Some people are saying the flooding that forced the evacuation of residents and damaged homes and farmland along the lower reaches of the Kings River during our recent heat wave could have been avoided.
Critics, including Fresno County Supervisor Buddy Mendes, point the finger at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for being slow to release water from Pine Flat Dam upon the start of soaring temperatures.
“If they had started a few days earlier, they would never have gotten to the point they were at,” Mendes told The Bee’s Lew Griswold.
That said, Mendes acknowledged the difficulty of the assignment: “It’s a gigantic, grueling (water) year. I think they did OK. They were a day or two late on bringing the flows back up. Hindsight is 20-20.”
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Yes, it is. But it’s best to ask questions, and analyze what went right or wrong. The answers often lead to better ways of handling tough situations.
In this case, we’ll defend the corps’ performance.
Weather is fickle. In addition, the Los Angeles Times reported that before the flooding experts had warned that California’s 100-year-old method of detecting and forecasting snowmelt no longer was accurate because of climate change. In fact, snowpack measurements done the old-fashioned way – placing an aluminum tube in mountain snow – can be off by 20 percent to 60 percent.
Add a state record snowpack. And that snow in the highest parts of the Sierra is unable to be measured by land-based instruments. And the 90-degree temperatures at Wishon Reservoir, which is 6,500 feet above Pine Flat. And, finally, the reality that the corps must perform a juggling act: Keep enough water in Pine Flat for irrigation releases later this summer and release sufficient water to accommodate the snowmelt.
The truth is, the dam operators did not have sufficient information to make the best decisions.
Fortunately, help is on the way.
A pilot project involving NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the California Department of Water Resources and local water authorities is measuring snowpack from the air, Valley Public Radio’s Ezra Romero reported this spring. Planes are dispatched over the Sierra and they send out laser pulses that measure snow depth and water content.
Thomas Painter, the NASA scientist who came up with the idea of using lasers to measure snow, told Romero: “That uncertainty (about snowpack) that’s been a part of water management in the west is going to go away.”
Laser measurements were used this year to measure the snowpack in the San Joaquin River Watershed. NASA’s goal is to perfect the technique and take it worldwide.
In addition, flood protection can be increased by finding strategic places that allow rivers to expand during high flows. When done right, setting back levees and expanding bypasses can keep residents high and dry while also supporting the recovery of native wildlife and fish populations – ultimately reducing regulatory burdens on farmers.
Courtney Moore was among those forced to leave their homes. We like what he had to say: “What else can (the corps) do? Seriously – when you’ve got a reservoir at that level?”
Perhaps, after the next big snowpack, the corps will have many more tools and options. And folks can stay put.