Tulare Lake was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi before it was strangled by dams.
East of the San Luis Obispo County line and Interstate 5, the lake varied wildly in size depending on rainfall and snowpack.
The Tulare Lake Basin covers about 10 percent of California, 16,400 square miles. About half of the area is below 500 feet in elevation, though the Kern River is fed from a slope of the 14,505-foot Mt. Whitney.
Fed by four major rivers and a handful of smaller ones with headwaters in the Sierra Nevada, the lake was once 60 miles from tip to tip and 36 miles wide in the center. Thousands of Yokut Indians and other tribes lived in this rich environment.
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The lake was home to trout up to 40 pounds, perch, salmon, sturgeon, ducks, geese, mussels, clams and terrapin, which all contributed to the diet of the native population and later settlers. An island near present-day Alpaugh was covered with shells harvested from the waters.
The lake was shallow, nowhere deeper than 40 feet. The ill-fated Mussel Slough, known for a fatal land dispute between farmers and the Southern Pacific Railroad in the 1880s, drew its name from the marshy area at the edge of the lake.
Tulare Lake once had three times the surface area of Lake Tahoe. The lake could grow to 800 square miles before overflow drained north into the San Joaquin River watershed, according to the books “Rivers of California” and “Lakes of California” compiled by PG&E. Both steamboats and sailboats once plied the waters.
The European tradition of the 1800s was to fence land, plant wheat and build towns. A San Luis Obispo Tribune story on April 26, 1879, noted:
“Tulare Lake continues to fall, and the shore is being bought from the State as the water recedes. Twenty-three sections of land have recently been surveyed on its borders, and applications filed for the same by people in the Mussel Slough country.” (A section is 640 acres or 1 square mile.)
An Aug. 16, 1879, story in the San Luis Obispo Tribune also documents that trend:
“A curious fact is reported from Tulare County. The Delta (Visalia newspaper) is informed that wheat is now growing near Hanford, where four years ago the waters of Tulare Lake stood 10 feet deep. In the four years previous to last April the lake had receded 5 miles. Since last April it has receded 1 mile. Much of the land thus reclaimed is excellent for wheat crop this year, it requiring no irrigation save the seepage from the lake. On the land reclaimed from the lake are found evidences of former occupation, remains of a cabin and corral, and irrigating ditches can be traced running in straight lines, and some of them extending into the lake, and apparently still further under the waters.”
The San Luis Obispo Tribune published an account on Jan. 24, 1884, of the travels of Judge Frederick Adams and Major J.H. Hollister, co-owners of the Chimineas ranch. They frequently saw deer and antelope as they crossed out of San Luis Obispo County and saw Tulare Lake.
On the land reclaimed from the lake are found evidences of former occupation, remains of a cabin and corral, and irrigating ditches can be traced running in straight lines, and some of them extending into the lake, and apparently still further under the waters.
San Luis Obispo Tribune, Aug. 16, 1879
“From the brink of the plain a grand view is obtained of the Tulare Valley and lake, and broad plain that stretches for 75 miles from the base of the Monte Diablo range to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and beyond these along the eastern horizon as far as the eye can reach, north and south, is the line of snow covering that lofty range, looking like banks of cumulus clouds in the distance. Visalia and other villages, the course of streams and of the many irrigating canals of the great valley are shown by the trees which have been planted about them, making dark green places and lines in the landscape.”
Unruly lakes were not “productive,” and what is now the town of Corcoran would be a lake without man’s intervention. Water that falls as snow above 9,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada is now stored behind dams and diverted into canals. It is rare for surplus untrammeled flow into the basin.
Tulare Lake’s demise came via Pine Flat Dam on the Kings River, Terminus Dam on the Kaweah River, Success Dam on the Tule River and Isabella Dam on the Kern River. A shadow of the phantom lake came back in 1997 because of winter storms.
Today, there are signs on the former lake bed complaining about government-imposed drought, but farmers in the region complained when the lake drowned rich bottomland in rainy years.
Tapping the subterranean trove of water started more than 100 years ago. From an Aug. 10, 1878, story in the San Luis Obispo Tribune:
“An artisan well, five inches in diameter, lately bored to a depth of 310 feet near Tipton, 10 miles east of Tulare Lake, on the line of the railroad, at a cost of $1,000, throws out 85,000 gallons of water daily, sufficient to irrigate 100 acres.”
Today, overdrafted groundwater has contributed to the the southern San Joaquin Valley subsiding in places by as much as 28 feet. NASA imaging reveals the former lake bottom subsided almost 2 feet in 16 months, from May 2015 to September 2016.
Ironically, the California Aqueduct has been damaged by the subsidence caused by local water users. According to a story in the Daily Mail, groundwater pumping near Avenal caused the California Aqueduct to fall more than 2 feet, reducing design capacity by 20 percent.
In the flat, dry country around Kettleman City, Corcoran and Hanford, the land is green or brown in areas, depending on where water is supplied. The region produces millions of dollars of crops from almonds to tomatoes, and is largely owned by big corporate farms such as J.G. Boswell and the Wonderful Co.
And there is nothing simple about California water policy. Conflict is inevitable given the competing interests in this most populous state where a big agriculture industry, dire flood control issues and the environment all hinge on wildly variable rainfall.
From individual wells to large regional, state and federal water projects, there is a web of water providers and consumers. When someone tries to make it simple, remember, dams don’t just create lakes.
The west’s largest freshwater lake was desiccated by dams.