect communities “and deal with the challenges we’ve already seen emerging in the last 10 days.”

Many valley communities flooded after area reservoirs overfilled and rivers rose rapidly from a warm storm that brought rain and massive amounts of snowmelt starting March 10.

But as storms have continued slamming California and flood waters rolled west across the valley floor, the water has been blocked from the old Tulare Lake bed, the lowest spot in the region where rivers and streams have historically flowed. Instead, it has pooled around the edges of the lake bed causing significant damage.

The lakebed is mostly owned by the powerful J.G. Boswell Company, which has erected levees and canals over generations to keep flood water off its land.

On March 18, after days of debate in special meetings, the Kings County Board of Supervisors finally ordered Boswell to cut one levee in the northern part of the lake bed to allow water from the Tule and Kings rivers into that section of its land.

The delay in cutting that levee and the fact that other Boswell levees remain intact are being blamed for massive flooding around the lake bed that has destroyed countless smaller farms and businesses and which also now threatens the town of Corcoran.

On the southern end of the lake bed, Boswell has continued to block waters from Poso Creek from flowing onto its farmland. That water could swamp the towns of Alpaugh and Allensworth.

When asked specifically DWR about the Boswell situation, Nemeth said she needs to learn more before acting.

“We haven’t seen the plan. Frankly, all I know is what I’ve read about in the newspapers,” she said. “We understand there are historical challenges there, but we need to see the plans that have been vetted at the local government level.”

Her team will also be gathering information for a possible disaster declaration by Gov. Newsom.

“We’re here to understand the situation and talk with the Governor’s office about whether and when that needs to happen,” she said.

About 10 DWR flood specialists have been in the valley for the last week conferring with Tulare, Kings and Fresno flood mangers and water managers every day at 1 p.m. but things can be “lost in translation and we want to get all components working together,” Nemeth said Thursday.

Given the region’s fragmented flood planning and response, Nemeth said, DWR is very concerned about the coming snowmelt. The Sierra Nevadas are now covered in more snow than has ever been recorded in watersheds aimed directly at the San Joaquin Valley.

“We want to be a coalescer, to get a bigger picture so everyone is looking at the larger challenge in a proactive way, especially as we get into the true snowmelt season,” Nemeth said.

What’s coming may be worse, but the situation is already bad, said Corcoran farmer Eric Hansen.

“If this isn’t a disaster, I don’t know what is,” he told SJV Water. “There’s going to be novels written about this.”

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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