Tuesday, October 3, 2023

The return of California's phantom lake: hubris and hostility as Tulare Lake floods the San Joaquin Valley

More than six months after the historic flooding that threatened the city of Corcoran and inundated farming communities in the lower San Joaquin Valley, Tulare Lake remains. Spurred on by massive precipitation during California’s atmospheric river last winter and unusually deep snowpacks high in the Sierras, Tulare Lake returned for the first time in decades.

Tulare Lake used to be the largest freshwater lake in the West. Fed by the Kaweah, Kern, Kings, and Tule rivers, it covered an area of 690 miles at its peak. As California’s Anglo-American settlers laid down roots in the Central Valley, agricultural use, drainage projects, and new dams emptied the lake. A complex series of levees, dams, and earthworks made the empty lakebed one of the most engineered landscapes of the early 20th century.

The area is now a thriving agricultural hotspot. Tulare County produced $7.5 billion worth of commodities in 2019. Now, many of those farms are underwater. Flooding has caused over $4 billion in damage across the Central Valley. Homes, crops, and shops have all been destroyed. Fertilizer, industrial chemicals, diesel fuel, and rusting machinery have polluted the water.

Tulare Lake has not gone down without a fight. During extremely wet years, it has returned. The lake returned in 1938, 1955, 1969, 1983 and 1997. Because of this pattern of reappearance, some have called Tulare Lake a “zombie lake,” “ghost lake,” or “phantom lake.”

This year is one such year. At the peak of the flooding in March, Tulare Lake covered approximately 120,000 acres – about the size of Lake Tahoe. As a result of dedicated efforts by state and local officials to drain the lake and redirect its water, it covered only 50,000 acres in September.

Tulare Lake will continue to linger. Some scientists and researchers predict that it won’t recede entirely until 2024. And as climate change continues to result in more extreme weather, this won’t be the last time that Lake Tulare returns with a vengeance.

Tensions ran high as livelihoods were swept away. Farmers fought over whose fields should flood first. Some accused agribusiness barons of intentionally redirecting the water to flood their neighbor’s fields. A special meeting of the county’s board of supervisors was filled with outrage and hostility.

These losses are the result of human hubris and greed. Try as we might, we cannot change the landscape entirely. The land is still low, the earth filled with impermeable clay, and the rivers still feed into the valley. The natural conditions that created Lake Tulare still exist, lying in wait with the immortal patience of a world that existed long before men and will continue to exist long after.

For thousands of years, the Yokuts people lived along the shallow shores of Tulare Lake, which they called Pa’ashi. The lake sustained a vibrant ecosystem, with a rhythmic pattern of expansion and regression during the wet and dry seasons that remain the subject of native songs passed down through the generations. While the farmers and county supervisors mourn losses and struggle to combat the flooding, the Yokuts have celebrated the return of their beloved Pa’ashi. The Tachi Yokut Tribe has asked California to let Pa’ashi stay.

California has a tough choice to make. They can continue to build levees and dams and farm the lakebed, betting against nature that their fields won’t be destroyed again. Or California could encourage communities to relocate, mitigate the damage of future floods, and stop interfering in the natural process.

California could rewild Tulare Lake. The term “rewilding” has a long history, going back to the 1990s when conservationists and scholars Michael Soulé and Reed Noss called for an ambitious, continent-wide program of restoring connected wilderness landscapes large enough to support wide-ranging mammals. Rewilding has since grown into a global conservation movement focused on the restoration of self-regulating natural landscapes. Conservationists Carlos Carroll and Reed F. Noss now argue that rewilding can be used as a potential way to reduce the harm of the climate crisis.

It could be worth a shot. California would avoid future flood losses, the Yokuts would have access to their beloved Pa’ashi once more, and the state would be more climate resilient as a whole. Maybe that would be a more desirable outcome than waiting to restart the cycle of disappearance, development, and destruction again.

You can find more information on Tulare Lake’s resurgence on the blog here and here. You can read more about Tulare County here and here.


Katie Eng said...

Thank you for posting about this! It is time for the state to reevaluate its water usage approach and stop relying on levees and dams, which harm marine habitats and indigenous communities. Rewilding policies are sustainable solutions to protect against future flood losses and make the state more climate resilient. Such policies also honor the heritage and wishes of the Yokuts people. Instead of repeating the destructive cycle of development and destruction, we should choose to coexist with nature.

Caitlin Durcan said...

This was a very interesting read! I had never heard of Lake Tulare before but have driven through parts of Northern California where it is clear lakes once were. It seems that these “phantom lakes” are proof that try as we might, nature has a way of reverting back to a natural state. As you mention, California has a choice to make. It seems that the state will continue facing hard decisions as climate change continues to alter the habitable areas in the state.

Chris Datu said...

Thank you for this informative post, Todd. This issue is hard pressed to find a more fitting place between California’s water rights struggle and the heavy presence of agribusiness. I really appreciate your discussion of the Yokuts people, as I am sure this angle is not likely to be reflected in several other discussions of the Lake Tulare. This adds another source of tension for the issue of Lake Tulare, and conjures up the attachment to place we discussed in class. I would be interested to know if the Yokuts have taken any formal actions to reclaim Pa’ashi.

Laretta Johnson said...

I really enjoyed your post, Todd, and have been fascinated with Tulare Lake since learning about it last year. Learning about California's pre-contact history and the history of its brutal colonization has helped me understand the degree to which land has not only been taken but altered and harmed. One one hand you have Tulare Lake, and in other places you have flooding of ancestral homelands due to the reservoirs of dams. While acknowledging the very real effects the return of Tulare Lake has on farmers, particularly the actual farm laborers, I am excited about the return of such a meaningful place and love the idea of rewilding.