A Vast Lake Has Captivated California Where Farms Stood a Year Ago

It sounds like the sea and approaches the size of Lake Tahoe. Its wind-driven waves are unexpectedly silky and warm. Tulare Lake seems to go on forever on the immense brown and green flat of California’s Central Valley, shimmering like a great blue mirage.

Three months have passed since the lake, which dates to the Ice Age, re-emerged in the basin that once held the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi River. Dammed dry by humans, it has periodically attempted a comeback, though rarely with the force seen after this winter’s storms.

First a trickle, then a flood, the water that coursed into the lake bed over a handful of months swallowed one of the nation’s largest and most valuable stretches of cropland in about the time it takes to grow a tomato. Thirty square miles, then 50. Then 100. Then more.

Now, at the onset of summer, Tulare Lake sits at about 168 square miles, trapped by thousands of acres of clay soil and the lack of a natural outlet, so big that it is best tracked by satellites. Caused initially by climate-amplified sheets of rain over the riversheds coursing through the Sierra Nevada, it is being fed by the melting snowpack that piled up in the mountains to near-record levels.

Detours and roadblocks bedeck its shores. Chemicals, manure and diesel pollute it. Palm trees and power poles poke from its surface. Day brings dragonflies. Dusk brings mosquitoes. Flocks of birds are settling in — swallows, wrens, ducks, egrets, chattering red-winged blackbirds.

Algae bobs on the waves; underneath, on the tomato and cotton fields that make up most of the lake bottom, abandoned cars rust and catfish lurk.

“I’ve never seen something of this magnitude,” Jeffrey Coughlin, an airboat pilot, said on a recent weekday, threading his bayou-style craft across the debris-filled water. “The devastation that’s affected some of these poor people, farms, homes.”

State water engineers have used virtually every trick in California’s considerable playbook to preserve as much of that water as possible and divert it elsewhere. Models suggest the lake’s growth has finally topped out.

But the phenomenon that remains is promising to be a formidable long-term guest in California farm country. Mr. Coughlin, who normally works in the San Francisco Bay about 230 miles northwest, has been ferrying crews from the Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which has been painstakingly removing sunken electrical transformers from the lake bed. With him on a recent day was a member of the Kings County Sheriff’s Office, which, because of Tulare Lake’s resurrection, is buying its own airboat.

“It’s a lot bigger than I anticipated,” marveled Sgt. Nate Ferrier, who, like most people in the region, had not yet ventured much beyond the shoreline. Like most law enforcement, he has spent the past several months telling the public to stay off the lake and respect the “Do Not Enter” warnings.

Most have obeyed, he said, but it isn’t easy. Tulare Lake has been a hazard and, for many farmers, an economic disaster, Sgt. Ferrier said. But in some respects, he added, it also is “freaking cool.”

Tulare Lake selfies have become a genre, for instance — couples watching the sun set, adventurous souls wading out into the toxic water. Some have tried driving through it, only to end up swimming to shore or having to be rescued. A pair of journalists recently kayaked across to see if they could paddle their way from Bakersfield to the San Francisco Bay.

Some 2.5 million acre-feet of snow water remains frozen and ready to melt into the Kern, Tule, Kaweah and Kings rivers, which feed the basin. The size of the lake depends on how fast the snowmelt races down and how much can be channeled somewhere else.

Water is already being captured by reservoirs before it reaches the lake bed. Some is being siphoned off to irrigate farms and orchards. Some is being moved to spots where it can percolate into the ground, gradually replenishing groundwater that was depleted in recent years by drought and excessive pumping. Some evaporates.

And, for the first time since 2006, tens of thousands of acre feet of water from the Kern River have been diverted via a canal to the California Aqueduct to buttress water supplies for Los Angeles and other cities.

Fortunately, the Tulare Lake area isn’t heavily populated. Most of the land in the lake bed is agricultural and owned by huge farming operations. The biggest community in the immediate basin, Corcoran, has worked with county, state and federal agencies to shore up surrounding levees that protect its population of about 22,500. In late May, state officials said that Corcoran and two smaller communities, Allensworth and Alpaugh, appeared to be out of harm’s way.

Now comes the hard part: History and science suggest it will take two years, and maybe longer, for the lake to fully recede. Current efforts have helped, but meteorologists say the coming winter could be wet again.

The Corcoran city manager, Greg Gatzka, said that the area’s large farms have so far avoided significant layoffs by offering employees work in less impacted parts of their operations and that the local schools offered remote instruction to the few students whose families had to relocate.

The local economy, he said, diversified after 1983, when the lake made another major appearance. The loss then in jobs and population helped prompt the construction of California State Prison, Corcoran, which opened in 1988.

Some issues have not worked themselves out: Disputes have arisen about the order in which land has been allowed to flood and whether some farms put their financial interests ahead of community safety. There have been second thoughts, too, about the damage that might have been avoided had large agricultural landowners been more receptive to partnering with the state and local governments on flood control.

But authorities say the situation has turned a corner: Tulare Lake is now officially whatever a giant prehistoric lake becomes after the chaos that unleashed it.

“It is settling in to a longer duration event,” said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “What you see there is going to be a fact of life for some time to come.”

Mark Abramson contributed reporting.

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