California’s Long-Dry Tulare Lake Has Returned

Record-breaking snowpack and storms have flooded hundreds of acres of agricultural land in the state’s San Joaquin Valley

Flooded road
Floodwaters cover a street in the reemerging Tulare Lake, in California’s Central Valley, on April 14, 2023 in Corcoran, California. Mario Tama / Getty Images

A dormant lake in California has refilled for the first time in decades, after a series of intense storms and meltwater from record snowfall flooded the state.

The waters have inundated the long-dry basin of Tulare Lake, submerging hundreds of acres of cotton, tomato and pistachio fields, as well as homes, roads and power infrastructure, writes Dani Anguiano for the Guardian, causing hundreds of millions in damages. Experts estimate the water will remain for at least a year before it evaporates. 

Located in the lowlands of the San Joaquin Valley in central California, Tulare Lake was once the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi. But in the 1800s, settlers drained the lake for farmland and forced the Tachi Yokut tribe, who lived on its shores, out of the area. The Tachi Yokut tribe once relied on the lake for food, shelter and as a trade route, reports Soreath Hok for NPR. Now, they live a few miles away on a reservation called the Santa Rosa Rancheria. 

“This lake—this is who we are,” Robert Jeff, the vice chairman of the tribe, tells NPR. “This is where we belong—is right here. We’re lake people. Everything that we lived off of was offered to us by this lake.”

The lake now stretches about 111,000 acres, just a fraction of its historical size of nearly 512,000 acres (800 square miles), and it’s currently five to seven feet deep. Fish have populated its waters, and birds have flocked to its shores. But the lake’s return—which was welcomed with a ceremony from tribal members—also means devastation for some local families. 

“We have to start over from the bottom,” Javier De La Cruz, an assistant manager at Foster Farms, tells the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Gauthier and Melissa Gomez.

De La Cruz lived on a ranch in the lake basin with his partner and seven children, and there, he helped care for more than a million chickens, per the publication. Then, on March 18, water flooded the property, and the family only had time to grab some clothes and documents before leaving their house. 

In the valley, small family farms sit beside huge megafarms, and some people fear the effects of the flooding will be felt unequally, per the Guardian’s Katharine Gammon.

Though it is considered private property, the lake has drawn visitors to its shoreline—but it isn’t safe to swim or recreate in, per the Guardian. “It’s farmland, underwater,” Nate Ferrier of the Kings County sheriff’s office tells the publication. “You’ve got diesel fuel, oil, manure, chemicals used to kill bugs and stuff. You’ve got a whole lot of things floating around.”

But some environmentalists and members of the Tachi Yokut tribe are advocating for the lake to remain, which they say would help restore ecological balance and perhaps make the region more resilient to future floods with climate change, per the L.A. Times’ Ian James. The Central Valley has been sinking and facing lower drinking water quality due to overpumping of groundwater for agriculture, per the publication. Farmers overdraw the aquifer by about 820,000 acre-feet per year, and the region has long experienced drought. Maintaining the lake, advocates say, could help replenish the aquifer.

“It’s sad to see some of this stuff flooded and sad to see the homes hurt and sad to see the farming industry take a hit, but it’s also quite an event. This lake was always here, and it’s kind of supposed to be here, if you think about it,” Ferrier tells NBC News’ Evan Bush. “We all prayed for rain. We just all prayed a little too hard.”

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