Flooding along the lower Kings River might have been avoided if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had not miscalculated the rush of snowmelt into Pine Flat Lake during the triple-digit heat wave.
Fresno County Supervisor Buddy Mendes, whose district includes parts of the river, said the corps was slow to boost releases when the heat wave started.
The corps, which manages Pine Flat Dam, was watching the lake rise to almost full when it finally increased water releases into the lower Kings – and the excess was more than some places could handle, he said.
“If they had started a few days earlier, they would never have gotten to the point they were at,” he said.
Still, Mendes is loathe to blame the corps.
My question is, why did they cut back (water releases) so much in May and early June from the high releases of March and April?
Fred Smeds, Reedley
“It’s a gigantic, grueling (water) year,” he said. “I think they did OK. They were a day or two late on bringing the flows back up. Hindsight is 20-20.”
The nine-day heat wave started June 17.
The corps boosted releases from 12,000 cubic feet per second that day to 13,400 cubic feet per second two days later and kept increasing them as snowmelt came into the reservoir and nearly filled it. On June 23, the day a levee breached east of Kingsburg, outflows reached a maximum of 14,950 cubic feet per second.
The corps started cutting back and within two days had reduced outflows to under 14,000 cubic feet per second. Thursday, releases were below 12,000 cubic feet per second.
The high water is blamed for levee breaches at the Kingsburg Gun Club and Kingsburg Golf and Country Club, flooding 10 to 12 homes, although Mendes said that the levee, like many others, does not meet Army Corps permitting standards to withstand pressures from high water.
The high water also flooded low-lying riverside areas such as Riverland Resort and RV Park in Tulare County and a mobile home park near Sanger, forcing evacuations.
Wednesday, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office lifted the Riverbend Mobile Home Park evacuation order, and Tulare County officials lifted the mandatory evacuation order for Riverland Resort.
Riverland Resort remains closed while repairs are underway, and officials anticipate a reopening next week.
Earlier, an alfalfa field flooded in Kings County when a levee broke, reportedly due to a gopher hole.
Kings River watermaster Steve Haugen said the corps used state Department of Water Resources runoff forecasts and other information to calculate daily how much water could safely be stored at Pine Flat, and made room in the reservoir for snowmelt.
But even more water arrived than the corps had expected – 370,000 acre-feet more than its June 1 estimate, he said. (One acre-foot will flood an area about the size of a football field to a depth of 1 foot.)
They were a day or two late on bringing the flows back up.
Fresno County Supervisor Buddy Mendes
“That’s more runoff than in 2015,” Haugen said.
Yet to criticize the corps in the wake of localized flooding is “Monday morning quarterbacking,” he said.
Except for where the levee broke, the water stayed in the river channels and no massive flooding occurred, he said. “The bottom line is the system worked,” he said.
He rejected suggestions by critics that the corps could have avoided the problem by shunting water to the old Tulare Lake, which is the lowest point of the San Joaquin Valley and where the Kings River flowed before the dam was built.
If Pine Flat was kept at 80 percent of capacity, for instance, there would be serious consequences to the region because water behind the dam supports agriculture and jobs, and is needed for groundwater sustainability, he said.
Retired farmer Fred Smeds of Reedley has lived next to the Kings River most of his life. His house overlooks the river.
He blames the corps for not leaving more room in the lake for the heavy snowmelt.
“My question is, why did they cut back (water releases) so much in May and early June from the high releases of March and April?” Smeds said.
Army Corps spokesman Tyler Stalker said the corps was trying to strike “the delicate balance between flood risk management and water conservation” when it allowed the lake to fill.
The corps follows its water control manual and works with the Kings River watermaster in deciding how much to release downriver, he said.
Understanding how and when snowpack will run off into reservoirs is difficult to predict
Tyler Stalker, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Weather forecasts help in deciding when to release water, but the timing and length of a heat wave “is difficult to predict even with advanced forecasts,” Stalker said.
“Understanding how and when snowpack will run off into reservoirs is difficult to predict, and historic levels of snowpack and heat last week further exacerbated that challenge,” he said.
Since releases peaked Friday, the river has noticeably receded but Pine Flat Lake remains almost full.
If there’s another rush of snowmelt into Pine Flat, the corps will keep some of the extra water in the lake by using the so-called buffer zone, Stalker said.
Some residents at the King River Golf and Country Club whose homes were flooded or put at risk said they don’t blame the corps.
“I figure they are the people in charge,” said Doreen Dalbey, whose garage flooded. “They know more than I do, and that’s their job.”
Courtney Moore said he had to leave home when floodwaters rose, but he also refused to blame the corps.
“What else can they do?” he said. “Seriously – when you’ve got a reservoir at that level?”