California Lake’s long-lost flooding after storms is a ‘life-changing’ problem

  • Tulare Lake, a lost lake in California, has refilled due to torrential rains.
  • The resulting flooding has created a potential agricultural crisis, making it difficult for farmers to access their land and endangering crops.
  • California is also anticipating El Niño, which could result in another wet winter later in the year and prolong flooding.
  • Local residents are trying to stem the flooding, but the effects could last for years if left unchecked.

Torrential rains have brought Tulare Lake, a lost lake in California, back to life and it could take years for farmers to recover from subsequent flooding, creating a potential agricultural crisis.

California recently recovered from a year-long drought after an excessively wet winter brought more than a dozen atmospheric flows — and significant rain — to the state. The storms have almost completely eliminated the state’s drought, but now the state is facing a new problem: too much water. Tulare Lake in the southern San Joaquin Valley was drained about a century ago and quickly became a farming paradise. Now the lost lake is filling up again and its impact on farmers in the region could drive up prices around the world.

So said AccuWeather meteorologist Paul Pastelok news week: “We are in a period of inflation, so many of our products are already priced higher. We’re talking about some expenses – like almonds and pistachios – that are already costing a lot of money. It will affect the whole world. It’s going to be very expensive and also life changing for the people who live down there.”

Tulare County floods farmland
An aerial photo shows flooded Central Valley farmland along Highway 99 in Tulare County during a winter storm near Tulare, California March 21, 2023. Torrential rains have revived Tulare Lake, a lost lake in California, and it could It takes years for farmers to recover from subsequent flooding, causing a potential agricultural crisis.
Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty

Lake Tulare dried up about a century ago as a result of levees. In dry weather, canals and dikes divert water away from the lake’s new formation. The last time the lake reappeared was in 1983, when an above-average snowmelt filled 130 square miles of the lake’s basin. The lake, when full, was the largest lake in the country west of the Mississippi, about four times the size of Lake Tahoe. When the lake was supplemented by snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada mountains, it stretched as much as 1,000 square miles and fed several rivers, according to an article by Sacramento-based media outlet CalMatters.

In 1983 it took two years for farming to resume, but now the ground is considerably lower as decades of pumping of groundwater to combat the drought and snowpack melting is projected to be much higher than the 1983 floods.

The flooding is not expected to stop any time soon, even if the rain stops falling. According to US Department of Agriculture meteorologist Brad Rippey, snowpack in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains has an astronomical 60 inches of liquid, which is 300 percent above average. As the snowpack melts, water will continue to flood the Tulare Lake basin.

“It’s a bowl,” said Pastelok. “It’s like a tub where the faucet keeps running and we’re constantly watching it fill up and we can’t turn off the water.”

Normally, the basin provides ideal growing conditions for hot-weather crops such as pistachios, almonds, and tomatoes, but many crops will be lost if flooding continues.

“Pastures and dairies have been flooded and livestock have been moved,” Rippey said news week. “Orchards and fields were flooded. Trees in orchards that spend time with their roots submerged will soon be lost and will need to be replanted, resulting in a years-long production gap for these fruit and nut crops.”

The area that boasts a $2 billion agribusiness, according to an article by The New York Times, has much to lose if the floods continue. In 1983, the flood caused $300 million in damage.

Residents in the area are already trying to stem the flow of water, with some even attempting to repair breached levees by stemming the gap with a truck and then filling the truck’s bed with soil.

“I’ve never seen such a #flood protection measure!” a California farmer tweeted in March alongside a video. “This is how some farmers deal with a breach in the bottom of Tulare Lake.

Many of the farmers in the area are considered low-income or mediocre, according to Pastelok, so they may not be able to afford to stay in the area for years before the lake floor drains. They may have to flee the area, leaving a void in the area’s agriculture.

Aside from agriculture, there are concerns people could lose their homes from the floods and the effects could linger for years after the waters recede.

“A major concern with the newly formed lake is water pollution from a variety of sources, including fuel, oil, and landfill/waste material,” Rippey said news week. “When the water finally recedes, soil surveys will be needed before farming activities can resume.”

Meteorologists are forecasting El Niño to return later this year, which could mean another wet winter for California later in 2023 and prolong troubles. California Lake’s long-lost flooding after storms is a ‘life-changing’ problem

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