CORCORAN – Officials sought to reassure Corcoran residents at a packed town-hall meeting this week that they're taking steps to protect the town from potential flooding.
The possibility that the old Tulare Lake will start filling up and encroach on the city is a real concern due to a far-above-normal snowpack in the Sierra that, for the most part, hasn't melted yet.
Three rivers – the Kings, Kaweah and Tule – naturally feed into Tulare Lake, once the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi River before the three waterways were dammed and channeled and the dried-up lake bottom was converted into farmland.
In really wet years like the one we're in now, water from the Kern River sometimes flows north out of Kern County to spill into the lake's southern end.
J.G. Boswell Co., by far the largest grower in the lake bottom area, has developed a system of huge dikes, levees, channels and holding basins to control floods.
Sometimes, however, the floods are so great, even the might and ingenuity of Boswell can't contain the rising waters.
When that happened in 1983, the only thing that stopped the lake from swamping Corcoran was a hastily erected levee west and south of town.
Fast forward to the present.
Officials at the Cross Creek Flood Control District, fearing a repeat of the 1983 event later this spring, are working seven days a week almost round the clock to raise that levee, now known as the Cross Creek Levee, to a uniform height of 192 feet above sea level.
The flood risk is enhanced this year because the levee has been sinking due to subsidence. That's the phenomenon of the ground sinking because of large amounts of groundwater being pumped out of underground layers to irrigate crops.
Dustin Fuller, general manager of the district, told a packed town hall crowd Thursday at the Corcoran Technology Learning Center, that the exact height is designed to hold back 1.1 million acre-feet of water in the old lake.
To put it in perspective: That's more than the entire capacity of Pine Flat Lake, the only major dam on the Kings River.
Fuller also told the crowd that the levee is being re-engineered to have symmetrical, gently-sloping banks on each side.
The re-engineering is designed to increase the odds that the levee will hold if tested.
Fuller said he's pushing hard to get the work completed before the weather heats up, melts the snow and swells the four rivers to their peak flows - that could happen in late May or early June depending on the weather.
If water starts rising up against the levee - which, Fuller stressed, is a big if – district officials will carefully monitor how fast it's coming up.
If officials thought there was a chance the water would flow over the top, Fuller said they'd evacuate the whole town seven to 10 days before that happened, thereby giving people time to safely pack up their stuff and go.
Fuller said Corcoran's elevation ranges anywhere from 177 feet to 190 feet above sea level – meaning the whole town would be affected if the lake over-topped the levee.
"If the water breaches that levee, everyone is compromised," he said.
Fuller told the crowd that the district is having to issue IOUs to contractors due the work on the levee project, which is anticipated to cost $14 million to $15 million.
He said that previous work on the levee in 2015 left the district with $75,000 in reserve cash.
He sought to reassure the crowd that the district is doing everything possible to get emergency funding from the state and federal government so that the burden of paying off the IOUs doesn't fall on Corcoran area property owners.
District officials have commissioned a study to look into how property owners protected by the levee might be required to pay different amounts depending on much property they have and where it's located.
Fuller said he expects the study to identify which areas behind the levee are at greater or lesser risk of flooding. The concept is that people with property in higher-risk zones would pay more than property owners in lower-risk zones.
The study's results are expected to be released next month.
Fuller said the district would only impose the fees as a "last resort."
Meanwhile, he and other officials in attendance sought to reassure people that if an evacuation of Corcoran is necessary, there are plans in place to handle the situation.
Joe Neves, director of the Kings County Office of Emergency Services, said in an interview that authorities will bus people with nowhere to go to the Kings Fairgrounds, where they will be fed and temporarily housed.
He said the whole process would happen in an orderly fashion days before actual flooding occurred.
"It's not going to be where the dam breaks at Pine Flat and we're under water," he said. "It's not that kind of situation."
Many residents who attended the town hall had questions about flood insurance.
Katelyn Monteiro, a representative from Pacific Ag Insurance, said one year's worth of flood insurance for a single-family home, covering up to $250,000 in damage to the house and its contents, costs about $450 up front.
Once the up-front fee is paid, Monteiro said there's a 30-day waiting period before the insurance coverage kicks in.
That means that, if a flood happens during the waiting period, the person's property isn't covered.
Corcoran resident Mary Helen Gonzalez said in an interview that she paid $450 on Monday to get her home insured.
Gonzalez said she was mostly satisfied with what she heard at Thursday's meeting.
"It kind of answered the questions I had," she said.