California rain and flooding could bring long-dead Lake Tulare back. Let’s hope not

I consider myself an environmentalist, and also a history buff.

Despite those two things, I’d rather not see Central California’s most famous ghost body of water – Lake Tulare – come back to life.

As I write this, I realize that it may already be too late. Water from the Sierra’s swollen rivers and streams is already flowing to Kings County’s historic lakebed. And that’s probably just the beginning.

A aerial photography posted on Twitter by Justin Mendes, Regulatory Specialist for the Lake Tulare Basin Water Storage District, showed a strip of agricultural fields in the former water-covered lake bottom. There is reports of flooded orchards almost as far south as Highway 46 in Kern County. And of course, Kaweah Lake and Success Lake continue to overflow their respective spillways, forcing the evacuation of downstream communities and contributing to flooded sections of Highway 99.

Unless captured and diverted, all of this water goes to what was once Lake Tulare. For the simple reason that there is nowhere to go.


“I wouldn’t be at all surprised” if Lake Tulare reemerges, said local historian Randy McFarland. “No one wants to put water there, but it may become unavoidable.”

Largest lake west of the Mississippi River

For those unfamiliar with Lake Tulare, until the late 1800s it was the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. Not really. In wet years, it covered 960 square miles (Lake Tahoe measures 191 square miles by comparison) and was home to both a thriving native population (the Yokuts people) and diverse wildlife: vast flocks of migratory birds, a abundance of fish as well as western turtles. served as terrapin soup to diners in San Francisco.

If the towns of Corcoran and Stratford had existed at the height of Lake Tulare, they would have been submerged under 25 feet of water sent down the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains via four major rivers (Kings, Kaweah, Tule, and Kern ) and several smaller tributaries. . There was no outlet except in extremely wet years when the lake drained north into the San Joaquin River watershed.

This detail is from an 1848 map based on the explorations of John C. Frémont and drawn by Charles Preuss showing Lake Tulare in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

It is

This is “Old Tulare Lake Under the Sierra” by Laura Cunningham, a 2006 oil painting on tinted cotton rag paper. Its vivid artwork brings the San Joaquin Valley past to life.

Beginning in the 1860s, irrigation districts began constructing levees, canals, and dams to divert water from Lake Tulare for agriculture. By 1900, the lake had essentially disappeared, but would reform on occasion. The 1954 completion of the Pine Flat Dam, which tamed the mighty Kings River, proved the final high point.

Since then, Lake Tulare has periodically reappeared as the amount of water exceeded the landowners’ ability to keep it from flooding their fields. This happened in 1983 when a massive snowfall year resulted in prolonged spring runoff, and again in 1997 following severe winter storms.

This year, both scenarios are in play. California is having an epic winter, resulting in one of the largest Sierra snowpacks in recorded history. Most of that snow hasn’t melted yet.

The Kings River has an average annual flow of approximately 1.8 million acre-feet of water – greater than the combined flows of the Kern, Kaweah and Tule. This year, forecasts call for 3.1 million acre-feet in the watershed between April and July, according to Kings River Water Association water master Steve Haugen. Roughly the same amount as in 1983.

“There’s 3 million acre-feet in four months, and you’ve got a 1 million acre-feet reservoir (when empty),” Haugen said in reference to Pine Flat Lake, which was at 77% of its capacity on Friday. “This water has to go somewhere.”

Lake’s reappearance depends on several factors

Despite the daunting “napkin math,” Haugen was unwilling to predict the reappearance of Lake Tulare. Instead, he said it depends on several factors, including the rate of snowmelt (does it happen gradually or suddenly?) as well as the number of additional storms affecting central California.

Haugen also mentioned water recharge, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and changes in cropping patterns as factors that may prevent flooding. Upstream pumps were also installed on the Kaweah near Visalia and the Tule near Porterville to pump water from these rivers and into the Friant-Kern Canal.

“There are a lot of things that have been done since 1982-83 that help us in this situation,” Haugen said. “A lot of water still needs to be moved. But we also have more facilities and capabilities than there were then.

It should be noted that the initial surge of excess water from the Kings River (up to 4,750 cubic feet per second) finds its way into the San Joaquin River via the James Bypass and the Mendota Pool, where 600,000 acres -feet are provided for groundwater recharge. Apparently, this is due to a decades-old agreement between the federal government and JG Boswell, the late Kings County cotton magnate, whose company continues to farm in the Lake Tulare basin.

An aerial view of Lake Tulare, where the Kings and Tule rivers meet in the basin, is shown in this 1983 file photo during a year of heavy flooding. Until the late 1800s, Lake Tulare was the largest freshwater lake in the western United States.

An aerial view of Lake Tulare, where the Kings and Tule rivers meet in the basin, is shown in this 1983 file photo during a year of heavy flooding. Until the late 1800s, Lake Tulare was the largest freshwater lake in the western United States.

Regular readers know that I have a deep appreciation for nature and no great affection for giant corporate agribusiness. So why am I not cheerleading on behalf of some dead body of water?

There is a simple answer: because when Lake Tulare returned in 1983, 85,000 acres of farmland were flooded. It took two years for things to dry out so cotton could be planted again.

That’s a lot of economic devastation – not just for farm barons, but for farm laborers and small business owners in towns like Corcoran who depend on the agricultural economy.

Additionally, a blog post from the Public Policy Institute of California speculated that ground subsidence in the former lake bed (caused by groundwater pumping) could lead to greater flooding than previously seen. and reduce the ability of canals to move water.

Those calamities I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Even to witness such an important natural and historical event as the re-emergence of Lake Tulare.


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