Tulare Lake, which used to have ferries going across it and was reportedly four times the size of Lake Tahoe, reemerged this winter in Tulare and Kings Counties, swamping farmland that has been in use for decades.
You may or may not have heard about the Great Flood of 1862, which is the largest flood in recorded California history. Native American storytellers told of the inland sea that could appear in the Central Valley, so we know that this likely wasn't the first time such a flood had occurred. It may have been what climate scientists call a "200-year flood event," and some of those scientists, like Daniel Swain of Weather West, believe that such megafloods could become more frequent occurrences in the coming decades as the climate changes.
Swain and a colleague just published a paper last year about potential megafloods like the 1862 event becoming more likely, and the reappearance of Tulare Lake, between Fresno and Bakersfield, looks like a harbinger of such events to come.
The 1862 flood was likely caused by a series of intense atmospheric rivers like the ones we saw this winter, but they started even earlier, in late November, and were combined with warmer than average temperatures in December and early January. That led to fast runoff of melting snow from the Sierra, which flowed into the Central Valley and had nowhere to go. The city of Sacramento, which had been relatively newly built at that time, was entirely inundated, its streets all canals, and the state capital had to be temporarily relocated to San Francisco that winter.
The city was later rebuilt and surrounded by levees to protect it, but busted levees and overflowing creeks this winter have caused disasters including the one along the Pajaro River in Monterey County that spurred a mass evacuation earlier this month.
As the Chronicle reported last week, the inundation of reclaimed farmland in what was once the lakebed of Tulare Lake happened because of overwhelmed dams and levees. And we're still just at the beginning of the spring season, with a record amount of snowmelt yet to come.
The entire town of Corcoran, with a population of 22,500 primarily made up of farmworkers and employees of the state prison there, would have been in the former lake. And while Corcoran is mostly staying above water now, that could change.
"At this point, we feel like the city is doing reasonably well,” said City Manager Greg Gatzka, speaking to the Chronicle last week. “But there’s a lot of uncertainty with the snowmelt. If it becomes too much water, it’s a whole different situation.”
There are also massive fields of cotton, tomatoes, alfalfa, and pistachios where the lake once was — and it was diversion of water to irrigate farms that began causing Tulare Lake to dry up in the late 19th Century. And all of those crops could be threatened.
As is likely to play out across the globe as cities and towns grapple with climate-change-driven disasters, fights are breaking out between public and private interests, and among neighbors, over where to divert the water.
The biggest farming operation in the area, J.G. Boswell Co., is letting some of its fields flood while pumping water out of others — but Kings County officials are already pressing the company to do more so that Corcoran doesn't become inundated soon.
As the LA Times writes, "Tulare Lake is not a phantom, but a revenant: that which returns. Its resurgence was noted in [the El Nino seasons] 1997 and 1983, and now this year, but it’s a constant cycle."
Native peoples in the Central Valley lived with the lake and its ebbs and flows — and in some dry years, it was barely a lake at all.
Now, as the LA Times notes, "At a special meeting of the Kings County Board of Supervisors this month, J.G. Boswell representatives argued that it was within the corporation’s rights to defend their property. This property, of course, was originally acquired via an act of violent theft by white settlers."
The battles between humans and nature will go on, but nature is likely to win every time. This week, Reps. Jimmy Panetta and Zoe Lofgren, who represent Monterey and Santa Cruz counties in Congress, joined Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla in penning an urgent letter to the Army Corps of Engineers about shoring up the Pajaro River levees. Ever since a major flood in the area in 1995, the levees have been a "major concern," as Bay Area News Group explains, and there's already federal funds allocated to them from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill.
"Unfortunately, Mother Nature did not wait for the [levee modernization] project to begin," Sen. Alex Padilla said in a statement. "I’m calling on the Army Corps to release these federal funds more quickly and expedite construction of the Pajaro project to finally protect underserved communities that are too often left to fend for themselves."
Top image: Photo by David McNew/Getty Images