In 1884, Scientific American wrote of the “utter absorption” of Tulare Lake in the southern Central Valley, CA. Once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, Tulare Lake was drained after land barons diverted its tributary rivers for irrigation, making the surrounding valley one of the nation’s most productive agricultural industries. By the early 20th century, Tulare Lake was almost completely dry.
But now, as California has experienced unprecedented winter rain and snow, Tulare Lake has reappeared for the first time since 1997. But as runoff drains into the valley, the surrounding lake bed which covers 1,000 square miles is at risk of extreme flooding.
What this means for residents
Tulare Lake has always been at risk of flooding, but this year will be one of the worst due to heavy agricultural pumping which threatened to deplete underground water reserves. Farmers overdraw the basin by approximately 820,000 acre-feet per year, more than all of Los Angeles consumes yearly. This pumping caused subsidence throughout the southern Central Valley, causing it to sink faster than any other place in the world.
This subsidence has in turn made the Valley more vulnerable to flooding from rain and snow. But local leaders have rejected the state’s attempts to finance flood protections such as new levees and bypass systems. Worse yet, the Tulare Lake basin has zero centralized flood infrastructures. And current levees, which are owned by local flood control districts, are old and in need of replacement.
What does this mean for residents in the surrounding valley? Numerous small towns and vast farmland inhabit the Tulare basin, including the town of Corcoran which includes a large state prison and a community of agricultural workers. In the event of flooding, many towns do not have emergency plans in place, nor do individual homes have flood insurance to cover property damage. In addition to the emotional stress, financially they may not be able to recover, leaving many to consider moving out of the valley completely.
Staying up to date
Is the Central Valley in a drought? Just three months ago, almost all of California was experiencing drought conditions, with the pace of groundwater depletion in the Central Valley at an all-time high. Now in a cruel twist, the Central Valley has more water than it can handle. And as the flooding of Tulare Lake continues, the surrounding towns, homes, and farms are in serious danger.