Tulare Lake Reemerging in Central Valley Endangers Towns, Farms

The long-gone Tulare Lake is re-filling with water as recent storms take their toll and a record snowpack looms in the Sierras

In a stunning and devastating rebuke from Mother Earth, Tulare Lake — which humans drained in the 19th century — is reemerging in the San Joaquin Valley, fueled by an influx of water from recent storms. The subsequent flooding of the basin has wreaked havoc, even as attempts are being made to mitigate risk, save crops, and protect towns.

Since late December, a series of storms have pummeled the Golden State, building the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada and filling rivers and reservoirs in low-lying areas. The fertile Tulare Basin has already begun to flood, as existing safeguards have failed to contain the inflow.

But with a record snowpack — 233 percent greater than a normal year — the worst is yet to come.

“The last time this happened and the flood system was overwhelmed was in 1982-83. There was a million-acre feet of water that flowed into the Tulare lakebed and it flooded about 82,000 acres,” Diedre Des Jardins, the director of California Water Research, told LAMag. (An acre-foot is a foot of water over an acre of land.)

“We’re likely to see that again this year,” she added

Humans began to drain Tulare Lake — once the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi and one of significant importance to the Yokut Tribe — in the late 1800s, the Los Angeles Times reported. At times, the lake was up to 790 square miles. (By comparison, Lake Tahoe is only 191 square miles. Los Angeles is 502 square miles.)

As Tulare Lake began to dry up, farmers moved in and claimed the lakebed — the Tulare Basin — for themselves. Today, the area is abundant with crops including as tomatoes, grains and fruit.

“The former Tulare Lake is the historic terminus of very significant rivers in the area so, what we’re seeing is that that water goes to where it has historically gone,” Karla Nemeth, the director of the California Department of Water Resources told reporters. “We do see the reemergence of the lake in the lakebed. There’s obviously communities and agriculture also in that lakebed.”

This isn’t the first occasion that the lake has resurrected itself: Besides in 1983, the lake also made comebacks in 1997 and during the 1940s.

Under normal conditions, any influx of water is managed via evaporation ponds, pumps and levees, but the current system has its limits—and those limits are currently being tested.

“There’s a lot of water up in the Sierra Nevada,” Nemeth said. “At some point, we do realize that there’s more water in the Sierras than these facilities can handle and so we’re going to be focused on the best strategies with the counties to minimize and mitigate flood damage as we move through the season.”

“It’s going to be a very long-duration snowmelt,” she added.

Broken levees have already been reported, with videos surfacing of farmers taking measures into their own hands to protect their crops.

More levees will likely break.

“What we’ll see coming up is sustained high water against the levees that are already saturated and will remain saturated,” Jeremy Arrich, deputy director of Division of Flood Management with the Department of Water Resources told reporters. “We’ll see similar types of levee incidences popping up.”

When levees do break or are willingly cut to relieve pressure, farmland ends up being flooded. In the past, this has led to “floodwater wars” and feuds amongst farmers as they decide who’s going to get flooded, California Water Research’s Des Jardins says. So far, there have been reports of disagreements and delays over which levees should go first—and the Times reported that one has allegedly already been mysteriously cut.

“[There are] intense conflicts that are rising when they’re having to make these kinds of emergency decisions about how to route floodwaters,” she adds.

Part of the issue, which Nemeth acknowledged, is that the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley—wary of state influence—opted out of the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan when it was drafted, as Grist reported. It therefore didn’t receive state funds to build flood control infrastructure.

“The local interests who were there at those meetings were pretty adamant that they did not want to be part of a state level plan,” Julie Rentner, president of the environmental organization River Partners, told Grist. “They felt like they had it under control.”

Although this heavy water year might have come unexpectedly after almost a decade of drought, Des Jardins has been sounding the alarms — especially after floods inundated parts of British Colombia in 2021 — hoping for more proactive action.

“I have been pounding the pavement and letting everyone know,” she said. “I let the Secretary of Natural Resources know. I got in comments on California’s draft Climate Adaptation Strategy… I’ve talked to a lot of NGOs.”

For now, however, the biggest concern will be just how quickly the snowpack will melt and what can be done to mitigate the damage.

“If we get a couple of warm atmospheric river[s] in April or a big heatwave in May or June, we’re going to be in trouble,” Des Jardins said. “You just don’t want it to melt too fast.”

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