Proposed Tulare County reservoir could begin banking water as soon as 2026

Board of Supervisors praise Seaborn Project as a new model for local communities and farmers to reach water sustainability by 2040 under the state’s landmark groundwater monitoring law

TULARE COUNTY – Last Friday’s report that California’s snowpack is just 38% of normal underscores the importance for Tulare County to not only take the drought more seriously, but to brace for drier winters to become the rule rather than the exception. 

Two Tulare County irrigation water agencies aren’t waiting around to see how the state will cope with the current and future drought and are taking steps to secure more water storage in the Kaweah Subbasin. Tulare Irrigation District (TID) and Consolidated Peoples Ditch Company (CPDC) purchased 260 acres in December 2020 near McKay Point, where the Kaweah River forks into the Lower Kaweah and St. John’s rivers near Lemon Cove, to build a reservoir capable of storing 8,000 acre feet of water. The 8,000 acre feet of storage is enough to provide drinking water to about 8,000 homes for a year or to irrigate 96,000 acres of farmland for a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, without pumping water out of the aquifer. Known as the Seaborn Property, the site was formerly a mining pit for Kaweah River Rock and more recently Santa Fe Aggregate, whose lease ends this month. 

TID General Manager Aaron Fukuda said the project will be a critical piece of the Kaweah Subbasin meeting its sustainability goals by 2040, the year set for overdrafted basins to begin sinking more water into the ground than it pumps out, under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) of 2014. Unlike better known projects TID is involved with, such as the neighboring McKay Point reservoir and the Temperance Flat reservoir east of Fresno, neither of which will come online for at least another decade, the Seaborn Reservoir is scheduled for completion by 2026, if it is selected for a large federal grant.

“We have 20 years to achieve sustainability for our communities but only four wet years in that 20-year cycle,” Fukuda said. “Accelerating this project to the front of the line is going to be key for the Kaweah Subbasin.”

The Sun-Gazette first reported on this project a month ago when the California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) announced a nameless Tulare County project was applying for $16.27 million in federal funding to cover 70% of the cost of the estimated $23 million project. 

The Tulare County project, officially known as the Projects at McKay Point, is among 14 submitted for $350 million in federal funding through the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program. Administered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), BRIC is designed to shift focus away from reactive disaster spending and toward research-supported, proactive investment in community resilience. Examples of BRIC projects are ones that demonstrate innovative approaches to partnerships, such as shared funding mechanisms, and/or project design. If approved, Fukuda said the project would be the first drought project ever funded by FEMA.

“We are blazing a new path and I think Tulare County is a good place to start given our current situation,” Fukuda said. “What better time to start a drought mitigation project.”

The project addresses two main issues under the project funding, regional flooding and drought for disadvantaged communities. The reservoir will divert flood waters, at a rate of 250 cubic feet per second, protect nearby cities of Exeter, Farmersville and Visalia, and store the water for reuse during dry years. This diversion would also protect downstream water conveyance infrastructure providing surface water to local farms. The reservoir will be able to store 8,000 acre feet of water at one time, and up to 12,000 acre feet in wet years, as water is released into the nearby McKay Point Reservoir and more water is taken in during multiple wet year cycles. Tulare County and the Valley entered its second multi-year drought in the last decade when Gov. Gavin Newsom officially declared a water emergency on April 21, 2021. This is especially important for small, rural communities which tend to have shallower wells than nearby cities and farms.

An added bonus of the project is the diverse and multi-layered habitat it will create for raptors, migratory birds and smaller mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Fukuda described the project as a reservoir within  a reservoir. The interior reservoir, the bottom of the former mining pit, will store water and create a wetlands habitat, where migratory birds can stop along their route south for the winter. The banks of the pit leading down to the water will generate an upland wetlands and riparian habitats for smaller animals and then a wet meadow, where raptors, such as hawks and eagles, can find food and nest. While the environmentalists on the project did not return calls as of press time, the report on the project said “There is currently a good amount of habitat along the edges of the banks that are being used by specific local species.” The report also noted they would clear out invasive species to create more natural ecosystems within the habitats.

County Approves
At its March 15 meeting, the Board of Supervisors approved Tulare Irrigation District’s application, saying it was in the county’s best interest, and authorized the RMA director to sign all amendments to this grant. The issue came before the Supervisors because TID and CPDC did not qualify as a coordinator for the project, a requirement of the grant, but the county does. In order to meet the Dec. 1 deadline to submit the application for the BRIC grant, Tulare County’s Resource Management Agency (RMA) gave the water agencies access to its FEMA account while TID and CPDC continued work with a consultant to submit its final version of the application this month. The grant included $72,000 to cover the county’s expenses for review and administration of the project while all of the risk and liabilities remain with TID and CPDC. 

TID and CPDC will seek the remaining $7 million of the project’s price tag through low interest loans with the California Department of Water Resources and the U.S. and California Environmental Protection Agencies. Fukuda said surface water from the Central Valley Project and State Water PRoject  will be increasingly difficult to come by and very costly to pursue. He told TID’s board of directors building the Kaweah Subbasin’s own water storage projects is the only way to reach sustainability by 2040.

“We had to take this into our own hands and we can manage it and work more locally and faster,” Fukuda said.

Dennis Townsend, vice chair on the board of supervisors, and the other supervisors praised the project for combining flood, drought and environmental solutions into a single project, making it more attractive for federal and state funding. In light of federal and state water allocations of just 15% of average this year, Townsend said the Seaborn Reservoir project is something to be modeled in every corner of the county. 

“There’s less and less and less allocations coming down [from the federal and state water projects],” Supervisor Dennis Townsend said. “We need to encourage this and find as many [projects like this] as we can in the county. It will be the key to the future of farming in our county.”

Supervisor Amy Shuklian asked if the project would provide enough additional flood protection to pull properties out of the flood zone established by FEMA several years ago. Properties included in the flood plain were forced to add flood insurance on their property.

Aaron Bock, associate director of RMA, said the project did reduce the flood zone by 1 foot, which could potentially remove the flood insurance requirement from some property owners. Bock said the county could draft a letter of revision asking FEMA to remove some of the properties. 

TID estimated the project would award engineering and environmental consultant contracts this fall and begin construction as early as April 2024.

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