Corcoran’s largest company is joining other local businesses, homeowners and even the 8000-inmate state prison system in making plans to flee the area if floodwater overspills the levees in coming weeks and inundates the community.
In a precautionary and expensive exercise, cotton king J.G. Boswell is doing more than planning – relocating some 10,000 cotton bales and thousands of barrels of tomato product they make here outside the potential flood zone to warehouses in Hanford, Visalia and Fresno. Joining Boswell are other major Corcoran companies who are taking predictions of a possible flood event seriously enough to spend money to relocate materials, equipment and other assets.
Homeowners in town have been seen filling storage pods in front of their residences, putting in valuables to be hauled off once advanced warning comes that the snowmelt can’t be held off, hopefully with enough notice to get out of town.
As to the prison and its inmates and staff, California Department of Corrections spokesman Bill Sessa says the state has contingency plans to relocate everyone if needed but details won’t be made public before hand.
Ironically, it was after the 1983 flood that this water-year is being compared to, that pushed this farm community to lobby for a prison to make help make-up the economic losses that came when the area was devastated by floodwaters.
As a result, the town got two prisons.
This is certainly not the first time the area has been threatened by floods having been built at the bottom of historic Tulare Lake. But today there is a massive investment to worry about.
“We have some $600 million in property assets to protect – not including the prisons “ says reclamation district manager Dustin Fuller, Cross Creek Flood Control District , who is spearheading the drive to both shore up the levee as well as carrying the message to the community to be prepared to evacuate if given the word.
“If the water breaches that levee, everyone is compromised.” he told a crowd of worried residents a few days ago. He expects at least a week’s notice.
Cross Creek Flood Control District is spending $14 million it does not have to rebuild the levees, money they need to borrow, hopefully repaid with future government help.
Even with a huge snowmelt coming – Corcoran’s situation is made more precarious with news that the ground continues to sink, now another 2 feet in the past couple of years – lighting a fire under Mr Fuller to command a frantic build-up up of the Cross Creek levee starting over a month ago. Along a 14 mile stretch the levee is big raised as much as four feet in some locations.
“We hope to be done by May 1” he vows. Fuller confirms the move of assets away from the town by Corcoran companies who are not waiting around.
The worsening subsidence issue around Corcoran as well as Avenal, documented by NOAA and JPL in February, points to excessive pumping of groundwater at thousands of wells in California’s San Joaquin Valley that has caused land in sections of the valley to subside, or sink by as much as 28 feet over the years.This subsidence is exacerbated during droughts, when farmers rely heavily on groundwater to sustain one of the most productive agricultural regions in the nation.
Dustin Fuller’s team did the measurements at the Cross Creek levee and found it indeed, had shrunk, by two feet in some places from measurements done as recently as 2015.
According to Fuller the levee as it was constructed in the 1980s, has dropped about nine feet due to subsidence.
Fuller says there is high uncertainty over whether the town will flood or not or if only ag land might be flooded. But there is lots of water to worry about. The upper Kings River drainage area was 186% of April 1 average and it continues to snow. Forecast models show we could continue to get precip April 14,18,26-28.
At a recent Corcoran community meeting he offered this analogy.
“The risk here of a catastrophic event is high.The easiest way to equate it is you got 20 gallons sitting up in the hills and at some point in time that 20 gallons is going to come down to a five gallon bucket.”
Although four rivers have historically reached the lake bottom around Corcoran, the million or so acre-feet of floodwater we expect to reach the area is far less than when there were really big floods – before human management. The area’s last big flood saw 1.06 million acre-feet flow into Tulare Lake in 1983 compared to an amazing 6.3 million acre-feet in the mega-flood of 1862. Yowza!
Historic Tulare Like stretched 690 square miles across the Central Valley, submerging towns like Corcoran and Stratford, if had they around back then, beneath 25 feet of Sierra runoff, with its shore lapping up on some beach in Lemoore.
Fuller points out the levee can hold back 1.1 million acre-feet but not more and than that and the major problem does not come from the Kern,Tule or Kaweah Rivers but high flows along the Kings River’s South Fork.
“We can handle 4750 cfs and we are seeing 4500 cfs now” he figures as the Corps of Engineers at Pine Flat try to minimize impacts downstream and the Kings River Water Association works to push as much as needed out the North Fork that connects up to the San Joaquin River and out to sea.
The scale of the Corcoran levee construction operation is impressive with some one million cubic feet of dirt being moved to shore up the banks of the levee and 50,000 truckloads of dirt delivered – seriously impacting the roads around town. About 100 people are working almost around the clock on the emergency project.
Besides local farms and industry, public institutions like the city are taking precautions – moving important records from their office to a SeaTrain cargo box installed at the WWT Plant near the railroad tracks – on higher ground. City Manager Kindon Meik says the city offered the school district to park their buses and outdoor equipment there too. He adds that most of the flood-prone area is west of the tracks and entities east of the tracks have less to worry about
So no-one knows if the levee will hold or how much water might spill or for how long or how long it will hang around? “These are all unknown variables” worries Meik.
Here his a little pertinent history from John Austin’s local book – Floods and Droughts in the Tulare Lake Basin.
“At its highest stage,Tulare Lake had an elevation of 216 feet. For comparison, the highest point in the city of Corcoran, which was built within the lakebed, is the train depot: elevation 206 feet. Emergency levees have to be constructed to protect Corcoran when lake levels approach about 190 feet. Stratford, with a nominal elevation of 203 feet, has a similar problem with lake flooding.
To assist in the reclamation of the lakebed, over 20 reclamation districts were formed under California general reclamation district laws between about 1896 and 1925. The reclamation districts have built levee systems which divide the lakebed into cells or sumps. As floodwaters come into the lakebed, the sumps are filled, more or less in order. The first four cells (the South Wilbur Flood Area and the three Hacienda Reservoirs) are devoted to holding floodwater; they are never planted in crops. This use of lakebed levees minimizes the damage and allows the remaining portions of the lakebed to be used for agricultural purposes. In huge runoff years, emergency levees still have to be constructed within the lakebed to protect the towns of Corcoran and Stratford.
The heavy spring runoff in 1982 resulted in flooding in the Tulare Lakebed. This was the first significant flooding in the lakebed since 1980 In order to minimize flooding in the lakebed, 33,000 acre-feet of river floodwater was pumped into the Friant-Kern Canal in 1982 and routed to the Los Angeles area.
The 1983 flood brought the lake to a peak elevation of 191.44 feet, slightly lower than the modern 192.5 foot record set in 1969. In order to protect Corcoran, the USACE spent $2.7 million to construct emergency flood protection levees along Cross Creek and the Tule River. Unfortunately those levees were not strong enough and were breached.Tulare Lakebed inundation began in January and peaked in July. By July 13, 82,000 acres of prime agricultural land were flooded. Based on a comparison of maps, the area flooded in 1983 was slightly greater than the area flooded in 1969.
Mo Basham recalled that the eastern edge of Tulare Lake came to about Avenue 101⁄2. This is about 3 miles west of where the emergency levee was built near the Corcoran Airport during the 1969 flood.”
Residents remember the flood of 1969 when levees were shored up with junk cars. They have posted pics on Facebook this month.