Local writer of the column 'Notes From Home'

“Deliver us from amnesia,” wrote Walter Brueggemann in a prayer for his seminary class on Isaiah 25. “God of freedom… turn our memory into hope.”

It’s been a year since atmospheric rivers parked themselves over our heads and restored Tulare Lake. The flooding associated with the lake’s resurgence, some of it unnecessary and caused by the Boswell Company, the lake bottom’s largest landowner, ejected me from complacency to issue a call for change in this paper (March 29, 2023.) With the Tulare Lake Basin’s groundwater agencies nearing takeover by the State Water Board for their inability to control the largest landowners’ pumping abuses, I’m calling again. 

As I wrote last spring, the impacts on residents from flooding caused by the “big water dogs” (as Alpaugh resident Jack Mitchell calls them,) is much easier to see than the impacts from pumping, which are as harmful or worse, but invisible, impossible to trace. “‘We’re finished’: Some small Kings County farmers fear state’s groundwater law being used against them,” read the headline in SJV Water’s March 13, 2024 article by Lisa McEwen (www.sjvwater.org.)

The GSA’s emergency plan resubmitted to the state in hopes of avoiding probation requires very tight pumping restrictions of the smaller growers on the Kings River fan, where wells are shallower, even though the aquifer is easily recharged by snowmelt in spring. The deepest wells in the lake bottom, which have caused the greatest subsidence and aquifer collapse, have much lighter restrictions that will allow them to continue farming. There is no doubt in my mind whose fingerprints are on this plan. Despite the supposed participation by all those whose interests are at stake, our longstanding deference to the big boys means they get their way, no matter the costs to others, including our rural economies.

This is what we saw in last year’s flooding episodes: impacts inflicted particularly on residents and local farmers on the lake’s shore, what Boswell’s group called “the margins.” Boswell wanted the margins flooded first, before the lake bottom, where gravity thought the water should go. Boswell assured everyone that they didn’t want Corcoran (their company town) to flood and provided assistance—until the State could kick in with levee reinforcement and road raisings to keep the prisons dry and employed people able to travel to their jobs. But if it hadn’t been for Jack Mitchell and his neighborhood crew of volunteer heavy equipment operators providing flood control on Deer Creek, the two communities of Allensworth and Alpaugh would have been underwater.

March 18, 2024 marked the first anniversary of Allensworth and Alpaugh not being flooded because at 2:30 in the morning of March 18, 2023, Jack Mitchell and his neighbor Chad Gorzeman discovered that the Deer Creek levee had been cut and a sheet of water was headed toward those two small towns. Mitchell called folks in Allensworth, then set Gorzeman to filling the breach. They finally got the hole filled later that afternoon. Allensworth was spared, but Alpaugh was cut off by floodwaters on its east side, and those folks had to wind their way westward to I-5 to leave town. The state spent a month and millions of dollars raising Avenue 56 above the flooded lake “margins” so that Alpaugh’s residents were no longer cut off from east-side jobs and services.

Allensworth resident Denise Kadara, who sits on the CV Regional Water Quality Control Board, worked her connections in Sacramento, while other residents of Kings County worked their Board of Supervisors, and eventually some small concessions were reached. However, had the enormous Sierran snowpack been melted prematurely by a Pineapple Express, as was feared (and has happened in the past,) the flooding that spring could have devastated farms and towns all around the lake, taking a bigger bite out of Kings and Tulare Counties’ rural economies, all so that Boswell could grow tomato paste in the lake bottom.

No sooner than we realized that danger was passed, however, we were back to facing our true drought conditions from the destruction of the Tulare Basin’s groundwater resources. Now, with thin snow in the mountains above, how to keep from pumping ourselves dry has returned as our major problem.

As long as we let the big water dogs rule over water, it doesn’t matter whether it’s flood or drought: we are going to pay the price. I’m calling again: it’s time for change.

Trudy Wischemann is a student of land and water in the southern San Joaquin. You can send her your liberating ideas c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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