The Kings River – River of Holy Kings
Department of Fish and Game -
San Joaquin and Southern Sierra Region
Nearly two centuries ago, on January 6, 1805, Lt. Gabriel Moraga led a company of Spanish soldiers and Franciscan clergymen through the eastern edge of the San Joaquin Valley, in search of new mission sites. They paused on the banks of a wide, clear river. Because this was the day of the Feast of the Epiphany, the river was named El Rio de los Santos Reyes, the River of the Holy Kings. Father Pedro Munoz, Moraga’s diarist, recorded the event a year later, in October of 1806, at which time he described the river as follows: “… All the meadows are well covered with oak, alder cottonwood and willow. The river abounds with beaver and fish. It is a location suitable for a mission, although there would also have to be a presidio.” The expedition briefly explored the river, reporting it to have all the necessary features for a future mission site: fertile soil, water and sufficient aboriginal souls (Yokuts Indians) to convert to Christianity and to work in the fields. Today, we have shortened this name to simply “Kings River.” Lt. Moraga explored it from where it emerged from Kings Canyon in the upper foothills to the point where it dissolved into the Tulares (or Tule swamp), at the edge of Laguna de Tache, (Tulare Lake). Father Munoz reported more than ten different tribes of natives inhabiting the area, numbering more than 5,000.
Fifty-seven years later, Lt. George H. Derby explored the Kings River vicinity for the Army Topographical Engineers. He reported the river to be 300 feet wide, very deep and clear, and flowing very rapidly. If correct, this would have been during one of the greatest flood events of all time. Upon reaching the downstream extent of the Kings River at the swampy Sanjon de San Jose (at the trough of the San Joaquin Valley), he reported finding the multiple channels to be carrying the water of the San Joaquin River southward, in reversed direction, into Tache (Tulare) Lake. This would have required a water stage of more than 28 vertical feet in the San Joaquin River, which has never even come close to being attained since.
Today, after passage of another century and a half of rich history, the Choinumni Yokuts are now absent from the lower River’s banks and the Monache no longer threaten our passage to the upstream watershed. Today, we know the Kings River as one of the most beautiful and productive rivers in the world; beginning at its 13,000-foot wilderness headwaters, extending from Mt. Haeckel in the north to Great Western Divide in the south, and then extending down slope and westward about 70 miles to its developed reaches, at not far above sea-level on the San Joaquin Valley floor. The Kings River provides outdoor recreation, scenic beauty, water supply for cities and agriculture, mineral resources and pleasing green hues across an otherwise arid San Joaquin Valley.
Some of California’s earliest irrigation works were constructed on the Kings River, beginning with the development of the 76 Canal, to supply the area around the town of Traver, in the mid 1880s. The development of the mule-drawn “Fresno scraper”, by Abajah McCall of Selma, greatly assisted this construction, as well as construction of most of the later Kings River irrigation works. As water became withdrawn from the river and spread across the landscape, floodwaters became increasingly controlled, and it became possible to reclaim the acreage beneath the extensive Tulare Lake. Through construction of an extensive system of levees – again using the by-then-famous Fresno scraper – additional major water development and land drainage continued for more than 100 years, up to the present. Recent additions were two large hydroelectric reservoirs and several power plants constructed by Pacific Gas and Electric Company on the North Fork, and construction of the one-million acre-foot Pine Flat Reservoir, by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, on the river’s mainstem. The latter provided major regulation of snow run-off, allowing all-year irrigation and flood control protection to extend over a one-million acre landscape as well as providing an opportunity for electrical energy generation in the Kings River Conservation District’s Pine Flat Power Plant. Today, the rights to waters of the Kings River, as regulated through the above reservoirs, are owned and administered by the 28 separate member-districts of the Kings River Water Association. The Pine Flat service area yields more than $6 billion in farm-gate-value agricultural production annually.
Recreation associated with the Kings River is a major cultural and economic asset to the region. The river’s spectacular canyon, located within Kings Canyon National Park, has been designated by Congress as a Federal “wild and scenic river,” based on its “outstandingly remarkable” wilderness characters. Further downstream, the mainstem above Pine Flat Reservoir has been designated by Congress as a “Special Management Area,” reflecting its popularity for fishing, picnicking, and camping, swimming and whitewater boating. The impounded reach within Pine Flat Reservoir provides outstanding flat-water boating opportunities and world-class angling experiences for warm-water and cold-water game fish. The reservoir boasts the world record Alabama Spotted Bass, caught there in April of 2000.
Downstream from Pine Flat Dam, the Kings River is an important recreation asset to many riverside communities. Its fisheries are a popular attraction. They are managed as a trout fishery, utilizing cold tail-water from Pine Flat Reservoir. The lower river fisheries are the subject of a recent Kings River Fisheries Management Framework Agreement between the State Department of Fish and Game, the Kings River Water Association, and the Kings River Conservation District (the latter also operates the lower Kings River floodway improvements). The Framework Agreement presents a nationwide showcase example of cooperation between water interests, public agencies and the general public, in enhancing recreational fishing values while maintaining important out-of stream beneficial water uses.
Our beautiful Kings River has come a very long way, since the time when its prehistoric banks were occupied by Yokuts fishermen and children. The river has witnessed intensive development of its floodplain and water resources, which have been the object of fierce water wars at times. These times of development were followed by a more recent rebirth of appreciation for the river’s outstandingly remarkable aesthetic and recreational values. The Kings River today exemplifies balance between the river’s in-stream and out-of-stream values. Such an effective balance is far too rare today to be taken for granted.