Groundbreaking held for long-planned Isabella Dam safety upgrades

A groundbreaking ceremony is held Tuesday morning, April 3, 2018, for the long-planned Isabella Dam upgrades in Lake Isabella, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX photo/ Cesar Espinoza)

Authorities representing several government agencies gathered Tuesday for a groundbreaking ceremony at the Isabella Dam, where construction continues on a series of projects to shore up weaknesses that pose risks to communities below the lake.

Phase II of the construction will cost taxpayers $200 million and includes work to raise the dam 16 feet and plug up areas where water is leaking through. The work will also increase the seismic preparedness of the auxiliary dam, which officials have learned sits atop an active earthquake fault. When the dam was first built in 1953 it was believed the fault was inactive.

Eyewitness News was the first to sound the alarm about the safety concerns, obtaining an internal report in 2006 that said the dam was found to have an "unacceptably high probability of failure combined with a very high consequence of failure."

ANIMATED MAP | Bakersfield would be flooded within hours if Isabella Dam breaks

The investigative reports on KBAK gave the public information that was previously known only to the government. Elected officials mounted a significant campaign to raise awareness and money to address the dam's problems.

Congressman Kevin McCarthy lobbied for years for the federal government to pick up the tab and it did.

Phase one of the massive project involved design improvements and the relocation of U.S. Forest Service buildings on land that will become the new emergency spillway. From start to finish, the entire effort carries a price tag of about $600 million.

People in the Kern River Valley will need to tolerate additional traffic and noise for the next couple of years as heavy machinery reshapes a large swath of land. The lake will need to be drained to about 20-30 percent of its capacity during either one of the next two winters to accommodate the work. It's currently filled to about 34 percent capacity, which is close to the average for this time of year.

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