California officials say communities near refilling Tulare Lake now unlikely to flood

May 22, 2023, 5:23 PM

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California officials said Monday they believe tens of thousands of people living near an ancient freshwater lake bed are not likely to experience flooding this year thanks to improving weather conditions and some swift planning following a series of powerful storms that refilled the basin for the first time in decades.

Tulare Lake in California’s Central Valley was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River, fed by a strong flow of snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada each spring. But the lake eventually went dry as settlers dammed and diverted water for agriculture.

This year, the lake started to fill again after the state was hit with a more than a dozen strong storms known as atmospheric rivers packed with massive amounts of rain and snow. What had been a dry lake bed filled with crops and crisscrossed by powerlines began to go underwater. Now, water covers more than 160 square miles (414.40 square kilometers).

Most of that flooding is farmland. But a month ago, computer models showed rising waters threatened homes in the communities of Corcoran, Stratford, Alpaugh and Allensworth. Monday, state officials said they now don’t expect those communities to flood because of a number of factors, including bolstering levees around the city of Corcoran, warmer weather evaporating more water from the lake, and farmers diverting more water for irrigation.

“We are in significantly better shape than we were several weeks ago,” said Brian Ferguson, spokesperson for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, adding the state was “”not forecasting nearly as severe of damage as perhaps we were looking at several weeks ago.”

Still, state officials warned things could change quickly. More storms could come and shower the mountains with warm rainfall to melt snow much faster than expected and cause more flooding. State officials have moved lots of supplies to the region to prepare for this, including 2 million sandbags, according to Mehdi Mizani, deputy state floodplain manager for the California Department of Water Resources.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this month announced $17 million to raise the levees protecting the city of Corcoran. The levees have sunken into the ground as officials pumped lots of water from underground during dry years. This is the third time either the state or federal government will intervene to raise the levees.

The governor also issued signed an executive order earlier this year to make it easier for people to use floodwater to refill groundwater basins. The state’s goal is to refill about 500,000 acre feet of groundwater per year. But the state is on pace to refill 3.3 million acre feet this year, said Paul Gosselin, deputy director of the Statewide Groundwater Management Office within the California Department of Water Resources.

In general, one acre foot of water is enough to cover one acre of land to a depth of 1 foot (0.30 meters) . It’s roughly enough water to supply two households for one year.

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California officials say communities near refilling Tulare Lake now unlikely to flood