Water & Drought

Corcoran readies for possible flood when Tulare Lake fills with snowmelt

Antonio Rojas prepares stakes showing how high the dirt should be to raise a levee near Corcoran.
Antonio Rojas prepares stakes showing how high the dirt should be to raise a levee near Corcoran. lgriswold@fresnobee.com

Sales of flood insurance are booming here because of fears that the old Tulare Lake will fill when snowmelt comes crashing down the Kaweah, Kings and Tule rivers and pools in the lowest point in the San Joaquin Valley.

Although a levee protects Corcoran, local officials started to worry about flooding when a survey in February showed that it had sunk two feet in two years due to land subsidence.

In a worst-case scenario, a fast snowmelt would overfill the lake and flood Corcoran, said Dustin Fuller, general manager of the Cross Creek Flood Control District.

“We’re really concerned about the lake-effect flood,” Fuller said. “Corcoran and two state prisons are potentially at risk here.”

The flood control district is now frantically raising the levee by four feet by hauling in dirt from three locations around Corcoran.

The 14-mile-long levee will be about 15 feet tall in most places and 20 feet wide at the top when the levee-raising project finishes about May 1.

The $14 million project might have to be paid for through property tax assessments in the district, including homes in town. That’s one reason the Corcoran City Council on March 14 unanimously passed a resolution asking the state and federal governments for funds to build up the levee.

Corcoran and two state prisons are potentially at risk here.

Dustin Fuller, Cross Creek Flood Control District

Fuller said he was in Sacramento last week seeking funds, but “people look at me like I’m Chicken Little” because it’s hard to imagine that the city could flood.

But College of the Sequoias biology professor Rob Hansen said Tulare Lake was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River, and Corcoran is in the old lake bed. Additionally, groundwater pumping in the Valley has caused land subsidence in several areas, including Corcoran, he said.

“Because of that subsidence, they are rightly concerned” about flooding, he said.

Corcoran has a population about 22,600, of which about 9,000 are inmates at Corcoran State Prison and the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility at Corcoran.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Bill Sessa said the prison system is aware of the situation and would evacuate prisoners if necessary, but details are kept under wraps because of security concerns.

Meanwhile, the city is advising residents not to wait to buy flood insurance because it takes a month to go into effect after purchase.

That warning was enough to persuade Lorraine Renteria, 35, a health clinic employee, to buy flood insurance for $395 for a year.

“I’d rather be safe than sorry,” she said. “I am worried about flooding. I know back in the day it flooded.”

Ron Doran, an agent at Farmers Insurance in Corcoran for 25 years, said he usually sells about one flood insurance policy a year, but not this year.

“We’re selling dozens and dozens of flood insurance policies,” he said, at an annual cost of $389 to $450.

We’re selling dozens and dozens of flood insurance policies.

Ron Doran, Farmers Insurance

The lake filled in 1969 and 1983 after wet years. In those years, the Kern River can also feed into the lake.

Rommel Gamez, 73, a retired body and fender repairman, said water from the lake reached the house where he lived in 1969.

“A lot of people don’t believe things happen, but it does happen,” he said. He, however, does not have flood insurance.

“No, we don’t have it,” he said. “Nobody has money for insurance. My pension plan is barely enough for my medical bills.”

Retired mechanic and welder Lupe Ramirez, 66, remembers when the water flooded a cotton gin outside of town in 1969.

“It dried out fast, you couldn’t believe it,” he said “And it was high.”

Lydia Morales, 47, a Corcoran native, said many longtime residents believe the water might get close to town, but not come all the way.

Kings County Supervisor Richard Valle, a Corcoran resident, said he’s been getting a lot of questions about the potential for flooding. He has arranged a town hall meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Corcoran Technology Learning Center, where officials will answer questions, he said.

City Manager Kindon Meik said the city has been told to expect Tulare Lake to fill this year.

“It’s a certainty that it will flood the farmland,” he said. “The concern to the community is if it gets to the height of the levee.”

There will be plenty of warning to residents if high water poses a threat, he said. “We will be able to provide ample notice” if an evacuation should be necessary, he said.

But the city is asking every resident to have an evacuation plan, he said.

It’s a certainty that it will flood the farmland. The concern to the community is if it gets to the height of the levee.

Kindon Meik, Corcoran city manager

He said excess waters would first go into basins owned by farmers southwest of town – the lowest point of the southern Valley is eight to 12 miles southwest of Corcoran – then to underutilized farmland, then to other farmlands and eventually up to the levee.

Cotton farmer Barrie Boyett has lived in the area for 77 years. He donated land to the flood control district in 1983 to build the levee.

He’s seen Tulare Lake full before.

“This whole place was underwater,” he said from his pickup as earth movers spread dirt on top of the levee. “It very well could happen this year.

“The basic fact is there’s a snowpack up there that has to come down yet – there’s no other place for it,” he said. “Our lakes are full and there’s no other place for the water to go than here.”

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold

Town Hall meeting

When: 6 p.m. April 6

Where: Corcoran Technology Learning Center, 1101 Dairy Ave., Corcoran

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