Relentless rains replenish local reservoirs

All local reservoirs are over 100% of average water levels and the entire Tulare Basin is nearly double its average

TULARE COUNTY – Water managers in the Kaweah and Kings River watersheds are pumped up over the volume of rain in the Sierras over the past few weeks.

While many communities across the state are focusing understandably on flood damage from the parade of atmospheric river storms that have drenched California, it’s the potential relief from years of drought resulting in a huge hardship for the local economy here that have gotten the attention of Mark Larsen in the Kaweah River aquifer and Steve Haugen who oversees the Kings River aquifer.

“We’re pretty excited,” Larsen, who is GM at the Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District, said. “Instead of fighting over water we don’t have, we are able to focus on managing a good volume of water we do have.”

Literally overnight, both watersheds stretching north from Tulare to Fresno Counties saw 8 to 10 inches of rain and then snow hit Jan. 9-10 at measuring stations including Giant Forest in the upper Kaweah and Wishon/Courtright reservoirs on the upper Kings. Wishon has received 38 inches of precipitation as of Jan. 10, up 8.5 inches from the day before. The dam had just 5 inches in the bucket Dec. 1, gaining 33 inches since.

Haugen, watermaster for the Kings River Water Association, said the relatively warm storm dropped rain as high as 8,500 feet, sending runoff into Pine Flat Dam. Pine Flat itself received nearly 4 inches on Jan. 9. The lake now sits at 400,000 acre feet as of Jan. 10, having gained nearly 150,000 acre feet since Jan. 1 and 77,000 acre feet in two days. Haugen expects some flood releases this year if these wet storms continue. The lake stands at 117% as of press time. The PG&E site is home to the important Helms Pumped Storage project that provides power to California in the heat of the summer.

“Looks like we will have a good water year,” predicted Haugen, who last saw some carryover of reservoir water in 2019 to cushion against a dry year. It’s been dry since until the recent storms.

Kaweah Lake is now 412% of average as of press time with releases downstream to insure there is enough room for a big snowmelt coming this spring, according to Larsen. The reservoir water supply chart has an arrow pointing straight-up over the past month with the near empty lake going from just 10,000 acre feet Nov. 1 to 80,000 acre feet today. That’s nearly half of the lake’s 185,000 acre feet capacity.

The California Data Exchange Center (CDEC) posts up-to-date precipitation numbers on the Tulare Basin, made up of stations in the Southern Sierra, reports the basin is at 195% of average and ahead of the wettest year ever in 1968-69, a huge flood year. Lake Success near Porterville, on the Tule River watershed, is at 312% of average and Millerton Lake near Fresno, which feeds the Friant-Kern Canal along the Valley’s eastern foothills, is at 149% of normal.

Water agencies have been planning and waiting for a set-up like this. 

“We are running water from the dam through our Kaweah channel system and those water storage basins that have been built in the past few years,” Larsen said. The strategy is to spread flood water to recharge the groundwater basin for the first time in years.

Weather models predict about six more storms, including some strong ones, plunging into Central California before the end of the month. But the headline numbers may be over. The wet pattern could change in February.

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