The Power of Land Barons in Tulare Lake Basin Raises Alarming Questions Amidst Devastating Floods
In California’s Central Valley, the Tulare Lake Basin has been subjected to the dominance of land barons for generations. However, this year’s destructive floods have left troubling questions about the power they wield and their impact on the region. The floods have brought to light the limited government oversight in managing floodwaters and the dire consequences of allowing private companies to dictate the course of natural disasters.
As storms relentlessly pounded California for three months, the southern San Joaquin Valley witnessed overflowing rivers and breached levees. The long-dormant Tulare Lake, drained a century ago for agribusiness purposes, resurfaced in the valley’s lowlands, engulfing vast acres of farmland and wreaking havoc. Amidst the chaos, suspicions arose among farmers regarding the floodwater’s unusual behavior, seemingly flowing onto previously untouched lands.
During a heated town hall meeting, farmers expressed their frustration and confusion, pointing to maps and diagrams that showed the unprecedented flooding in areas that had never experienced such inundation. They accused J.G. Boswell Co., a prominent tomato and cotton-growing giant with deep-rooted influence in the region, of manipulating conditions to protect its own properties at the expense of neighboring farms. This sentiment, previously whispered in fear of retribution, now echoed in public.
While Boswell representatives acknowledged their interest in safeguarding their crops and infrastructure, they emphasized their priority was protecting the town of Corcoran. However, other attendees challenged this assertion, arguing that Corcoran remained at significant risk. The meeting ended with Kings County supervisors making an unprecedented decision: they voted to cut a levee on Boswell-owned farmland to provide temporary relief for Corcoran.
The flood-prone Tulare Lake Basin stands apart from other parts of the Central Valley due to its exemption from state-required flood control plans. Consequently, there is no clear public strategy for managing floodwaters, and state and federal flood maps offer scant information about the condition of the basin’s extensive levee and canal system. Moreover, the constant manipulation of the landscape by private landowners further complicates planning and mitigation efforts.
The unregulated pumping of groundwater in recent decades has aggravated the situation. This excessive pumping has caused significant subsidence, leading to the sinking of large portions of the valley floor and altering water flow patterns in the basin. Local flood control and water conveyance districts, primarily composed of powerful farming interests, dictate water infrastructure decisions, further blurring the line between private control and public governance.
The flooding crisis in the Tulare Lake Basin exposed the lack of coordination and transparency in managing floods. During Governor Gavin Newsom’s visit to the region, he expressed bewilderment at the complexities and lack of information regarding water dynamics. Six months later, the state is still grappling with how to address the situation, as farmers who successfully managed the floods point to their triumphs, while others remain bewildered by the decisions made and the absence of a comprehensive plan.
Although this year’s floods did not result in the destruction of entire towns, there were clear winners and losers. The revived Tulare Lake rendered vast stretches of farmland and orchards unusable for years, projecting an economic devastation of approximately $1 billion. Farmers like Makram Hanna, whose pistachio orchard was inundated after a levee breach, are left with uncertainties about their future, questioning who will suffer and who will thrive in times of overwhelming or scarce water resources.
The historical significance of Tulare Lake cannot be overlooked. Once the center of life for the Native Yokut people, it covered an area four times the size of Lake Tahoe before it was drained for agriculture. Over the years, the largest landowners in the region, notably the Boswell family, managed the flow of water to protect their interests. However, this year’s floods revealed a stark departure from previous approaches, with accusations that the company redirected floodwaters to spare its own properties while inundating neighboring lands.
The power wielded by the Boswell family and other influential landowners in the Tulare Lake Basin has shaped the region into a secretive fiefdom, where decisions impacting the well-being of residents are made without transparency or accountability. The exemption from state flood control plans and the lack of public oversight have perpetuated this system, leaving the region vulnerable to catastrophic flooding events and at the mercy of those who control the water.
As the effects of climate change intensify, the Tulare Lake Basin faces an uncertain future. The potential for more extreme weather events, including record precipitation and prolonged droughts, threatens to strain the system further. The need for a comprehensive flood control plan and sustained investment is crucial to protect the region from future disasters. However, achieving this will require confronting the entrenched power dynamics and reimagining the relationship between private landowners and public governance in the Tulare Lake Basin.