Facing the floodwaters in California’s San Joaquin Valley
The historically Black town of Allensworth tries to overcome a legacy of racist water policies and prevent a deluge from washing away its community.
Listen to this story on The California Report
Allensworth, a farmworker town of about 500 people in California’s San Joaquin Valley, sits at the edge of an area called the Tulare Lake Basin, a patchwork of scrub brush and irrigated farmland that’s part of the most productive agricultural region in the nation. In March, California’s barrage of atmospheric rivers overwhelmed the area, flooding pistachio orchards and swamping communities, and Allensworth found itself all but surrounded by a shallow sea. Residents were told to evacuate. They were also told that this flood was just the beginning.
California is fighting a slow-motion disaster, one that could become its largest flood in recent history. As the near-record snowpack in the Sierra mountains melts, the water making its way through the foothills is pooling in the basin, reviving a lake that had long disappeared. This process is expected to accelerate over the coming weeks and months, and it could take up to two years to subside. And while the return of Tulare Lake could devastate everyone in the region, historically disenfranchised communities like Allensworth are uniquely vulnerable.
“It’s a horrific situation,” said Denise Kadara, an Allensworth community leader and the vice chair of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. “We’re here like sitting ducks, waiting for the water to come and flood us out.”
Part of Allensworth’s problem stems from the politics of water: For over a hundred years, water in the Tulare Lake Basin has been controlled and hoarded by a handful of powerful landowners, usually at the expense of everyone else. The Basin’s water management system still favors those powerful landowners, leaving the town with little recourse when floodwaters approach.
‘I don’t need a whole bunch of people to break the law’
That was evident one windy night in March, when Allensworth residents Takoa Kadara and his father, Kayode, called an emergency town meeting. The goal was simple: to keep the water massing in the basin from pouring into people’s homes.
At the time, water was flowing toward town through culverts that run under railroad tracks to the east. The culverts are on private property, and the tracks that run on top of them are owned by BNSF Railway, one of the top freight transportation companies in the nation. The last time community members tried to block the culverts with rocks, gravel and plywood, a BNSF employee called the police, then removed the makeshift dam they had built.
Now the group wanted to protect the community, but knew they might be at risk of breaking the law. Residents only saw two options: act illegally, or not at all, and they couldn’t come to an agreement.
“If you guys disagree with this solution, then let’s go home,” Kayode Kadara said.
“No, it’s not, ‘let’s go home!” his son, Takoa Kadara, said, “let’s come up with another solution.”
“I’ll just say it like it is,” said one resident, who declined to give his name. “If I’m gonna break the law, I don’t need a whole bunch of people to break the law [with me]. Ten minutes? We’re gone.”
Allensworth residents have tried to block the culverts legally—many, many times. But BNSF wouldn’t give them permission to do it, and so far, the town hasn’t been able to find a government agency with the power to override the corporation’s decision, or persuade it to reconsider. Their local stormwater district doesn’t have jurisdiction over the railroad’s property, and representatives from several state agencies, including Caltrans, CalFire and the Department of Water Resources, said they couldn’t do anything either, even though community members said those agencies agreed that the water spilling through the culverts is a problem.
BNSF did not respond to requests for comment, but in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, a company spokesperson claimed that blocking the culverts could damage their tracks.
When Allensworth was put under a mandatory evacuation order back in March, the Kadaras and most of their neighbors refused to leave. Who would defend their town if they did?
“The water flowing is natural,” said Denise Kadara. But added it’s also determined by men who say “‘This is where they want the water to go.'”
The history behind today’s water politics
To understand the power dynamics in the Tulare Lake Basin—and how Allensworth ended up on the losing side of it—we have to go back to when the town was founded and Tulare Lake was still alive. In 1908, Lt. Col. Allen Allensworth was a formerly enslaved person who had become the highest ranking Black military officer of his time. As Jim Crow tightened its grip throughout the South, he moved to California to create what he hoped would become the “Tuskegee of the West,” a thriving Black community and college town. Founded by a dream team of Black doctors, professors and farmers, the community of Allensworth became the first town in California to be founded, financed and governed by Black Americans.
Allensworth picked a spot near Tulare Lake, which used to be the largest lake west of the Mississippi. Accounts from the late 1800s describe it as shallow, thick with tule reeds, and ringed by marshland. Herds of elk waded through the shallows, and millions of migratory birds flocked to its shores every year.
But by the time Lt. Col. Allensworth got there, the lake was rapidly disappearing—it had been for years.
“Geologists call that end of the San Joaquin Valley one of the most engineered landscapes in human history,” said Mark Arax, a journalist and expert in the Central Valley’s history and water politics. “[The] human hand has altered that land in a way that few places have been altered.”
Allensworth’s residents weren’t the only people who’d settled along Tulare Lake. A group of white landowners had settled there, too—some of them descending from slave-owning families.
“Many of them were Southerners who’d come from the Confederate states,” said Arax. “They arrived here and they started grabbing the snow melt out of those rivers, and then diverting that onto their farmland.”
In the 1920s, two particularly bold landowner families, the Boswells and the Salyers, made a move on the lakebed itself. The soil at the bottom was dark and unusually rich; it’d be the perfect place for a farm, if the lake wasn’t in the way. So they drained it and diverted the water for irrigation. According to Arax, those diversions ended up drying up the lake completely.
Meanwhile, Allensworth couldn’t get enough water to sustain itself, no matter how hard the community tried. White farmers diverted a river they relied on. A white-owned company refused to dig the community’s wells, but it was more than happy to dig wells for a white town nearby. By the 1920s, a lot of Allensworth’s original settlers had moved away. And by the 1940s, the white landowners in the Tulare Lake Basin had become some of the most powerful farmers in the country, and had successfully seized control of the water for themselves.
Those long-established power dynamics are still at work in the region. Today, Allensworth is a farmworker town where the tap water isn’t safe to drink. Many of its neighbors are large corporations and wealthy farmers, and they control many local agencies—like water and reclamation districts—which make decisions about who gets water in dry years and what to do when the floods come.
“You have these quasi-government agencies, but they’re controlled by the biggest landowners,” says Arax. “It’s a no man’s land in a lot of ways, and that’s the way it’s operated. It resorts to its own devices all the time.”
The Tulare Lake Basin also has a long history of levee sabotage. Historically, when the basin has flooded, some farmers cut levees and blocked canals to protect their land, but it also threatened the town with flooding. This is still happening today. Denise Kadara remembers getting the news from their local stormwater manager in March that a levy on the west side of town had been intentionally breached, prompting calls to evacuate.
As communities like Allensworth brace for the snowmelt this spring—and the floods they know are coming—this history of water theft, sabotage, and discrimination is always in the backs of their minds.
Although residents at that March meeting decided against blocking the railroad culverts, they haven’t stayed quiet. Allensworth’s community leaders have been calling every government official they can think of, trying to find someone who can help them. And in the past few weeks, Takoa and his family say some politicians and government agencies have started to respond.
CalFire’s emergency response team blocked the levee that was allegedly sabotaged, as well as other breaches, and saved the town from flooding. California Gov. Gavin Newsom visited the community in April and promised to send more resources. Allensworth residents are used to the system in this basin working against them, but they hope that’s finally changing. How state agencies act may be the only thing standing between Allensworth and catastrophic flooding.
“We need all the help we can get, from every agency, and every person that wants to help and believes in communities like ours,” Denise Kadara said.
This article was produced in collaboration with KQED’s The California Report. It may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact [email protected]