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How a Legacy of Racism Is Putting a 115-Year-Old Historically Black Town At Risk of Flooding — Again

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An old, white building that houses a historic library sits in the midle of a field of yellow flowers. Large trees surround the structure.
The Tulare County Free Library building in the Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park in Allensworth, on May 4, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Allensworth, a farmworker town of about 500 people in California’s San Joaquin Valley, sits at the edge of an area called the Tulare Lake basin, a patchwork of scrub brush and irrigated farmland that’s part of the most productive agricultural region in the nation.

Last March, California’s barrage of atmospheric river storms overwhelmed the area, flooding pistachio orchards and swamping communities, and Allensworth found itself all but surrounded by a shallow sea. Residents were told to evacuate. They were also told that this flood is just the beginning.

California is fighting a slow-motion disaster, one that could become its largest flood in recent history. As the near-record snowpack in the Sierra melts, the water making its way through the foothills is pooling in the basin, reviving a lake that had long since disappeared. This process is expected to accelerate over the coming weeks and months, and it could take up to two years to subside. And while the return of Tulare Lake could devastate everyone in the region, historically disenfranchised communities like Allensworth are uniquely vulnerable.

A field is flooded with nearby lake water. Brown brush peeks up from beneath the water.
Water from Tulare Lake fills a field outside Allensworth. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“It’s a horrific situation,” said Denise Kadara, an Allensworth community leader and vice chair of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. “We’re here like sitting ducks, waiting for the water to come and flood us out.”

Part of Allensworth’s problem stems from the politics of water: For over a hundred years, water in the Tulare Lake basin has been controlled and hoarded by a handful of powerful landowners, usually at the expense of everyone else. The basin’s water management system still favors those landowners, leaving Allensworth with little recourse when floodwaters approach.

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‘I don’t need a whole bunch of people to break the law’

That was evident one windy night in March, when Allensworth residents Takoa Kadara and his father, Kayode, called an emergency town meeting. The goal was simple: to keep the water massing in the basin from pouring into people’s homes.

At the time, water was flowing toward town through culverts that run under railroad tracks to the east. The culverts are on private property, and the tracks that run on top of them are owned by BNSF Railway, one of the top freight transportation companies in the nation (PDF). The last time community members tried to block the culverts with rocks, gravel and plywood, a BNSF employee called the police, then removed the makeshift dam they had built.

A gray building with a sign out front that reads, "Allensworth Community Center." A white SUV is parked in the driveway and gray clouds hover above. The road surrounding the property is visibly wet from flooding.
The Allensworth Community Center. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Now the group wanted to protect the community, but knew they might be at risk of breaking the law. Residents saw only two options: act illegally, or not at all. And they couldn’t come to an agreement.

“If you guys disagree with this solution, then let’s go home,” Kayode Kadara said.

“No, it’s not, ‘Let’s go home!’” his son said. “Let’s come up with another solution.”

“I’ll just say it like it is,” said one resident, who declined to give his name. “If I’m gonna break the law, I don’t need a whole bunch of people to break the law [with me]. Ten minutes? We’re gone.”

Allensworth residents have tried to block the culverts legally — many, many times. But BNSF wouldn’t give them permission to do it, and so far, the town hasn’t been able to find a government agency with the power to override the corporation’s decision, or persuade it to reconsider. Their local stormwater district doesn’t have jurisdiction over the railroad’s property, and representatives from several state agencies, including Caltrans, Cal Fire and the Department of Water Resources, said they couldn’t do anything either, even though community members said those agencies agreed that the water spilling through the culverts is a problem.

A pile of sandbags line the perimeter of a small home. In the front yard, a blue trampoline is visible and a weathered, black mailbox sits on top of a thick piece of wood.
Sandbags surround a home in Allensworth. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

BNSF did not respond to a request for comment, but in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, a company spokesperson claimed that blocking the culverts could damage their tracks.

When Allensworth was put under a mandatory evacuation order back in March, the Kadaras and most of their neighbors refused to leave. Who would defend their town if they did?

“The water flowing is natural,” Denise Kadara said — but, she added, it’s also determined by men who say, “This is where they want the water to go.”

The history behind today’s water politics

To understand the power dynamics in the Tulare Lake basin — and how Allensworth ended up on the losing side of it — we have to go back to when the town was founded and Tulare Lake was still alive.

