The arid expanse of California's San Joaquin Valley, the nation's vital food source, was once home to Tulare Lake, a vast body of water more than 100 miles long and 30 miles wide. Vivian Underhill, a former postdoctoral fellow at Northeastern University, highlights the lake's surprising comeback.
Tulare Lake virtually disappeared in the late 19th century, according to reports, so its return came as a surprise to both experts and and for the people.
Underhill describes the historical significance of Tulare Lake, known as "Paashi" to the indigenous Tachi Yokut tribe. Fed by melting snow from the Sierra Nevada Mountains rather than by rain, the lake had no natural outlet into the valley, accumulating water to form its vast expanse. In the 1800s San Joaquin Valley, Fresno was a lakeside city where steamboats could navigate nearly 300 miles of water, illustrating a stark contrast to today's arid landscape.
The Disappearance of Tulare Lake began in the late 1850s and early 1860s as part of the “melioration” process of California, aimed at transforming state land, often historically owned by indigenous communities, into private agricultural plots. This process involved draining flooded lands or irrigating desert areas to create fertile farmland, eradicating once-existing "ancestral lakes" and waterways.
Tulare Lake's recent comeback was the result of an influx of snow and rain , with Sierra sediment falling into the depression where the lake once existed. This unexpected homecoming has important implications for indigenous peoples, wildlife and farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley.
The lake's revival has brought back many species of birds, including pelicans, hawks and waterfowl, and vulnerable or endangered species such as burrowing owls. Tulare Lake, once a vital part of the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds, offers renewed habitat while addressing issues related to bird conservation and diversity.
Impacts on human settlement of the Central Valley vary among three different groups: the Tachi Yokuts, who view the return of the lake as a powerful and spiritual experience; farmworkers who face the personal and local impacts of flooding; and farmers who have taken flood control measures to protect their farmland.
Despite efforts to drain the lake once again, Underhill suggests there is economic potential in preserving Tulare Lake. She highlights the need for a broader perspective, given the historical dominance of lakes and wetlands in the region. Underhill suggests that the recent event is not just a flood, but a return of the lake, suggesting a change in the natural state of the landscape.
As climate change increases the frequency of such events, Understanding and adapting to the coexistence of Tulare Lake results in economic benefits and environmental sustainability for the State of California.