For more than a year, the Lake Bottom Brewery in Corcoran has been running a “Pray for Rain” promotion on Facebook and Instagram. Pints cost $3.
Owner Fred Figueroa Jr., born and raised in the Kings County city of 22,000 that is being encroached by flood waters from swollen rivers and creeks in multiple directions, pulled the plug this past week.
“I don’t think it’s a good promotion no more,” Figueroa said. “Now we’re praying for it not to rain.”
The combination of too much rain and foothill snow has led to this: Thousands of acres of farmland surrounding Corcoran — orchards, row crops, dairies and ranches — engulfed by water. Streets that used to run for miles now vanish into muddy liquid. Large houses, telephone poles and barns way off in the distance sit submerged.
There’s no quick end to this stunning sight, either. It’s only late March, and the southern Sierra still contains several million acre-feet of water being stored as snow. When the snow melts, much of it will be headed downhill past reservoirs already at or near capacity and across saturated terrain toward the bottom of Tulare Lake, that historic body of water that is staggering back to life.
“What’s about to happen, it doesn’t look good,” Figueroa said. “There’s more water up there than we can handle.”
Located on Whitley Avenue, Corcoran’s main drag, the Lake Bottom Brewery has black-and-white wall photos in its main seating area showing old farm equipment and farmers with sacks of cotton piled into the backs of wagons.
In the hallway near the men’s room, there’s a framed 1898 article from a defunct San Francisco newspaper with the headline: “Tulare Lake Dries Up: Disappearance of the Largest Body of Fresh Water in California.”
The article includes a map showing the lake’s shrinking shoreline over the decades, starting in 1854. Corcoran is not depicted. Because at that time, in wet years, the city would’ve been beneath 25 feet of water.
“Did I think the lake was going to come back when I named this place?” Figueroa asked while shaking his head no.
Corcoran is not underwater today due to a levee system to its west and south that protects both the town and two state prisons. The levees were raised to 188 feet in 2017, according to city manager Greg Gatzka, who is in talks with the state to raise them another three feet due to the current threat. On Wednesday, city officials declared a local state of emergency.
Besides the re-emerging lake, Gatzka is monitoring the Tule River and Cross Creek that flow into the Corcoran area from the east and north, respectively. The Tule is responsible for flooding a stretch of Highway 43 (and the high-speed rail alignment) southeast of downtown and one entry road to the California State Prison. Cross Creek has overwhelmed its banks in several spots, flooding farms, dairies and roadways.
Perhaps Gatzka’s most vital task, both for residents and farm and prison employees who live out of town, are the maps he posts on the Corcoran City Hall Facebook page depicting road closures in the vicinity. Green lines mean the road is open; red lines mean flooded.
“Every time we get a report, from the county sheriff or one of our own, we map it immediately and get it out on social media as well as an alert system residents can sign up for,” Gatzka said.
No obvious signs in downtown Corcoran
Driving into Corcoran from the north via Highway 43 on Thursday morning, there was no obvious sign of danger. Or anything amiss. After parking on Whitley, the first sounds I heard were the opening guitar strums of “Free Falling” from a speaker mounted on a streetlamp.
At the cafe, donut shop, barber shop and park named after farming magnate J.G. Boswell, folks were concerned about flooding but not overly so. The bigger hassle, at least for out-of-town workers, was the extra time added to their commutes. For one barber who lives in Alpaugh, a normal 25-minute drive took nearly two hours. At the brewery bar, I chatted with two high-speed rail contractors doing office paperwork because the bridges, overpasses and viaducts they’re supposed to be inspecting are under water.
Gatzka expressed confidence in the ability of J.G. Boswell Company, the $2.5 billion agriculture and development firm that owns most of the land in the lakebed, and controls most of the water rights, to manage the situation.
“They really truly have engineers who know what basins should be filled first,” he said. “To logically and efficiently manage the water flow.”
Residents of Allensworth and Alpaugh, rural communities severely impacted by ongoing floods, as well as neighboring irrigation districts, might have a different view of Boswell’s operations and methods. During flood events, controlling where the water goes, when it goes there and who profits, is a centuries-old game — one that the powerful and politically connected typically win.
Of course, some things are beyond the control of even industry titans.
“The big uncertainty for us at the moment is the Kings River flow. Where is it going to go?” Gatzka asked. “Is it going to start backfilling into the Tulare Lake basin, now combined with the Tule and Cross Creek, and accelerate the water levels around our city?”
Tracking the Kings River into Tulare Lake
To get a better sense, I headed west out town in search of the Kings River channel. Flooded roads blocked that route, so I looped around to the north. It is here where you get a sense of the true vastness of the lake bed.
Due to flood releases from Pine Flat Dam, the south fork of the Kings was flowing fairly swiftly near Stratford. (It takes 48 hours for the water to travel there.) South of town along Highway 41 where the Tulare Lake Canal splits from the river, I encountered three Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District employees pulling resistance boards from both sides of a weir.
Without the boards, at least some water at all times will flow through the weir down the river channel toward the lake bottom. The rate can be controlled by opening and closing the gates.
After the crew finished its job, flows were reduced to about 500 cfs. They were expected to be as high as 1,500 cfs by this weekend — which will necessitate the gates being wide open.
I asked the most veteran crew member, who has worked in the Tulare Lake basin since the 1970s, what he thought might happen over the coming weeks and months.
“It’s going to flood everywhere,” said Richard, who declined to give his last name. “There’s too much snow up there. What can you do?”