California’s beleaguered bullet train faces another hurdle: flooding from melting snow

Tulare County Sheriff's Office/Still photo from video

Recent rainstorms that have created flooding in some parts of Kings and Tulare counties have also ground work to a halt at several key construction sites for California’s high-speed rail project.

But while standing water at some locations has prevented work crews from reaching their job sites, the Central Valley director for the Cailfornia High-Speed Rail Authority said it’s the prospects for a lengthy summer run of water in local irrigation canals that present a greater potential disruption to construction later this year.

Kings and Tulare counties are part of a 65-mile construction contract for the future rail route stretching from south of Fresno to the Tulare-Kern county line. Dragados/Flatiron, a joint venture of two major construction firms, is the contractor for that segment of the route.

Among construction sites recently inundated by storm runoff from channels flowing into the Tulare Lake basin are viaducts over the Tule River, Deer Creek and others, said Garth Fernandez, who heads up the rail agency’s Central Valley region.


At the Tule River viaduct near Highway 43 and Avenue 144 south of Corcoran, drone video posted to social media on March 22 by the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office shows vehicles stranded in floodwaters and support columns for the structure sticking out of the water.

“There’s a lot of work we can’t get to,” Fernandez told The Fresno Bee in a telephone interview this week. “So at Tule River and Deer Creek, right now we are not working. … We don’t even have access to that (Deer Creek) site right now because it’s all under water.”

Helping communities near Tulare Lake basin

Fernandez added that in the meantime, the rail agency and its contractor have turned their attention to providing what help they can to nearby communities that are being affected by flooding. “Our focus right now has been on how we can utilize our resources and equipment, even our contractor, to try to mitigate the flooding,” he said, “and protect the general well being and safety of the public that has to deal with the flooding.”

One example Fernandez cited was Whitley Avenue, one of the main east-west roads into and through the city of Corcoran in Kings County. The road had been closed and was in the process of being excavated in preparation for construction of a new crossing structure for the high-speed rail line. Fernandez said county officials called to tell him that “All the roads to access Corcoran were flooded … and at Whitley Avenue needed to be reopened.”

That call on March 21 triggered a conference with the rail contractor, “and they mobilized and worked around the clock” to rebuild and reopen the road, Fernandez said. “The weather didn’t help; it rained on Wednesday and Thursday, and the subgrade (beneath the road) was wet. But we found a way to work with them on 24-hour shifts to reopen Whitley late Saturday night (March 25).”

At another location, along Avenue 56 near Alpaugh in southwestern Tulare County, “we’re taking down the embankment we built for a structure to build a road that provides emergency access to the town of Alpaugh,” Fernandez added.

“We have been working with these communities to make sure we can use the resources we have to manage this (flooding), Fernandez told The Bee. “All of this has an impact on us … but our primary objective right now is to help these communities.”

High-speed rail facilities designed for 100-year flood

While some construction locations are facing delays because of standing flood water, crews have been able to continue working at other sites in Madera, Fresno, Kings and Kern counties — a 119-mile stretch covered by three separate construction contracts.

“There’s a lot of work going on in Fresno County and Kern County,” Fernandez said. “But we have this impact in the middle. It’s really disheartening when you go out there and see there’s water everywhere. Our hearts go out to all the people who are dealing with this.”

So far, no significant damage has been reported on any of the high-speed rail structures that have been completed or are in various stages of construction. “From north to south, water is flowing underneath all of our completed structures,” Fernandez said. “All of our structures are on piles and deep foundations, so I don’t believe we’ll have an issue with damage to our structures.”

“We may have some areas of erosion, some embankments washed out in a couple of places, but that minor damage can be resolved rather easily,” he added. “But for all of our major structures, the current reporting is that we are holding good.”

The rail line has been designed to cope major floods; viaducts and a railbed that will elevated above the level of the surrounding land are expected to minimize the risk of damage from future floods, Fernandez said.

“Our facilities are designed for a 100-year flood, so (the current events are) showing that our design is actually working,” he said. “It’s designed in a way that even though it’s a large system north to south, it’s able to convey all the flood water past our embankments and our alignment.”

Record Sierra Nevada snowpack presents challenge

Even before the recent flooding, an array of factors including property acquisition for the railroad right of way, lawsuits and overly optimistic projections have confronted the rail agency over the past decade and contributed to delays in construction.

But Fernandez said standing floodwaters aren’t the biggest concern for construction progress. “We can do a lot of work once we can pump out the water,” he said. “You know, we can build bridges in the ocean, so there are ways to mitigate for standing water.”

But it’s the seasonal flow of irrigation ditches and canals that the rail line must cross that represent uncertainty in how fast work can progress this coming fall and winter. In southern Fresno, Kings and Tulre counties, “we have about 40 irrigation canals that we have stopped work on,” Fernandez said. In a normal year, those canals and ditches are dry from about September through March, providing a window of about six months for work to alter the channels or construct bridges or viaducts.

“There are indications about a lot of water coming down (from the Sierra Nevada) mountains throughout the year” as a result of a record snowpack that will eventually melt and feed rivers and streams flowing to the Valley, Fernandez said. “If we get to September, October, November and we still see waters come down and we are unable to shut down some of the canals to work on, that’s going to be the major impact that we’ll have to deal with at that time.”

“With the canals,” he added, “it will be our inability to do some of the other work along the (Kings-Tulare) corridor that’s going to be a challenge for us.”