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Newsom on Valley Flooding: The Worst Is Yet to Come

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Gov. Gavin Newsom addresses concerns about past and future flooding in four Valley counties on Tuesday, April 25, 2023, while visiting re-emerging Tulare Lake. (Facebook Screen Grab)
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While Valley residents prepare to exit because of flooding, Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state officials visited the re-emerging Tulare Lake area on Tuesday to talk about local, state, and federal efforts to prepare for handling the massive snowmelt and limiting flood damage.

“This is, for me, a surreal experience,” Newsom said, standing in front of a farm vehicle and sheds partially submerged in the rising lakewaters. “I mean, I’ve been to a lot of disasters as governor, perhaps more than most governors in the last few years. And honestly, when I’m in a place like this, it’s usually with the worst behind us, the rearview mirror, when in fact where you’re standing likely will be underwater in a matter of weeks, if not months. And so that’s very sobering.”

Newsom said that state emergency and water resources officials have been in the region for weeks as rising floodwaters submerged communities and farmland and could threaten state prisons in Corcoran.

Flood coordination efforts have been hobbled because the Valley’s four southernmost counties — Fresno, Tulare, Kings, and Tulare — opted out of the Central Valley Flood Control Plan, which covers the rest of the San Joaquin Valley and the Sacramento Valley, the governor said.

That’s something that the state and counties will need to talk about at a later date, when the current flooding crisis has eased, he said.

Now is not the time to point fingers, Newsom said, adding that when faced with a disaster, “people want to know what to do, not who’s to blame.”

Agencies Coordinating Efforts

County, state, and federal officials were meeting at 3 p.m. in Corcoran to talk about proposals to raise the Corcoran levee to protect the city and what impact that would have on other levees, shoring up levees, and diverting as much as possible upstream before it reaches Tulare Lake.

The last time the lake flooded after a massive snowmelt in 1983, it took two years for the water to dissipate and the lakebed to once again be dry, Newsom said.

Before the construction of flood control facilities such as dams and levees, Tulare Lake was a widespread but shallow freshwater lake.

The Department of Water Resources studies climate, hydrology, reviews levees, and conducts flooding drills with local partners that are covered by the Central Valley Flood Control Plan in preparation for high-water years, department director Karla Nemeth said.

“Our big challenge is in these four counties, they are not part of the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan, which means there’s — I know that there’s a lot of information here in these counties about what happens to the water once the corps (Army Corps of Engineers) releases it from the dams and before it gets to the lakebed,” she said. ” … And so the real challenge is, how do we collect that information, with the counties, and have the counties make decisions about where to divert water upstream of the lakebed to protect communities further downstream.”

Recharging Groundwater, Rebuilding Roads

Some of the highlights from Tuesday’s news conference included:

  • Efforts to divert meltwater before it reaches the Tulare Lake include pumping water underground and recharging groundwater supplies that have been depleted after multiple years of drought. Nemeth said so far 50,000 acre-feet of water have been pumped underground in 45 projects, and more could be pumped onto fields but for a lack of equipment. “So the state is working with our partners. And just yesterday, (we) worked with Fresno Irrigation District to get some pumps and siphons in the ground, diverting as much as we can,” she said.

An airboat is pushed out onto Tulare Lake on Tuesday, April 25, 2023, in Corcoran. (AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

  • CalFire is rebuilding roads that have been damaged or destroyed by floodwaters, which Newsom noted is not the typical assignment for the state’s firefighting agency. “But they’ve done a remarkable job and will be opening up a significant road access point later in the week that we visited,” he said.
  • All four counties are now eligible for assistance through the federal government’s emergency declaration, opening up assistance to individuals, officials said. Households where some members have legal immigration status and others do not are still eligible for FEMA assistance, and there are numerous state programs including CalFresh to assist undocumented people.
  • Tulare County Supervisor Eddie Valero delivered some sobering statistics: Thus far there have been more than 50 levee breaches; 642 homes have been affected by flooding, of which 37 have been destroyed; 9,163 people have been evacuated; 500,000 tons of sandbags have been delivered; and 13 bridges damaged or destroyed.
  • The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has plans in place in the event the prisons in Corcoran need to be evacuated, the governor said.

Watch the News Briefing

Nancy Price is a multimedia journalist for GV Wire. A longtime reporter and editor who has worked for newspapers in California, Florida, Alaska, Illinois and Kansas, Nancy joined GV Wire in July 2019. She previously worked as an assistant metro editor for 13 years at The Fresno Bee. Nancy earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Her hobbies include singing with the Fresno Master Chorale and volunteering with Fresno Filmworks. You can reach Nancy at 559-492-4087 or Send an Email