Flood victims sue Woodlake, others for lack of preparation

Josh Diaz holds bags of soggy insulation to show Woodlake city officials the flood damage his home suffered during a meeting in March 2023.( Jesse Vad / SJV Water)

Woodlake residents sue government entities over flood damage; glad to see progress on infrastructure projects

WOODLAKE – More than a year after floods devastated the small town of Woodlake in Tulare County, residents finally feel hopeful about the future thanks to new infrastructure projects and an ongoing lawsuit they are bringing against local governments and other agencies.

In March of 2023, homes in northwest Woodlake were hit with floods after historic storms and snowpack brought a deluge onto the valley floor. It took many residents months and tens of thousands of dollars to repair their homes.

Residents banded together and took legal action against what they said was a government failure to properly prepare and respond to the floods.

The lawsuit was filed March 21 against the City of Woodlake, County of Tulare, the Tulare County Flood Control District, the Tulare County Resource Management Agency, the state of California, the California Department of Transportation, the Wutchumna Water Company and Yanez Construction.

“I feel it’s going to bring closure to many,” said Joshua Diaz, resident of Woodlake and local high school teacher.

Diaz’ home was significantly damaged in the floods and took many months to make it livable again. His family still hasn’t fully recovered from the experience.

The lawsuit alleges that a new housing development, built by Yanez Construction, was placed where the Antelope Creek used to flow, resulting in changes to the land and flood control systems and ultimately contributing to the flooding in the northwest of Woodlake. City staff have previously refuted that claim, saying their models show the floods would have occurred regardless of the development.

The lawsuit also alleges that flood gates at the junction of Antelope Creek and Wutchumna Ditch irrigation canal were not maintained or operated properly.

The city hasn’t been served yet, said Ramon Lara, Woodlake City Administrator.

Residents have also seen infrastructure projects moving forward in Woodlake that have  renewed their hope, said Diaz.

The city is building three new stormwater lines and a 20-acre stormwater basin to better move and store stormwater, said Lara. The projects have taken years to get to this point, some dating back to 2014, he said.

One of the storm lines is 60 inches, requiring a complicated engineering process.

“Some of these neighborhoods are 50 to 75 years old. You’re having to compete for underground space with water lines, sewer lines, gas lines,” said Lara. “So you’re trying to thread this 60-inch needle in some areas.”

That project should be completed by June. The other lines still need funding through grants the city is applying for. The storage basin should be in construction by fall.

The projects will cost about $14 million in total. Most of that will come from the state’s Community Development Block Grant Program.

City staff are also preparing to apply for another grant for a stormwater line in the northwestern neighborhood to better move stormwater into Antelope Creek, said Lara.

Still, these projects won’t do against floods of last year’s magnitude, said Lara. If the city is hit with another 500-year flood type, there isn’t any infrastructure that could deal with that, he added.

But residents are glad that something is happening.

“It’s a relief that things are moving forward,” said Diaz. “We were in a state of limbo where we weren’t too sure if something was going to happen or things were just going to stay how they were. But it seems now that there are steps forward to address our concerns, which is great.”

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