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Ana Maria Cornea / Gavel Media

Tulare Lake: A Man-Made Disaster

Tulare Lake has been a farmer’s paradise for the past century. Located halfway between San Francisco and LA near the Sierra Nevada mountains, Central California’s Tulare Lake has naturally appeared every winter from rivers flowing from mountains carrying melted snow and rainfall. Early in the 19th century, farmers would use the lake to irrigate crops; however, as a result of the yearly variations in shorelines, these farmers were unable to efficiently utilize the entire basin. To remedy this issue, in 1947 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Pine Flat Dam, finishing the project by 1954. This dam is used to control the flow of water from Kings River, keeping the entire basin dry and available for crops with the water supply coming from evaporation tanks surrounding the lake bed. 

Today, the agricultural drainage from the rivers is used to water 44,046 acres of farmland from eight basins containing 4,740 acres of evaporation ponds. While this system allows for increased farmland and food production, it comes with some negatives. Many migratory birds that wintered at Tulare Lake use the evaporation ponds for feeding, nesting, and breeding, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded that selenium content in the ponds is at an unsafe level—for not just the bird but the surrounding environment as well. Selenium can quickly bioaccumulate in an aquatic environment and rapidly reach toxic levels that can result in deformed embryos and reproductive failure in wildlife. This results in negative effects throughout the entire ecosystem. 

This upcoming spring and summer season, many of the residents and local farmers are putting aside concerns over the environment and bracing for heavy flooding. Communities near the basin have been shocked by the devastating reminder of what can happen when more rain falls than the dam is able to hold. Currently, the fertile farmland of the old Tulare Lake bed is at risk of being submerged for upwards of a year. In 2023, the Sierra Nevada mountains received a record snowpack that is slowly melting and flowing down Kings River. According to an interview from the Fresno Bee, a local newspaper, the floods in 1982 and 1983 resulted in a lake that was submerged until 1985. This season, we have had a larger snowpack than both of those years, and it is predicted that, with the water flow we are seeing, the lake won’t disappear until 2025. According to the California State Department of Water Resources, Pine Flat Reservoir, the biggest of the foothill lakes that feeds into the Tulare Lake Basin, has nearly 780,000 acre-feet of water, which would take up nearly 78% of the lake’s capacity. Surrounding dams are facing similar problems, as the Department also predicts nearby dams could see more than 80% of their yearly storage taken up by one of the many rivers feeding into their storage. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is attempting to balance the potential for downstream flooding while trying to release enough water to free space in the storage.

As a consequence of maintaining the storage, as well as months of large storms and heavy rainfall, the area has already begun to flood. This flooding has damaged towns and farms—and in the rural communities surrounding the lake bed, chaos is arising. In Allensworth, a small town in the area, residents clogged a drain under Highway 43 in a desperate attempt to keep flood water out of town; however, workers from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad unblocked the pipe. Actions like these have caused outrage in the local community as many farmers and residents fear for their properties. Further flooding in the Tulare Lake Basin could have an impact nationwide, as The Central Valley supplies 8% of the U.S. Agricultural output (by value) and produces one-quarter of the nation’s food, including 40% of the nation’s fruits and nuts. If the floods continue, many experts have stated there could be a ripple effect on the U.S.' food supply. 

So far, floodwater has damaged 900 structures and 700 people have been sent in an emergency response to Tulare County. However, planks, sandbags, and other materials can only do so much—there is simply too much water for these facilities to handle. Once the water reaches the lake bed, removing it will be a difficult process. The cost to remove the water would reach into the billions, while allowing the lake to remain would lose billions in sales as well as negatively impact people who live in the rural communities in the area. “This is a low-income community… They go paycheck to paycheck in a lot of cases,” said Kayode Kadara, of Allensworth, a community organizer

The flooding occurring in the Tulare Lake Basin results from climate change as California weather patterns continue to swing to extremes. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, aggressive groundwater pumping by farmers and corporations in the area has deepened the underground water tables and caused the basin to sink by 28 feet in certain areas. We have effectively turned the basin into a bowl, and any properties in this bowl are set to be destroyed as the dams overflow and the naturally occurring lake reforms for the first time in decades.

Many argue this is simply a naturally occurring phenomenon, and we should let it occur by taking down the dam. Obviously, this is not a viable solution as flooding will continue to destroy established low-income communities and farmland. While we should aim to remedy this situation as fast as possible for the sake of residents, we can use this flooding as a warning sign to stop altering the environment. As we have seen with global climate change, environmental disaster is not what happens when man ignores nature: environmental disaster is what happens when man tries to manipulate nature. As corporations and wealthy businessmen continue to grow greedier, they will keep destroying the environment and push back efforts to stop climate change in the name of profits. Millions of ordinary working people will suffer from extreme variations in climate, resulting in famine, extreme storms, and rising shorelines. For now, we should try to fix this unfolding situation swiftly; however, in the future, we should use this critical moment as insight, opting not to destroy nature and move farming practices into the millions of fertile acres of land scattered across the United States.

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Economics and Political Science Double Major with specific interests in international relations, environmentalism, and current events.