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In a matter of months, the San Joaquin Valley flip-flopped from severe drought to severe flooding. And now, as the big snowpack in the Sierra Nevada becomes the “Big Melt” in the Valley, who’s underwater, who’s helping clean up, and what does it all mean for our region’s future? This weekly segment featuring interviews with reporters, water authorities, growers and others who live and work in the Valley explores historic flooding and its aftermath.

Water Whiplash: What the 'Big Melt' has revealed about the Valley's flood response

Kayode Kadara, of Allensworth, loads a wheelbarrow with sandbags on March 21 to protect his house.
Jesse Vad
SJV Water
Kayode Kadara, of Allensworth, loads a wheelbarrow with sandbags on March 21 to protect his house.

As temperatures climb and the “Big Melt” flows out of the Sierra Nevada, rising floodwaters have revealed that flood protection in the San Joaquin Valley is patchy at best— and inadequate at worst.

That’s the crux of a recent investigation by the non-profit newsrooms Fresnoland and SJV Water. As the first installment of our new series, Water Whiplash, KVPR’s Kerry Klein talks with reporter Jesse Vad of SJV Water about those findings.

Listen to the interview in the player above, and read the transcript below.

JESSE VAD: Throughout a lot of our reporting we noticed how fragmented the responses to the emergencies were, and it was an issue that just kept coming up in basically every story we were doing. And it was kind of unbelievable to us to realize how much of a patchwork we were starting to see in terms of emergency responses and planning and organization as this crisis unfolded over February and March. And so that was really what struck us first and kind of lit this fire under us to do a story focused on that issue itself.

KERRY KLEIN: And by fragmented, I'm guessing that means you're calling an agency you think would be responsible for one thing, and then they point you to another, and then that agency points you somewhere else, someone else points you back to the beginning, and you're not really quite sure who's in charge.

VAD: Yeah, exactly, and it was over and over again this kind of carousel of, you know, no real answers and no real responsibility.

KLEIN: So let's start with one specific example. So that's the unincorporated community of Allensworth, where there was one very specific place where water was flowing into the community. Tell me about that.

VAD: Yeah, so the water flowing in toward Allensworth was coming under the railroad tracks owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad Company. And the Deer Creek Stormwater District, even though it has authority over Allensworth, does not have authority over those areas where the railroad’s property is. So residents became really frustrated not with the district, but eventually with the railroad because they felt, well, this hole in the stormwater district’s jurisdiction means that the railroad should be taking responsibility for this issue. That water isn't as ferocious as it was for the time being, it's kind of calmed down, but residents are very concerned about the snowmelt coming and there has been no solution there.

KLEIN: And then there are levees which guide water, redirect water, through the valley, and you found that in many places it's not only unclear who has jurisdiction over them, but it's even unclear who has a record of where they all are.

VAD: Yeah, that's essentially what we found out. I mean, there's so many levees, it's hard to even kind of conceptualize in your head and there is really no complete dataset of where levees are and who's responsible for such levies. Some are owned by irrigation districts and flood water districts, and those are maintained and those are the responsibility of those districts. Others, it seems to be very unclear about who's supposed to be maintaining them or responsible for them. I did speak to some water managers who were going outside of their district boundaries to address issues on levees that we're not their authority but because nobody was taking responsibility for them, they felt that they had to get there and do work on some of these areas.

KLEIN: Yeah, that is pretty shocking. And so in any other year this might be more of an academic discussion, probably a really boring one. But after such a wet winter and with so much chaos and so much flooding, this has this is all had very real consequences for the Valley. So who's had to step in and compensate for a lack of authority in all of this?

VAD: Unfortunately, it's been a lot of the small towns and cities have kind of had to step up for themselves. For example, the city of Lindsay had residents and students from the football team coming in to kind of address issues and do work on their own out there.

KLEIN: Yeah, that was wild when I read that

VAD: Yeah and residents took issues into their own hands in Allensworth. In Woodlake a lot of people have been working together to try and house displaced people, fix their own homes.

KLEIN: You said city employees in Woodlake were even out there clearing storm ditches.

VAD: Yep. I mean it was an all hands on deck kind of situation. And that seems to be the trend for these areas that are kind of slipping between the cracks.

KLEIN: So what does this signal about what could happen as the weather gets warmer in terms of flood prevention, but also flood reactions, relief funding, you know as the Sierra snowpack continues to melt?

VAD: So what we've heard from experts is that there will almost certainly be sustained flooding again in these areas. There are local community organizations and residents that are kind of banding together to prepare. There certainly are state agencies, CalOES and Cal Fire that have been helping out there a lot, building up sandbags getting resources to residents. You know, I really can't say with any confidence whether there's a difference in preparation yet or whether any of these spots are going to be more organized or more in mesh with each other I guess.

KLEIN: Well, we'll just have to follow up in the coming weeks and months to see. Jesse Vad, reporter with SJV Water, thank you so much for speaking with me.

VAD: Yeah, thank you, Kerry.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.