A historic sign that reads, "California's African American Pioneers." Illustrations of historic men and women are surrounded by text explaining each figure.
A sign with information about California’s African American historical figures sits at the entrance to Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In 1908, Lt. Col. Allen Allensworth was a formerly enslaved person who became the highest-ranking Black military officer of his time. As Jim Crow tightened its grip throughout the South, he moved to California to create what he hoped would become the “Tuskegee of the West,” a thriving Black community and college town. Founded by a dream team of Black doctors, professors and farmers, the community of Allensworth became the first town in California to be founded, financed and governed by Black Americans.

Allensworth picked a spot near Tulare Lake, which used to be the largest lake west of the Mississippi. Accounts from the late 1800s describe it as shallow, thick with tule reeds and ringed by marshland. Herds of elk waded through the shallows, and millions of migratory birds flocked to its shores every year.

But by the time Allensworth got there, the lake was rapidly disappearing — and had been for years.

“Geologists call that end of the San Joaquin Valley one of the most engineered landscapes in human history,” said Mark Arax, a journalist and expert on the Central Valley’s history and water politics. “[The] human hand has altered that land in a way that few places have been altered.”

A cargo train in the distance steams ahead next to a large dirt field that has been flooded with water. Gray clouds hover above.
Floodwater from Tulare Lake lingers beside train tracks. One of the main flooding threats residents face are culverts that run under the tracks, sending water straight toward the town. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The residents of Allensworth weren’t the only people who’d settled along Tulare Lake. A group of white landowners had settled there, too — some descending from slave-owning families.

“Many of them were Southerners who’d come from the Confederate states,” Arax said. “They arrived here and they started grabbing the snowmelt out of those rivers, and then diverting that onto their farmland.”

In the 1920s, two particularly bold landowner families, the Boswells and the Salyers, made a move on the lake bed itself. The soil at the bottom was dark and unusually rich; it’d be the perfect place for a farm, if the lake weren’t in the way. So they drained it and diverted the water for irrigation. According to Arax, those diversions ended up drying up the lake completely.

Meanwhile, Allensworth couldn’t get enough water to sustain itself, no matter how hard the community tried. White farmers diverted a river they relied on. A white-owned company refused to dig the community’s wells, but it was more than happy to dig wells for a white town nearby. By the 1920s, a lot of Allensworth’s original settlers had moved away. And by the 1940s, the white landowners in the Tulare Lake basin had become some of the most powerful farmers in the country, and had successfully seized control of the water for themselves.

An open field with green and tan weeds and plants sits under a gray, cloudy sky. In the center, a brown, wooden barn rests to the left of two, small white homes.
Historic homes and buildings fill Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Those long-established power dynamics are still at work in the region. Today, Allensworth is a farmworker town where the tap water isn’t safe to drink. Many of its neighbors are large corporations and wealthy farmers, and these neighbors control many local agencies — like water and reclamation districts — which make decisions about who gets water in dry years and what to do when the floods come.

“You have these quasi government agencies, but they’re controlled by the biggest landowners,” Arax said. “It’s a no-man’s-land in a lot of ways, and that’s the way it’s operated. It resorts to its own devices all the time.”

The Tulare Lake basin also has a long history of levee sabotage. Historically, when the basin has flooded, some farmers have cut levees and blocked canals to protect their land, but this also threatened the town with flooding. This is still happening today. Denise Kadara remembers getting the news from their local stormwater manager in March that a levee on the west side of town had been intentionally breached, prompting calls to evacuate.

As communities like Allensworth brace for the snowmelt this spring — and the floods they know are coming — this history of water theft, sabotage and discrimination is always in the backs of their minds.

Although residents at that March meeting decided against blocking the railroad culverts, they haven’t stayed quiet. Allensworth’s community leaders have been calling every government official they can think of, trying to find someone who can help. And in the past few weeks, Takoa Kadara and his family say some politicians and government agencies have started to respond.

A Black man with trim white hair and a white beard, wearing a gray, button-up shirt, sits at a table with a white man (the governor) dressed casually in a blue puffer vest, leaning forward with his forearms on his thighs. The two are looking at paperwork in a spare, clean, well-lit commercial room.
Kayode Kadara (left) shows photos to Gov. Gavin Newsom during a meeting with community leaders to talk about flood preparedness, on Tuesday, April 25, 2023, in Allensworth. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Cal Fire’s emergency response team blocked the levee that was allegedly sabotaged, as well as other breaches, saving the town from flooding. Gov. Gavin Newsom visited the community in April, and promised to send more resources.

Allensworth residents are used to the system in this basin working against them, but they hope that’s finally changing. How state agencies act may be the only thing standing between Allensworth and catastrophic flooding.

“We need all the help we can get from every agency, and every person that wants to help and believes in communities like ours,” Denise Kadara said.

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