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Tulare Lake flap reveals the politics of water

As lack of communication abounds, local journalists are left to sort out the mess.

Todd Fitchette, Associate Editor

April 13, 2023

4 Min Read
Tulare Lake inundates farm equipment
Rising water from the once-dry Tulare Lake inundates Hansen Ranches' farm equipment and facilities.Todd Fitchette

The politics of water and landowner disagreements in the Tulare Lake region of California is rising as fast as the flood flows inundating the area.

A special meeting of the Kings County Board of Supervisors in late March allowed landowners to share concerns over how the lake bottom region, which is heavily farmed by a few large farming companies, will manage flood flows coming off the southern Sierra Nevada.

SJV Water, a local non-profit news organization, continues to dig into accusations by farmers that the Boswell Company is cutting levees to protect their crops and facilities at the expense of other farmers. One of those farmers was our High Cotton winner from a few short years ago.

I visited with Phil Hansen of Hansen Ranches in late March to see the flooding for myself. Hansen told me to meet him at his shop, which on this day was past a road closure sign on a main road that heads south out of Corcoran.

That day Hansen was removing the large, above-ground fuel tanks from his property that was protected by what appeared to be a makeshift levee. The levee was doing its job long enough for Hansen to remove some of the last items from his shop before Tulare Lake takes over. The lake -- or as locals call it, the lake bottom – is an ancient lakebed that was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River.

During the special county supervisors meeting called on account of the local emergency, Phil and his brother Erik Hansen spoke to what Phil called a “premeditated” decision by Boswell Farming Company to cut levees that spared Boswell’s farmland from flooding, while quickly flooding Hansen’s farmland, shop, and the longtime family home previously occupied by their cousin, Niss Hansen.

Discussions during the two-hour meeting centered around an accusation that Boswell Farming unilaterally made flood control decisions. All the while, Boswell stood firm in its decisions to protect its farmland and the city of Corcoran from catastrophic floods. In the end, supervisors voted behind closed doors to breech a levee to the lowest point in the lakebed and flood a region that Boswell officials argued against allowing to flood.

SJV Water continues to bulldog this and other water stories in the region, reporting on April 2 that some Boswell land spared from flooding had just been planted to canning tomatoes. That story has an interesting sidebar about Boswell’s call to the local sheriff’s department to report a trespass by a news reporter.

These floods are far from over. The lakebed sits atop an impervious layer of clay. It also has no outlets, meaning whatever water flows onto the surface – estimates suggest at least 1 million acre feet could make it there by this summer – will have to evaporate before farming there can resume.

The special meeting of the county board had some contentious moments as Boswell officials defended decisions to protect their farmland and the city of Corcoran. Others argued that the system of levees built by Boswell favored flooding land owned by others.

One of those higher areas is a region where the Hansen family farms.

The day I visited with Phil, he said several hundred acres of pistachios and pomegranates the family farms was already under water. From the looks of things, the farm’s shop soon would be.

This “slow moving train wreck,” as one farmer I spoke with called it, will continue through the summer as a record snowpack in the southern Sierra melts, and flows into the San Joaquin Valley. Some of that water will be forced onto Tulare Lake as the Army Corps of Engineers has ordered it to be a relief valve of the Kings River.

In one social media post I saw, a cotton industry leader not affiliated with Boswell Farming Company, projected that California cotton acreage could fall below that of Arizona’s for the first time, which is more significant than one may surmise. Arizona is facing a full cut of its federal surface irrigation water from Lake Mead, which will significantly reduce the state’s total cotton acreage.

I’m no economist, but this seems to be a recipe for a recovery in U.S. cotton prices. Time will tell.

About the Author(s)

Todd Fitchette

Associate Editor, Western Farm Press

Todd Fitchette, associate editor with Western Farm Press, spent much of his journalism career covering agriculture in California and the western United States. Aside from reporting about issues related to farm production, environmental regulations and legislative matters, he has extensive experience covering the dairy industry, western water issues and politics. His journalistic experience includes local daily and weekly newspapers, where he was recognized early in his career as an award-winning news photographer.

Fitchette is US Army veteran and a graduate of California State University, Chico. 

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