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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: How the Valley's floods brought forth ‘inconvenient truths’ about preparation

This farmland along the Kaweah River north of the Tulare County City of Exeter was one of many areas to be inundated by flooding after heavy rains in mid-March.
County of Tulare Facebook page
This farmland along the Kaweah River north of the Tulare County City of Exeter was one of many areas to be inundated by flooding after heavy rains in mid-March.

Why were local flood agencies caught so unprepared for this winter’s floods, despite so many similarities to a statewide flood model published back in 2010? And what could be left behind if the state budget doesn’t allocate more money toward this year’s flood response?

These are some of the questions investigated by Deirdre Des Jardins, an independent climate researcher and advocate who professes to speak “inconvenient truths” to authorities.

She also directs the advocacy organization California Water Research, where she has written about shortcomings of this year’s flood response from local and statewide water authorities. She sat down with KVPR’s Kerry Klein to discuss her research, as well as how wet winters are likely to be in the future.

Listen to the segment in the player on this page, and read the transcript below.

DEIRDRE DES JARDINS: The first thing that's going to happen with climate change is we're going to have more frequent floods than we've seen historically, and we're going to start seeing the kind of floods that we've seen in the last thousand years. Just as we've seen the kind of droughts that we've had in the last thousand years.

KERRY KLEIN: And so, it could happen more, and it could be worse.

DES JARDINS: Yeah. It wasn't just the [Sierra] that had an anomalous snowpack anomalies. There were snowpack anomalies all over the Northern Hemisphere, and it's a source of intense research and discussion.

KLEIN: And so your synthesis also suggests that, here in the San Joaquin Valley, some of the authorities that have the ability to protect against these catastrophic floods are way behind in planning, particularly those in the Tulare Lake basin.

DES JARDINS: Yes, so the Department of Water Resources showed up, you know, produced some scenarios, if we could get this amount of inundation in the basin. But that is not the way to make difficult decisions about where you’re going to have to cut a levee, and whose farmland, what part of the Tulare Lake basin you're going to have to flood. If there'd been a heatwave and things had unfolded a lot faster, they could have been very bad.

KLEIN: And you're advocating for some of these flood protection plans like the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan, or other ones that are county specific, to be updated and to have many more specific details in them.

DES JARDINS: Yeah, the Central Valley flood protection plan. They used FEMA maps for floodplain inundation, which date back to 1996. Those don't take into account subsidence, and we know there's been a lot of subsidence since that time, and they don't take into account new development. And so, again, I’ve strongly advocated for, we need to look at routing for flood waters and where vulnerable populations are likely to be critically endangered. And this is actually standard. United Nations Disaster Risk Reduction Office advocates for disaster impact modeling to guide investments. And the ArkStorm scenario was a disaster risk reduction scenario as part of a whole series of studies, including earthquakes and tsunamis, done by USGS. It was the standard of practice and yet there was so much resistance statewide.

KLEIN: And to read to recap briefly, ArkStorm is a climate model produced in 2010 that was widely viewed as more extreme than we would likely meet here in the Valley.

DES JARDINS: ArkStorm was based on the 1862 flood.

KLEIN: Well, then there's the issue of statewide funding. So, Governor Newsom has set aside nearly 500 million dollars for flood response in his proposed budget for this year. That's half a billion dollars, but you argue that’s still inadequate.


KLEIN: What are some other specific line items that could be lost with insufficient funding, line items that would help with a flood response in the future? Or flood protection, I should say?

DES JARDINS: There's a need to really look at the vulnerability of our existing infrastructure and that includes levees, it includes critical infrastructure like PG&E substations, roads. I also found there's a “Just World” hypothesis. And when I tried to talk to my colleagues and say “hey, we really need emergency response planning, we need funding for it,” I was just told, “oh, no, that's in the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan, I'm sure the state and the counties are prepared,” you know. And it's very hard to really grasp how unprepared people were.

KLEIN: And so what would you want to see from authorities to demonstrate that they are planning better for future flooding scenarios here in this region?

DES JARDINS: Well, I’ve got to credit the Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth because she reportedly had an interview with Daniel Swain and he said, “I think I scared her.”

KLEIN: Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA.

DES JARDINS: Yeah, and she got it. And she has supported funding for the kind of studies we need. So state leaders need to fund those studies and they need to really prioritize some planning for emergency response of getting people out of harm's way, assuring we have evacuation routes so people aren't having to drive through flooded roads. That's how eight people died this year. We've got to be prepared for flows that are higher than the existing system.

KLEIN: Deirdre Desjardins is an independent climate researcher and advocate, and director of the advocacy organization California Water Research. Deirdre, thank you so much for speaking with me today. I really appreciate it.

DES JARDINS: 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.