California's epic snowpack is melting. Here's what to expect
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
A massive flood is growing in California's Central Valley. On a tour of the area, the state's governor, Gavin Newsom, gestured toward a flooded farm.
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GAVIN NEWSOM: You can look at a scene like this and think that the worst is behind us, when in fact, quite the contrary.
MARTÍNEZ: That's because more water is coming. NPR's Nathan Rott followed one river to explain why. He started on the shores of Tulare Lake. That lake had not existed for decades until now.
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NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: It's truly hard to describe the scale of the flooding in California's Central Valley.
GEORGE MENDES: Yeah. It's nuts.
ROTT: From their home in Corcoran, George and Judy Mendes have been anxiously watching Tulare Lake grow every day. Their home, like the rest in this town of 22,000, sits on the lake's historic shore.
MENDES: My brother, he come out here with me the other day, and he's very seldom at loss for words. And his jaw hit the ground.
ROTT: He's just like, what?
ROTT: I mean, it's - this looks like the ocean.
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ROTT: That sound you hear? Seagulls - two hours from the Pacific Coast. An area roughly the size of Salt Lake City, Utah, has already flooded here. Farms, roads and homes have been inundated by rainwater from this year's abnormally wet winter and spring.
MENDES: And it's still coming. Yeah. Yeah. It's going to get bigger.
ROTT: Farmers and residents, politicians and water officials - everyone knows that a bigger flood is yet to come. This lake will keep on expanding. But to understand why and when, you have to travel 80 miles east of Corcoran, out of the valley and up the steep, winding canyons of the southern Sierra Nevada...
ERIC MEYER: Ball of foot, heel in there.
ROTT: ...To where Eric Meyer puts on his snowshoes.
MEYER: These ones you just bring right through that metal and then cinch it down.
ROTT: Meyer is an ecologist at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. We're snowshoeing a short distance in Sequoia. Its namesake trees, the largest on the planet, tower into a foggy sky above.
MEYER: Giant snow, giant trees (laughter).
ROTT: We've stopped near the base of one of them at about 7,000 feet of elevation. Meyer directs the park's snow surveys here every winter.
MEYER: Last year, we would have been at 33% of normal for April 1, and this year, I think around, like, 280% of normal.
ROTT: Some parts of the southern Sierra have more than four times as much snow as they normally would this time of year. But already it's starting to melt.
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ROTT: Water drips from snowbanks - still twice the size of Meyer's truck - along Sequoia's roads. It trickles in small troughs...
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ROTT: ...And cascades down rocks...
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ROTT: ...Forming larger and larger channels.
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ROTT: Ooh, it's like a stream.
Until it hits the Kaweah River...
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ROTT: ...One of four major rivers that eventually end up in Tulare Lake, but not before it pauses here.
RYAN WATSON: You kind of see one of the buckets in the spillway - water control tower, main dam.
ROTT: Ryan Watson is the deputy operations project manager at Terminus Dam. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built this earthen structure just uphill from where the Kaweah River used to spill out into the Central Valley. The point of this dam, Watson says, is to manage, not control, the river's water.
WATSON: Because you can't control a river, right? Like, we're not as naive to think we have dominance over Mother Nature. Like, she's going to do what she's going to do, as we're seeing.
ROTT: This dam and others like it in the Sierra foothills is meant to moderate that. Water rushed down the Kaweah River during a series of extreme rainstorms earlier this year. It's expected to again as the snow melts. The dam is supposed to serve as a speed bump for all of that water.
WATSON: It gets ponded. So it's not that big rush of water going into the system.
ROTT: Then dam operators like Watson release it in managed spurts.
WATSON: Is there still flooding downstream? Yes. Would it be significantly worse if the structure weren't here? Absolutely.
ROTT: More than 50 different levee breaks happened downstream during the rains earlier this year - a series of storms that scientists say will become more likely as the climate warms. Water was released from this dam in larger amounts than the canals downstream were designed to handle. To avoid that happening again, dam operators are still dumping water to try to empty the reservoir in preparation for the big melt. But there are concerns that with warming temperatures, it could fill up again fast, which is why just downstream from the dam, in the city of Visalia, Mark Larsen is hardly sleeping.
MARK LARSEN: This year has been crazy.
ROTT: Larsen is the general manager of the Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District. There are two maps on the wall of his conference room. One shows the river and the valley as it was in 1885.
LARSEN: And see all the rivers and sloughs and creeks and channels? And then flash over to this map here...
ROTT: A map of the same area roughly 100 years later.
LARSEN: ...And you see about a quarter of them. And we wonder why we have flood issues.
ROTT: Larsen's job is to manage all of the water that comes out of Terminus Dam before it reaches Tulare Lake. Normally, he says, most of it goes to agriculture.
LARSEN: Every drop of water that comes down the Kaweah River system has somebody's name on it, and that's their right to use that water.
ROTT: It's that complete use of the water which led to Tulare Lake disappearing decades ago.
LARSEN: Now, in a really wet year, we can't contain it all here in the Kaweah Basin. And that's when it goes to the old historic Tulare Lake bed area.
ROTT: Into farms and developed areas right on the doorstep of where we started, back in Corcoran.
GREG GATZKA: You're looking at the Corcoran Levee. You're actually on it right here.
ROTT: Greg Gatzka is Corcoran's city manager. The levee we're on is 14 1/2 miles long, and water is already lapping at its side.
GATZKA: That is what's protecting the city from flood waters to the south of us.
ROTT: Efforts have been underway in recent weeks to improve this levee, to make it taller, strengthen it in places. As if on cue, a bulldozer rumbles by.
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ROTT: Federal and state disaster money is now making its way to Corcoran and broader Kings County to support these efforts. But Gatzka says the unique timing of the situation makes getting support difficult.
GATZKA: This is not a disaster recovery situation, and most of the funding mechanisms through state and federal government are after the fact.
ROTT: Corcoran still has time to prepare, Gatzka says. There's a small window before the snow melt starts in earnest. But they need to be prepared, he says, because the water is already at the town's levee. And...
GATZKA: We have to endure that for seven months to two years, most likely.
ROTT: Two years, because that's how long it took water to evaporate the last time Tulare Lake came back at this scale 50 years ago.
Nathan Rott, NPR News, Corcoran, Calif.
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