It looks like the sea and approaches the size of Lake Tahoe. Its waves moved by the wind are unexpectedly silky and warm. Lake Tulare never seems to end on the immense brown and green plain of California’s Central Valley, shimmering like a great blue mirage.
It has been three months since the lake, which dates back to the Ice Age, resurfaced in the basin that once contained the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi River. Drained by humans, it has periodically attempted a comeback, though rarely seen forcibly after this winter’s storms.
First a trickle, then a flood, water flowing into the lake bed for a handful of months engulfed one of the nation’s largest and most valuable tracts of farmland in about the time it would take to grow a tomato. Thirty square miles, then 50. Then 100. Then more.
Now, in early summer, Tulare Lake is about 168 square miles, trapped by thousands of acres of clay soil and a lack of a natural outlet, so large that it better tracked by satellites. Initially caused by climate-amplified rainfall on the river basins that flow through the Sierra Nevada, it is fed by melting snowpack that has accumulated on the mountains for near-record levels.
Detours and checkpoints dot its coasts. Chemicals, manure and diesel pollute it. Palm trees and power poles sprout from its surface. The day brings dragonflies. Dusk brings mosquitoes. Flocks of birds are settling: swallows, wrens, ducks, egrets, cackling red-winged blackbirds.
Seaweed sways on the waves; below, on the tomato and cotton fields that make up much of the lake bed, abandoned cars rust and catfish lurk.
« I’ve never seen anything of this magnitude, » said Jeffrey Coughlin, an airboat pilot, on a recent weekday as he skidded his bayou-style craft over debris-filled water. « The devastation that has befallen some of these poor people, farms, homes. »
State water engineers have used virtually every trick in California’s sizable playbook to conserve as much water as possible and divert it elsewhere. Models suggest that lake growth has finally peaked.
But the phenomenon that remains promises to be a formidable long-term guest in rural California. Mr. Coughlin, who normally works in San Francisco Bay about 230 miles to the northwest, ferried the crews of the Pacific Gas and Electric Co., who painstakingly removed the submerged electrical transformers from the lake bed. With him on a recent day was a member of the Kings County Sheriff’s Office, who, due to the Tulare Lake resurrection, is buying his own airboat.
« It’s much bigger than I expected, » marveled the sergeant. Nate Ferrier, who, like most people in the region, hadn’t ventured far beyond the coast yet. Like most law enforcement agencies, he has spent the past few months telling the public to stay away from the lake and heed the « Do Not Enter » warnings.
Most complied, he said, but it’s not easy. Lake Tulare has been a hazard and, for many farmers, an economic disaster, Sgt. Ferrier said. But in some ways, he added, it’s also « really cool. »
Lake Tulare selfies have become a genre, for example: couples watching the sunset, adventurous souls taking a dip in toxic water. Some have tried to drive through it, only to end up swimming to shore or having to be rescued. A couple of journalists recently crossed by kayak to see if they could row from Bakersfield to San Francisco Bay.
About 2.5 million acre feet of snow water remain frozen and ready to melt in the Kern, Tule, Kaweah and Kings rivers, which feed the reservoir. The size of the lake depends on how fast the snowmelt comes down and how much it can be channeled elsewhere.
The water is already captured by the reservoirs before it reaches the lake bed. Some are taken to irrigate farms and orchards. Some are being moved to locations where they can seep into the ground, gradually replenishing aquifers that have been depleted in recent years due to drought and overpumping. Some evaporates.
And, for the first time since 2006, tens of thousands of feet of Kern River water were diverted through a canal to the California Aqueduct to shore up the water supplies of Los Angeles and other cities.
Fortunately, the Tulare Lake area is not heavily populated. Most of the land in the lake bed is agricultural and owned by large agricultural companies. The largest community in the immediate basin, Corcoran, has worked with county, state and federal agencies to shore up the surrounding levees that protect its population of approximately 22,500. In late May, state officials said Corcoran and two smaller communities, Allensworth and Alpaugh, appeared to be out of harm’s way.
Now comes the tricky part: History and science suggest it will take two years, and possibly more, for the lake to fully recede. Current efforts have helped, but forecasters say next winter could be wet again.
Corcoran City Manager Greg Gatzka said large farms in the area have so far avoided significant layoffs by offering employees to work in the least affected parts of their operations and that local schools have offered distance education to the few students. whose families had to move.
The local economy, he said, diversified after 1983, when the lake made another major appearance. Loss of jobs and population helped spur construction of California State Prison, Corcoran, which opened in 1988.
Some issues have not been resolved: Disputes arose over the order in which land was allowed to flood and whether some farms put their financial interests ahead of community safety. There have also been second thoughts about the damage that could have been avoided if the big agricultural landowners had been more receptive working with state and local governments on flood control.
But authorities say the tables have turned: Lake Tulare is now officially what a giant prehistoric lake becomes after the chaos that unleashed it.
« He’s preparing for a longer duration event, » said Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. « What you see will be a fact for some time to come. »
Mark Abramson contributed report.