Tulare Lake has returned in California after completely vanishing for 130 years  (2024)

In a remarkable case of environmental reclamation, Tulare Lake – once the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi River – has re-emerged in the San Joaquin Valley of California after vanishing 130 years ago.

This resurgence, triggered by a series of atmospheric rivers over California in 2023, marks a significant moment not only for the natural landscape but also for Indigenous communities, wildlife, and agricultural workers in the area.

Historical significance

Vivian Underhill, formerly a postdoctoral research fellow at Northeastern University, has extensively studied the lake’s disappearance and unexpected return.

Underhill highlighted the lake’s historical significance, noting that it was a vital waterway that enabled steamships to carry agricultural supplies across what is now an arid landscape.

Tulare Lake, or “Pa’ashi” as it is known to the Indigenous Tachi Yokut, was primarily fed by snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada mountains, creating a large and vibrant ecosystem in an area that receives minimal rainfall.

Underhill noted that this isn’t the only time the lake has returned since the 1800s. “It happened in the ’80s, it happened once in the ’60s, a couple of times in the ’30s.”

Land reclamation efforts

The disappearance of Tulare Lake in the late 19th century was a consequence of land reclamation efforts by the state of California, aimed at converting public and indigenous lands into private farmland.

This process involved draining the lake to irrigate surrounding arid lands, fundamentally altering the region’s landscape and ecology.

Underhill described this transformation as a “deeply settler colonial project” that had lasting impacts on the region’s Indigenous communities and natural habitats.

Transformative changes

However, the recent return of Tulare Lake has brought with it a host of environmental and social changes. The resurgence of water has led to a cooling of local temperatures and the return of diverse wildlife, including species considered vulnerable or imperiled.

Migratory birds, fish, and amphibians have been particularly notable beneficiaries of the lake’s return, highlighting the area’s continued ecological significance.

Underhill explained that Tulare Lake was once part of the Pacific Flyway, and was an important stopover area for migratory birds.

“The loss of that habitat has been a major issue in bird conservation and bird diversity,” said Underhill. “Something that continues to amaze me is – (the birds) know how to find the lake again. It’s like they’re always looking for it.”

Human impact of Tulare Lake

The human impacts of the lake’s return are complex and varied. For the Tachi Yokut, the re-emergence of “Pa’ashi” has been a profound spiritual and cultural revitalization, allowing them to reconnect with traditional practices.

Conversely, the agricultural community faces challenges, with growers implementing flood prevention measures to protect farmland, often at the expense of surrounding worker communities who have suffered from flooding and displacement.

A blessing or a curse?

Underhill emphasized the mixed nature of Tulare Lake’s return, acknowledging the personal and property losses suffered by many while also pointing to the ecological and cultural resurgence it represents. The lake’s return is seen not just as a result of catastrophic flooding but as a reminder of the region’s historical and natural state.

“Most mainstream media coverage – from The New York Times to the Bakersfield Californian – has focused on what the lake has flooded: farm equipment, crops, dairies, and homes. They frame this water as catastrophic flooding that has destroyed millions of dollars of crops and equipment. But these are not (only) floodwaters. This is a lake returning,” said Underhill.

Ecological restoration of Tulare Lake

As efforts to drain the lake continue, Underhill suggests a re-evaluation of land management practices in light of climate change, advocating for the lake’s preservation as part of a broader ecological and economic strategy.

Underhill noted that fish biologists and water scientists also argue that the lake should be restored as habitat and as part of a growing movement toward Indigenous management.

“Recognizing Pa’ashi as central to this landscape’s ecosystem would remake mainstream senses of the valley: no longer the productive agricultural region that feeds the nation (at a steep premium). Letting Pa’ashi remain could heal the Central Valley’s relationship with water, serving as water storage, flood protection, and a profound new turn in ecological restoration.”

More about the San Joaquin Valley and Tulare Lake

As discussed above, the San Joaquin Valley is a rich tapestry of lush farmland, bustling cities, and diverse communities. Stretching over 250 miles from the north to the south, it forms the southern portion of the California Central Valley, bounded by the Sierra Nevada to the east and the Coast Ranges to the west. This fertile valley plays a pivotal role in California’s agricultural sector, producing a significant portion of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

Economic challenges and opportunities

The San Joaquin Valley is often referred to as the breadbasket of the world, and for good reason. Its warm climate, coupled with ample water supply from the Sierra Nevada snowmelt, creates ideal conditions for farming. The valley boasts a wide array of crops, including grapes, almonds, tomatoes, cotton, and oranges. Additionally, it is a leading producer of dairy products in the United States. The agricultural productivity of the region not only feeds America but also contributes significantly to the global food supply.

Despite its agricultural success, the San Joaquin Valley faces numerous economic challenges. Many communities in the valley deal with high levels of poverty and unemployment. The region’s economy is heavily dependent on agriculture, making it susceptible to fluctuations in water availability and international trade policies. However, efforts are underway to diversify the economy, with investments in renewable energy, particularly solar and wind power, showing promise. Moreover, the valley’s central location makes it a strategic hub for distribution and logistics industries.

Cultural diversity and community life

Water management is a critical issue in the San Joaquin Valley. The valley is at the forefront of California’s water-related challenges, including droughts, groundwater depletion, and conflicts over water rights. Sustainable water use practices and innovative irrigation technologies are essential for the valley’s future prosperity. Efforts to restore and protect natural habitats, such as the San Joaquin River restoration project, highlight the balance between agricultural development and environmental conservation.

The San Joaquin Valley is home to a vibrant tapestry of cultures and communities. The region’s history of immigration, from the Dust Bowl migration to recent waves from Latin America and Southeast Asia, has created a diverse cultural landscape. Festivals, farmers’ markets, and community events celebrate this diversity, offering a glimpse into the valley’s rich cultural heritage.

In summary, the San Joaquin Valley is a region of contrasts, where agricultural bounty coexists with economic challenges, and environmental concerns meet innovative solutions. Its role as an agricultural powerhouse is undisputed, but the future of the valley lies in balancing growth with sustainability. As it navigates these challenges, the San Joaquin Valley continues to be an essential part of California’s landscape, contributing significantly to the state’s economy, culture, and identity.

The full report by Underhill is published in the journal Open Rivers.

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Tulare Lake has returned in California after completely vanishing for 130 years  (2024)
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