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In Corcoran, some fear a ticking time bomb lurks in the peaks of the Sierra Nevada

Once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River, the Tulare Lake was diverted out of existence by the early 1900s to make way for farmland and towns.

Click here for more coverage of the 2023 floods in the San Joaquin Valley.

CORCORAN, Calif. – From his pickup truck, Fernando Estrada sees an ocean of water.

His brow furrows with concern. This is no sea. The nearest coastline is more than a hundred miles away.

Instead, underneath the gently undulating waves in front of him are thousands of acres of farmland. He knows those fields well. Among them are the pomegranate and pistachio orchards he's helped tend to for years as a farmworker.

Estrada is parked on Sixth Avenue, just south of Corcoran, a small city in California’s southern San Joaquin Valley.

A dozen feet ahead of his truck, the asphalt disappears into seemingly endless blue, interrupted only by a lone shed or occasional power pole jutting from the surface.

Estrada is witnessing the return of Tulare Lake. It was once the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi River. By the dawn of the twentieth century, a series of dams and canals had transformed the lakebed into prime farmland. And now, the water has returned as it did at least three times before.

Estrada can hardly believe it.

“We were just in a drought. We were praying for rain, praying for water,” Estrada says. “It’s like that old saying, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ We got more than what we need now.”

Estrada fears layoffs are imminent with most of the farm he works in now underwater. But the Kings County native is even more concerned about some of his coworkers, who are undocumented.

“I’m lucky to still be here, but it’s only a matter of time before I’m gone, too,” he says. “I’m fortunate to be a citizen and get unemployment, but there are others who can’t afford to get that benefit.”

‘There’s a lot of snow up there’

A dozen atmospheric rivers and a record-breaking Sierra Nevada snowpack in the last three months has created this whiplash. The amount of snow is nearly three times the region’s yearly average. That has caused the fabled body of water to return for the first time in decades, on the heels of some of the worst drought the state has experienced.

Some Corcoran residents fear the Sierra’s majestic, snow-capped peaks have become a ticking time bomb – waiting to explode over the life many have created for themselves on the lakebed. As the weather warms, biblical amounts of water are waiting to gush into already-overloaded dams and rivers.

That’s why Rosie Garza says she purchased a home flood-insurance policy on Friday.

“There’s a lot of snow up there [in the Sierra]. I expect it to start coming down by May. By June, ‘Watch out: Here it comes,’” the thirty-year Corcoran resident says.

Garza says “a lot of people” in Corcoran are scared of what’s to come, and are buying flood insurance fast.

“I just joined the crowd,” she says.

But for now, local officials are urging residents to pump the breaks. City Manager Greg Gatzka says a levee measuring 188 feet above sea level will protect Corcoran. The city historically has sat on the lake’s northeastern shore.

“At this point, we are still considering our city to have a low threat of immediate flooding,” he said Friday afternoon. While the Tule River and Cross Creek are experiencing “extreme flows,” he says those flows are being “effectively managed” by neighboring districts.

Map of the Kings, Kaweah, Tule, and Kern Rivers that flow into the Tulare Lake basin of the southern San Joaquin Valley in central California.
Wikimedia Commons
Map of the Kings, Kaweah, Tule, and Kern Rivers that flow into the Tulare Lake basin of the southern San Joaquin Valley in central California.

In its natural state, Tulare Lake stretched some 800 square miles across most of what is now Kings County. While the resurrected lake is unlikely to approach its pre-diversion size this year, the lakebed’s return is still enough to cause problems for farmers and communities.

Gatzka says he will be keeping an eye on the unpredictable Kings River that may pump the lake with a surge of water when snowmelt comes rushing down the tributary, potentially causing it to grow to levels not seen in modern times.

The city declared an emergency over potential flooding last week.

“The height of the [Tulare Lake] water level could eventually breach or overfill a levee,” Gatzka says. The city is now looking to retrofit or possibly heighten the Corcoran levee to “provide an extra level of insurance or protection, especially for our state prisons on the south side of town.”

Preventing the worst from happening

State officials are working with local water managers to prevent the worst from happening.

Although, several communities in neighboring Tulare County have already experienced damaging flooding. Parts of Allensworth and Alpaugh along the Tulare-Kings County border were ordered to evacuate late last week – days after community members had been sounding the alarm over rising water levels and trying to fight back the water from their town.

Over the weekend, the evacuation order for Allensworth and Alpaugh was scaled back to a warning, with the sheriff's office warning residents to stay ready, since the floodwaters are carrying strong flows.

It’s a trend that could worsen as snowmelt surges into the Valley floor in spring and summer months. And officials say there is not enough room to store all that water, except let it drain as it was intended to.

“We’re really seeing California’s history in action but with this overlay of more extremes,” says Karla Nemeth, who leads the state’s Department of Water Resources. “This ability to move from very, very wet to very, very dry … is something we’ve experienced in a very intense way in California."

A thirteenth atmospheric river is forecast to batter the San Joaquin Valley this week. The new storm could bring up to four inches of rain to portions of the Valley and feet of snow to the Sierra – only adding to the ticking time bomb many fear.

Tulare Lake sits some 80 miles down the Sierra’s peaks. But just how much of that water is destined for the lakebed remains to be seen for cities like Corcoran and a smattering of other South Valley communities.

“There’s more water in the Sierra than these facilities can handle,” Nemeth says. “We’re going to be focused on working with the counties to minimize and mitigate damage from flooding as we move through the season.”

But communities should be prepared to buckle in.

“It’s going to be a very long-duration snowmelt,” she says.

Joshua Yeager is a Report For America corps reporter covering Kern County for KVPR.