Sixty Years of Pine Flat Dam

May 19, 2014

A Press Release From the Kings River Water Association

For More Information, Please Contact:
STEVE HAUGEN, Kings River Watermaster, (559) 266-0767
RANDY McFARLAND, Public Information Consultant, (559) 260-2775

Sixty Years of Pine Flat Dam

Pine Flat Dam has become a senior citizen. Thursday (May 22) marks the 60th anniversary of dedication ceremonies for the vitally important Kings River flood control and surface storage facility in eastern Fresno County, completion of which by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was a
dream come true for earlier generations of central San Joaquin Valley people.

“For everyone who lives and works in the Kings River service area there is no more important water management facility than Pine Flat Dam,” said Kings River Watermaster Steve Haugen. “Pine Flat Reservoir’s one million acre-feet of storage has repeatedly proven its value as a tool for virtually eliminating damaging Kings River floods while providing the water management space to greatly enhance the benefits of irrigation and groundwater recharge supplies.”

Haugen, who manages the Kings River Water Association and is the sixth Kings River Watermaster, added, “As extra benefits that weren’t even part of the project’s authorization, Pine Flat has become one of Central California’s most important and valued outdoor recreation venues while providing downstream environmental benefits through creation of the cold-water fishery so many valley anglers enjoy today.”

No special ceremony is planned but the KRWA Executive Committee will quietly commemorate Pine Flat Dam’s 60th anniversary at its Tuesday morning (May 20) meeting in Fresno by considering a resolution marking the occasion and the Pine Flat Project’s lasting importance.

Pine Flat Dam

The nearly completed Pine Flat Dam as it was nearing completion in 1953. By then, water was being released through the dam’s low level sluice gates.

SIx decades ago, however, great excitement gripped Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties. The imposing concrete gravity dam, which today remains the nation’s 26th tallest, had been completed and a long-anticipated major ceremony was to take place. It was Saturday afternoon, May 22, 1954. The location was along the Kings River near the newly-finished dam’s base, a few miles upstream from the foothill hamlet of Piedra. Ceremony sponsors included the KRWA, Kings River Conservation District and chambers of commerce in Reedley, Dinuba, Sanger, Tulare County and Fresno. Music was provided by bands from Reedley College, and Sanger and Dinuba high schools. The world’s largest American flag was draped from the top of the dam and looked tiny to onlookers. Attendance was modest at approximately 3,000 but the event attracted a large number water leaders. Many of those individuals were Kings River irrigation water users themselves. They had devoted careers and avocations to Pine Flat Dam’s development and on this day success was theirs.

Those contributions were noted by the dedication speaker, Army General Samuel D. Sturgis Jr., the Corps’ Chief of Engineers. He also noted that when ground was broken in 1947, California Governor Earl Warren (later Supreme Court Chief Justice) had set off a massive blast on the site’s south abutment.

“Actual construction started that day,” General Sturgis said. “Yet, a generation of Americans has grown to middle age during the time it took to bring Pine Flat into existence. It is 50 years since studies for this project were initiated by the irrigation interests and 32 years since the first exploratory drillings were made in these hillsides. It has been 16 years since the Corps of Engineers came into the picture with its own investigation.” Sturgis said that “the foresight and perseverance you people have shown may well be an inspiration to other communities all over America which are now facing problems similar to those you have overcome.”

Pine Flat Dam Groundbreaking

The explosive groundbreaking in 1947, set off by Governor Earl Warren.

Pre-Construction Pine Flat Dam Location

A rare view (looking upstream) of the damsite in 1950 with the free-flowing river passing through the future Pine Flat Reservoir.

The government’s investment in Pine Flat’s development, Sturgis said, constituted “the nation’s recognition of the immense values of water in this region. As the nation’s population grows, your crops and purchases will be of increasing importance in providing food and jobs for the extra millions our land must support.”

He predicted, “There is little likelihood this valley will again see floods like the one in 1950 which cost you people $5 million in damages, or the one in 1943 which cost $5.5 million or the 1938 flood which cost $7.5 million.” That has proven to be the case. Every Kings River flood event has been controlled with managed releases since the 1950 flood, which ironically caused severe damage to early phases of Pine Flat Dam’s construction. In December 1955 – only 19 months after its dedication – Pine Flat Dam captured all of a massive flood flow, preventing vast damage along the river.

Charles L. Kaukpe, the first Kings River Watermaster whose patient work with often-warring Kings River water agencies led to the KRWA’s establishment in 1927, was overjoyed on that dedication day. “This is the fondest dream of my life come true,” Kaupke said with tears in his eyes. “I’ve looked forward to it for 37 years and I’m proud to have had a small part in bringing it about.” Kaupke was to retire three years later after 40 years as Watermaster.

