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California ramps up help as Tulare Lake floods farms, homes

A flooded road in Tulare County.
California Department of Water Resources
A flooded road in Tulare County.

Click here for more coverage of the 2023 floods in the San Joaquin Valley.

FRESNO, Calif. – The director of the California Department of Water Resources visited the southern San Joaquin Valley on Friday to survey the flooding being caused by snowmelt.

Floodwaters have overtaken the Tulare Lake basin, located primarily in Kings and Tulare counties.

The large lakebed has sat dry for decades, but the series of rainstorms this year that has produced heavy snow in the Sierra Nevada has also led to melting snow that is now filling the lake as that fresh water makes its way down through rivers that drain into the lakebed.

Farms and dairies as well as homes are located inside the Tulare Lake basin.

Karla Nemeth, director of the Department of Water Resources, said the state has provided flood fighters, information about the snowpack in the mountains and information about levees and waterways to local counties.

Nemeth said water managers in the southern San Joaquin Valley do not participate in the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan. The region relies on local flood protection districts instead.

But flooding and the re-formation of Tulare Lake has been too much to handle for local authorities – and local counties requested the state’s help.

"There's obviously communities and agriculture also in the lakebed. So our task ahead is to support the county – all counties – in understanding what's coming at them,” Nemeth said.

Cal Fire has also assisted with water rescues since the start of flooding earlier in March, as well as checking on infrastructure and making repairs at any river or levee breaches. Cal Fire helicopters have dropped large sandbags to hold back water at some rivers where levees have been damaged.

The California Office of Emergency Services is also responding. The office has deployed a California Fire and Rescue Mutual Aid System that brings first responders from other parts of the state to help respond to the floods.

There are nearly 24,000 structures threatened by floods, according to Cal Fire. Nearly 800 have already been damaged across Tulare County.

A colder storm is moving into the area starting Tuesday, and it’s expected to add to the already heavy snowpack in Sierra. That will also add to the amount of water that will soon slowly melt and fill Tulare Lake even more.

That snowmelt could take months to be complete.

Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado is KVPR's News Director. Prior to joining the station's news department in 2022, he was a reporter for PBS NewsHour and The Fresno Bee.
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