Tiny town of Earlimart has been dry so far, how long will its luck hold out?

March 16, 2023
by Lois Henry
The small town of Earlimart is bookended by two typicaly dry creeks that can swamp the town when they are in flood.
Lois Henry

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The flood-prone town of Earlimart has been mostly dry — so far — during this series of massive storms slamming California.

Highway 99, which spears through the center of the tiny farmworker village in southern Tulare County, was flooded out by the White River and had to be closed twice after one, followed by another, atmospheric river inundated the San Joaquin Valley starting March 10.

But the town was mostly spared.

How long can residents expect to stay dry? That remains to be seen.

“It was, I think, a combination of luck and fate,” said Eric R. Quinley, General Manager of the Delano-Earlimart Irrigation District, which had crews working around the clock to keep the White River channel clear through its boundaries.

“The river’s embankments held up better this year than in past years with similar flows, so we didn’t have a catosrophic breach anywhere,” Quinley said. “What happened instead was the river crested the embankments at several locations over long distances, several hundreds of feet, and the water was sheet flowing over thousands of acres of farmland and ended up crossing 99.”

That relieved the pressure on the sides of the river so there wasn’t a “firehose” effect from a smaller breach.

“That saved Earlimart,” Quinley said.

Whether that can be counted on in the future is unclear as there is no plan or oversight on the White River, which has been described by area water managers as “no man’s land.”

“No one really uses the White River,” explained Dan Vink, Chair of the Tulare County Flood Control Commission. So landowners and water districts may tend to the channel up to their own borders, but “No one maintains the channel outside their own self interest.”

It’s a similar situation on the Deer and Poso creeks, which are both in high flood right now.

The Lower Tule/Pixley Irrigation District maintains a portion of Deer Creek in its own boundaries east of Highway 99 and the Deer Creek Flood Control Districts handles about five to seven miles on the Deer and Poso creeks and on the White River.

Flooding issues in small towns like Earlimart have been known and studied for decades.

Flooding issues in towns like Earlimart have long been known and studied with no discernible progress made toward alleviating the threat when California has a big water year.

Having a collection of floodplains and a coordinated system for how water is pushed to those plans would help, Vink told SJV Water in early February.

“Things can break down when people don’t feel the water is their responsibility –  if it’s not affecting their land,” Vink said. “That’s when there can be impacts to communities.”

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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