California’s zombie lake turned farmland into water. A year later, is it gone for good?

<span>Water in the Tulare Lake basin rises and floods a road in Helm Corner, California, on May 18, 2023.</span><span>Photo: Caroline Brehman/EPA</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY0MA–/ f08160b407″ data-src= “–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY0MA–/ 60b407″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=On May 18, 2023, water rises in the Tulare Lake watershed and floods a road in Helm Corner, California.Photo: Caroline Brehman/EPA

Last year it was difficult to drive through much of central California without encountering the new shoreline of a long-dormant lake.

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Resurrected for the first time in decades by an epic deluge of winter rain and snow, the lake covered more than 100,000 acres in the spring, spanning cotton, tomato and pistachio fields and miles of roads.

Tulare Lake, or Pa’ashi as it is known to the Tachi Yokut tribe, was back.

The scene was astonishing. Tulare Lake was once the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi before it was drained for agriculture in the 19th century. Although it resurfaced during other periods of wet weather, the lake had not been seen on this scale in forty years.

The resurrection caused a wave of visitors and news coverage. Scientists and officials predicted that the lake could survive for years to come, causing consternation among local farmers whose land was now underwater, and excitement among others who saw the lake as a fertile nature reserve and sacred site.

Yet today, these fears and expectations have not quite materialized as expected. Along a narrow and dusty road in Kings County, California’s agricultural heartland, sprouts of grass and thick mud can be seen, but no sign of water. Despite the predictions, the lake has almost disappeared.


According to the Kings County Office of Emergency Services, Tulare Lake has shrunk to just 2,625 acres. Officials expect the “disappearance” to be “imminent,” said Abraham Valencia, with the emergency services bureau, “barring unforeseen snowmelt causing upstream flooding.” The lake covered private land, and now some farming is resuming, Nate Ferrier of the county sheriff’s office told a local news outlet.

“There are tractors and trucks moving around and the fields are getting ready to start growing crops again,” Ferrier said.


Most Californians knew Tulare Lake only from historical accounts. Before the vast expanse was replaced by endless rows of walnut trees, Pima cotton, and safflowers, the lake was home to turtles and beavers and was surrounded by tulle reeds.

The disease has reemerged a few times over the past century, including in 1998, and most dramatically last winter, when successive atmospheric river storms ravaged the state from December to March. The water flooded what is typically a dry landscape, covering hectares and hectares of crops – for a time threatening towns in the area and forcing the evacuation of thousands of cows, as well as roads and power lines.

Although the flood was a hardship for the agricultural sector and workers in the area, it fascinated many people. Visitors flocked to new viewpoints and road closure signs with drones, though officials warned them to stay out of the water, which was laden with irrigation hoses, fertilizer and agricultural chemicals.

The scene that greeted them was blue as far as the eye could see, with wildlife returning to the area: fish swimming past submerged fence posts and birds bobbing around the shoreline.

“You drive along and the road just ends — it just submerges,” said Vivian Underhill, a feminist environmental justice researcher who has studied the lake. “You just see these nut trees filled with water, ducks swimming in the shade of almond trees. “You could see blackbirds, hawks and geese. You could hear fish splashing out of the water.”

Last summer the lake covered an area roughly on the side of Lake Tahoe and was between 5 and 7 feet deep. Its resurgence was especially meaningful to the Tachi, who revere the lake their ancestors relied on before settlers drove the tribe from the area and drained it to make way for crops. In their creation stories, the Tachi were made from the sediment at the bottom of the lake, Underhill said.

Tribal members grew up hearing stories of how the lake that once supported the Tachi was taken from them, the Los Angeles Times reported. They had hoped that the lake would remain in place rather than be drained to resume farming as in the past.

“I’m very happy that the lake is back,” Leo Sisco, chairman of the Santa Rosa Rancheria Tachi Yokut tribe, told the newspaper last year. “It makes me swell with pride to know that I can experience this in this life. My daughters and my grandson get to experience it more, and the stories we heard as children come to fruition for us.”


Today, the crowds of enthusiastic tourists have diminished and the coastline is becoming increasingly difficult to find. On a recent drive through the central valley, I decided to do my best to see what was left of it.

On a sunny afternoon at the end of February, almost a year after arriving, the road signs that still stood around the county served as the most visible reminder of the lake. They blocked long stretches of muddy roads leading to agricultural facilities.

The remains of Tulare Lake are located entirely on private property, far from where the public can see them. It has rapidly diminished in size as local agencies moved water from the lake to nearby agricultural lands. Evaporation also played a “key role”.

Pacific Gas and Electric, the area’s electric utility, has mounted a massive effort to retrieve equipment that was submerged by the lake last year — in some cases using helicopters and dive teams. It has slowly begun restoring service to its mostly agricultural customers in the area, said Denny Boyles, a company spokesman.

Its revival is estimated to have caused hundreds of millions of dollars in losses to the area’s agricultural industry. Local officials have expressed gratitude that some farmers have been able to resume work.

“Agriculture is the lifeblood of Kings County. One in four jobs in this province is related to agriculture, so it is one of our largest commodities,” Ferrier said.

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But this won’t be the last we hear about Tulare Lake. As the climate crisis intensifies California’s wet and dry extremes, the lake will likely continue to return in wet years, Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis, wrote last year.

And letting the lake remain could provide benefits by replenishing dwindling groundwater and boosting wildlife in the area, Underhill said. The aquifer in the lake basin, land primarily owned by agricultural giant JG Boswell Company, has been significantly depleted, causing land in the area to sink.

“Any attempt to turn this into anything other than a lake bottom will ultimately have to deal with the forces of floodwaters,” Underhill said. “It behooves us to leave it as it is because that’s clearly where the water wants to go, and it will continue to go there.”

The lake is the natural state of this area, she added.

“It was such a rich and teeming ecosystem. It says something about how the birds, the fish, are always waiting for the lake to return. And when it comes back, they’ll be ready to be a part of it.”

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