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By Teresa Cotsirilos
California’s San Joaquin Valley is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, and earlier this year it was thrown into chaos. First it was hit by a barrage of atmospheric rivers, which eventually dumped 57 feet of snow in parts of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Then, in April, that historic snowpack started to melt, and the runoff pooled in the valley’s basin. Tulare Lake, which was drained and planted more than a century ago by powerful agricultural interests, began to reappear. Residents of the valley’s small cities and towns scrambled to protect themselves, piling sandbags around their houses and building makeshift berms around their communities. Today, Tulare Lake is almost the size of Lake Tahoe, and it could take years for the waters to subside.
While the runup to the Big Melt received national attention, the valley’s local newsrooms produced some of the crisis’ most nuanced coverage — and SJV Water, a scrappy, two-person nonprofit news site based in Bakersfield, was particularly prolific. The outlet was the first to report that the J.G. Boswell Company, one of the nation’s largest agribusinesses, had been accused by local farmers and stormwater managers of redirecting floodwaters toward its neighbors’ homes and orchards in an apparent effort to save its crops. Last week, I talked to reporter Jesse Vad about his experience covering the Big Melt and its ongoing impact in the region. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tulare Lake started to reappear last March, when the southern San Joaquin Valley was swamped by torrential rain. The region was still struggling to recover from that first round of flooding when the Big Melt began a month later. I reported on the flood’s impacts from the community of Allensworth, but you covered it throughout the region. What was reporting on that like?
It was definitely insane. There was so much devastation. I was constantly stumbling into situations that were just unraveling, everywhere in the valley. The water was overtaking roads as I was driving on them, and you’d pull over and see families just standing there, their houses underwater. Even in the cities, which were a little more protected, water was overtopping infrastructure, cutting off pathways, and isolating people. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
Probably a year or two ago, I was talking with this old timer in the valley — he’s in his 90s and he grew up there, never really left. He told me how the lake looked like an ocean [when it came back decades ago], that you couldn’t see the end of it. At the time, I just couldn’t understand that. And then, seeing what he had described in front of me, this fantastical thing of the past reappearing before my eyes — that was pretty mind-blowing.
As the flooding intensified, SJV Water reported that some farmers were allegedly redirecting water off their land to protect their crops, sometimes at the expense of local communities. One stormwater manager even said he was threatened with arrest when he tried to unblock a canal, even though the blockage risked funneling water toward two small towns. How prevalent do you think this kind of behavior was?
I never talked to anyone who cut levies in a shady way, but of course we heard that was happening. There isn’t really a centralized flood control system in the southern San Joaquin Valley, to say the least. As we learned, flood response in the valley is managed by a very dysfunctional patchwork of agencies, which leaves a lot of pockets of the valley unprotected. It also left a lot up in the air. It was unclear what people were allowed to do, or what people were getting away with. Often, there was not a lot of oversight in terms of what people were doing. And I don’t know if we’ll ever know the full extent to which water was redirected, or certain levees were built up or reinforced. The valley’s levee system is just so vast.
Today, Tulare Lake has submerged at least 90,000 acres — 140 square miles — of farmland. But many climate scientists consider this a best-case scenario, because the Big Melt largely spared the valley’s cities and towns. How do you think the state managed to avert a worse disaster?
I agree that it could have been exponentially worse. If the melt had gone differently, it would’ve been absolutely devastating, potentially worse than the first round of floods. I’m sure the state would love for me to say that they prevented that disaster from happening. But from my perspective, I think it was luck. I talked to climate scientists about this, and they pointed out that we didn’t have any extraordinary heat spells in that early stage, when the snowpack was at its peak. And there weren’t enough warm rains to send a huge portion of that melt into the valley, refueling floods. The slow pace of the melt gave people time to prepare.
Right. I remember when the state started to really intervene. Gov. Newsom allocated $17 million to raise the levees surrounding the city of Corcoran, and the Department of Water Resources diverted some of the floodwater south into the California Aqueduct.
There was a lot of sandbag work, and some temporary infrastructure was put in place in some areas. Communities were bracing as best they could, but I don’t know how much that would’ve helped if we had suffered the worst-case scenario.
At this point, a lot of the national media have stopped paying attention to Tulare Lake — but you’re still covering its ongoing impacts.
Yeah, I just did a video on this. There are people who haven’t moved back into their homes yet. There are people who are going to be rebuilding for a long time. And the affected areas are mostly rural, smaller areas, where a lot of people can’t really afford to deal with the [property] damage.
From what I’ve seen, agriculture has been affected to varying degrees. There’s obviously a large acreage of ag land still underwater. I don’t know to what extent smaller family farms have been affected. A lot of what we see is big industrial ag operations that have been affected by the floodwaters. Of course, the J.G. Boswell Company, which owns most of the farmland in the Tulare Lake Basin, has weathered several floods like this in its history. The impact on an operation like that versus a small family farmer is completely different.
And, of course, the flooding has also affected farmworker jobs. What stands out to me is the continued emotional and financial toll on people. And that will be ongoing for a long time.