Those dreams of Kaupke and so many other Kings River water users and leaders to develop a major dam at Pine Flat actually began much earlier. The first rudimentary state investigation identified the possibility of Kings River water storage in the 1850s, when there was virtually no
settlement in the region and the empty plains were considered a worthless desert. The valley floor really was not a desert but a seasonal grassland. Few at the time recognized it but those grasses grew lushly when adequately watered by rain, a sign of the land’s incredible fertility and growing conditions.

That began to change quickly in the 1850s in what is now known as the Centerville Bottoms of Fresno County where a few very small ditches were dug near the river. Others tapped into the Kings River between 1863-66 to bring water into the Centerville area. The first canal of substance was the Fresno Canal in 1871. It was an enormous success.

Everywhere water was conveyed over the next 30 years by the many dozens of new canals built across the plains, the immense, previously uncultivated prairie blossomed into agricultural productivity. Homes began dotting the new family farms. Towns were established all over the countryside.

By 1900, most major canal construction was completed and the Kings River service area approximated the more than one million acres with surface water availability that it contains today.

The Kings River and its early users had to endure much controversy and chaos, not the least of which involved challenges over water rights that continued in some cases into the 1920s. Those legal controversies kept generations of water attorneys busy.

There was another problem – a lack of water storage. Even after the majority of water rights issues were settled with the 1927 agreement establishing the KRWA and a broad water entitlement schedule, irrigation districts and canal companies could only divert from the “run of the river.” Those flows were typically highest in the winter and spring but fell off rapidly during the summer when the mountain snow had melted. On every western slope Sierra Nevada river, amounts of rain and snow – and subsequent runoff to the thirsty valley – vary widely from season to season and year to year. Kings River floods and droughts were regular problems.

A dam would capture high flows from spring runoff and big water years, water users and their leaders recognized. It would conserve that water for use during the hot, dry summer months or throughout years of drought, when it was most vitally needed.

In 1913, users realized that the Kings River’s historic water rights contentiousness simply could not be permitted to continue into the future because a dam could not be financed without agreement on entitlements. Thus, a movement that began in those pre-World War I years to develop Pine Flat Dam was born out of a concurrent, but decade-long effort, to settle the water rights issues. In the same era came a successful effort to establish a number of public irrigation and water districts – which today number 13 along with 15 mutual water companies as the 28 agencies with Kings River entitlements.

Efforts to develop Pine Flat Dam accelerated under the KRWA’s leadership during the 1930s. In 1937, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed to build Pine Flat as a flood control project, dedicated to benefits on the Kings River. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation also wanted to develop Pine Flat, but as an extension of its much broader Central Valley Project, then in its initial development stages. President Roosevelt complicated the situation by assigning the project’s development to each. The two agencies agreed Pine Flat should be built. They differed on basic issues, flood control and conservation values, storage and operations, and, perhaps most importantly, construction costs and local cost contributions. Arguments raged through four years of hearings.

Kings River water users and the Kings River Water Association sided with the Corps of Engineers, pointing out that the Kings service area had been fully developed since 1900 and that Reclamation law imposition was neither desired nor warranted.

In December 1944, Congress approved a Flood Control Act authorizing Pine Flat Dam to be developed by the Corps of Engineers with KRWA units to pay for the irrigation storage benefit once that amount was determined. For that task, President Truman in 1946 assigned the Bureau of Reclamation to negotiate the necessary contracts. Kings River users again fumed that Pine Flat seemed to be destined for classification as a Reclamation project, despite the expressed will of Congress and Kings River water users.

Still, ground was broken on Pine Flat Dam in 1947 and the actual construction began two years later, with the Corps deciding in 1952 that it would have full charge of river operations during flood releases but that the Kings River Watermaster would be in control at all other times. Such a procedure continues to this day.

Pine Flat Dam’s 1954 completion at a cost of $42.3 million led to negotiation of a series of annual storage contracts between Reclamation and the new Kings River Conservation District, which had been organized under state legislation in 1951 to deal with the contract issue. The contract dispute with the Bureau of Reclamation was not resolved fully until permanent agreements were signed in 1963.

At that time, KRWA’s member agencies also adopted a new and more complete water schedule and master agreement which still govern Kings River entitlements and operations. The 1963 agreement spelled out water accounting and operational rules for administering water entitlements under storage conditions within the one million acres within the Kings River service area.

“Pine Flat Dam remains every bit as important today as it was when completed 60 years ago,” Watermaster Haugen says. “Even in a terribly dry year such as this, Pine Flat is still doing its job of conserving water for beneficial use when it is most needed.”