California’s lost lake returns: A story of water, wildlife, and renewal

Pa’ashi in April 2023. Credit: Vivian Underhill.

Once upon a time, California’s San Joaquin Valley was home to Tulare Lake, the biggest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River.

Imagine a lake so vast that steamships could sail from Bakersfield to Fresno and then to San Francisco, covering nearly 300 miles.

But for the past 130 years, this giant lake was gone, turned into farmland through a process called “reclamation.”

Now, thanks to heavy rains and snow in 2023, Tulare Lake has made a surprising comeback.

Vivian Underhill, a researcher, tells us how Tulare Lake, once a major part of the landscape, disappeared due to human efforts to turn the land into farms.

This wasn’t the first time people tried to change the land for agriculture, but it was the start of a long period without the lake.

The lake’s water was diverted to irrigate crops, transforming the valley into a food-producing powerhouse but at the cost of losing this massive body of water.

But nature has its way of bouncing back. After years of being gone, Tulare Lake reappeared in 2023, filled by the runoff from atmospheric rivers that brought lots of snow and rain to California.

This isn’t the first time the lake has returned; it’s shown up briefly in the past after particularly wet years. But every time it comes back, it brings a mix of challenges and benefits to the local community and wildlife.

For the birds and the fish, the return of Tulare Lake is like finding a lost home. Birds that migrate along the Pacific Flyway once again have a place to rest and feed.

The sight of pelicans, hawks, and even burrowing owls nesting near the lake is a sign that nature can recover if given a chance.

The cooler air coming off the lake also offers a welcome relief from the hot valley summers.

However, the lake’s return has mixed effects on people living in the valley. For the Tachi Yokut tribe, the lake’s comeback is a deeply spiritual and positive event.

They’ve been able to hold ceremonies and return to traditional hunting and fishing practices. But for farmworkers and farmers, the situation is more complicated.

While some farmland has been protected from flooding, many farmworkers’ homes have been submerged, leading to losses and hardships.

Despite these challenges, Underhill points out that the lake’s return isn’t just about flooding; it’s about resurgence and the return of a natural cycle that had been interrupted by human activity.

Efforts are now being made to drain the lake again, but with climate change, events like this may become more frequent.

Underhill suggests that it might be time for California to rethink its relationship with Tulare Lake.

Instead of seeing it as a flood to be drained, recognizing it as a natural and beneficial part of the landscape could bring both environmental and economic benefits.

As we look to the future, remembering that the valley was once a place of lakes and wetlands could help us find a balance between agriculture and the natural world.

In the end, the story of Tulare Lake is a reminder that nature has its rhythms and patterns, and sometimes, it can surprise us by bringing back something we thought was lost forever.