This California Lake was Drained Decades Ago. It’s Reappearing Amidst Historic Rainfall.

Photo: California Department of Water Resources

Tulare Lake, a historical landmark in California, is on the brink of re-emerging due to atmospheric rivers hitting the state and causing flooding.

Farmers on the lake bottom are concerned, while environmentalists hope to use this opportunity to permanently restore the lake, which last appeared in 1983. Officials in Corcoran, located in the old lakebed, have reinforced levees to protect the city when the record Sierra snowpack melts. However, some communities like Allensworth and Alpaugh in Tulare County are under evacuation warnings due to overflowing rivers.

Tulare Lake was once the most dominant feature on the California map, covering around 800 square miles. The lake’s size fluctuated with rainfall and snowmelt from surrounding rivers and streams. The lake was relatively shallow and teeming with fish and shellfish, supporting four distinct Yokuts tribes. After the Gold Rush, settlers redirected rivers for irrigation, causing the lake to shrink but not disappear entirely. In the 1920s, cotton farmers from the Southern states began farming on the lake bottom and constructed dams on major rivers feeding the lake, keeping water out of the lake bed.

Environmentalists see the lake’s possible return as an opportunity to revisit decisions made in the past and possibly establish a Tulare Lake Conservancy. However, many underserved towns in the San Joaquin Valley are at risk of flooding as the snowpack melts, making it premature to push for lake restoration.

The Army Corps of Engineers has begun releasing more water from Pine Flat Dam, which will be sent south to Tulare Lake as the north channel is full. Flood releases will last “indefinitely” until summer. For farmers on the lake bottom, a re-emerged lake means they will be unable to farm. Mark Arax, author and historian, called it a self-inflicted wound, as thousands of acres of pistachios have been planted at the bottom of the lake. He argued that big farming companies are ignoring their own history and are planting permanent crops in the lake.

Environmental law attorney Richard Harriman views the potential return of the lake as a blessing and an opportunity to create a Tulare Lake Conservancy that would acquire a portion of the lake. He envisions the conservancy as a “reservoir without a dam” that includes environmentalists, public officials, farmers, and Native Americans. Farmers could continue to farm elsewhere on the lake bottom.

However, some advocates argue that it is too early to push for the “Restore Tulare Lake” movement because many underserved San Joaquin Valley towns are experiencing flood problems or are at risk of flooding as the snowpack melts. Dezaraye Bagalayos, director of program coordination for the Allensworth Progressive Association, has urged advocates to focus on the present situation rather than the possible return of Tulare Lake.

In Corcoran, a city located in the footprint of the old Tulare Lake, a local state of emergency has been declared to prepare for the rising lake that could threaten the city

However, if the lake does return this summer as expected, a recently reinforced levee to the west should protect the city. The levee was raised several feet five years ago as part of a project by the Cross Creek Flood Control District. City Manager Greg Gatzka said that the top of the levee, which would contain a rising lake, is about 188 feet above sea level, while the lowest point in the lake bed is about 166 feet.

Water managers warn that the danger to the public from flooding will continue when the first hot spell begins melting the Sierra snowpack. Randall McFarland, a spokesman for the Kings River Water Association, said, “This is just the beginning. The problem starts when the snow melts in April.” With an estimated 2.5 to 3 million acre-feet of water in the King River watershed and Pine Flat Lake holding 1 million acre-feet, the runoff will inevitably flow into Tulare Lake.

In Tulare County, Lake Success reached the “fill and spill” stage for several days during the atmospheric river rainstorms, causing flooding along the lower Tule River and water to flow towards Tulare Lake. More flood releases are expected as the snowpack melts. In normal years, most of the water is diverted for irrigation and recharge, with very little going to the Tulare Lake bed. This year, however, the situation will be different, according to Eric Limas, general manager of Lower Tule River Irrigation District. Although the district will use as much water as possible for irrigation and groundwater recharge, a significant amount of water will still head west towards Tulare Lake.

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  1. Why do people think that they can live in an active lakebed! It was created a lake and man decided to change it and now Mother Nature wants it back! It floods every time there’s a wet year. It’s time to realize it’s a Lake and not intended to be farmland! It’s also great for replacement of underground water table.

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