California rain, flooding could bring back long-dead Tulare Lake. Hopefully 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 phantom body of water – Tulare Lake – come back to life.
As I write this, I realize that it may already be too late. Water from swollen rivers and creeks in the Sierra is already making its way to the historic lake bed in Kings County. And that’s probably just the beginning.
A Aerial photo posted on Twitter by Justin Mendes, a regulatory specialist for the Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District, showed a swath of agricultural fields on the former lake floor covered with water. There are Reports of flooded orchards nearly as far south as Highway 46 in Kern County. And of course, Lake Kaweah and Lake Success continue to spill over their respective spillways, forcing evacuation of downstream communities and contributing to flooded sections of Highway 99.
If not captured and diverted, all of the water will flow into what was formerly Tulare Lake. For the simple reason that there is nowhere else to go.
“I wouldn’t be at all surprised” if Tulare Lake reappeared, said local historian Randy McFarland. “No one wants to dump water there, but it may become inevitable.”
Largest lake west of the Mississippi
For those unfamiliar with Tulare Lake, it was the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River until the late 19th century. Not really. In wet years, it covered 960 square miles (Lake Tahoe is 191 square miles by comparison) and was home to both a thriving indigenous population (the Yokuts) and diverse wildlife: huge flocks of migratory birds, an abundance of fish, as well as western pond turtles served guests in San Francisco as terrapin soup.
Had the towns of Corcoran and Stratford existed during Lake Tulare’s heyday, they would have been submerged under 25 feet of water sent down the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains via four major rivers (Kings, Kaweah, Tule, and Kern) and several smaller tributaries would have been . There was no runoff except during extremely wet years when the lake emptied north into the San Joaquin River drainage.
Beginning in the 1860s, irrigation districts began building levees, canals, and dams to divert water from Lake Tulare for agriculture. By 1900 the lake had essentially disappeared but was occasionally reformed. The completion of the Pine Flat Dam in 1954, which tamed the mighty Kings River, proved to be the final nail.
Since then, Lake Tulare has periodically reappeared when the volume of water overwhelmed landowners’ ability to keep from flooding their fields. It happened in 1983 when a massive snow year resulted in prolonged spring runoff, and again in 1997 after severe winter storms.
This year, both scenarios are in play. California is experiencing an epic winter resulting in one of the largest Sierra snowpacks in recorded history. Most of the snow has yet to melt.
The Kings River has an average annual flow of about 1.8 million acre-feet of water—larger than the Kern, Kaweah, and Tule rivers combined. The forecast projects 3.1 million acre-feet in the watershed between April and July this year, according to Steve Haugen, water master for the Kings River Water Association. That’s about as much as it was in 1983.
“There’s 3 million acre-feet in four months, and you have a 1 million acre-feet reservoir (when empty),” Haugen said in reference to Pine Flat Lake, which was at 77% utilization on Friday. “The water has to go somewhere.”
Lake’s reappearance depends on several factors
Despite the daunting “napkin math,” Haugen didn’t want to predict Lake Tulare’s reappearance. Rather, he said it depends on several factors, including the speed of snowmelt (is it gradual or sudden?) as well as how many more storms hit central California.
Haugen also mentioned water recharge, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and changes in cropping patterns as factors that could prevent flooding. Upstream pumps were also installed on the Kaweah near Visalia and the Tule near Porterville to pump water from these rivers into the Friant-Kern Canal.
“A lot has been done since 1982-83 to help us in this situation,” Haugen said. “There is still a lot of water to be moved. But we also have more facilities and opportunities than we did back then.”
It should be noted that the Kings River’s initial surge of excess water (up to 4,750 cubic feet per second) flows via the James Bypass and Mendota Pool into the San Joaquin River, where 600,000 acre-feet are planned for recharge. This reportedly stems from a decades-old agreement between the federal government and JG Boswell, the late Kings County cotton magnate whose company continues to farm in the Tulare Lake Basin.
Regular readers know that I have a deep appreciation for the outdoors and don’t have much affection for the agribusiness giant. So why am I not cheerleading on behalf of a certain extinct body of water?
There’s a simple answer: Because when Tulare Lake returned in 1983, 85,000 acres of farmland were flooded. It took two years before everything was dry and cotton could be grown again.
That’s a lot of economic devastation – not only for agrarian barons, but also for farm workers and small business owners in towns like Corcoran who depend on agribusiness.
Additionally, a blog post from the Public Policy Institute of California speculated that land subsidence in the old lake bed (caused by groundwater pumping) could result in more severe flooding than previously and reduce the capacity of canals to carry water.
I don’t wish these catastrophes on anyone. Even to witness a natural and historical event as significant as the reappearance of Lake Tulare.