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‘It’s got a memory.’ Tulare Lake’s return tests human changes to the land

Two people standing in front of a blue sky and partially flooded green field.
Soreath Hok
Kiara Rendon stands with her sister's nephew, looking out over the family property in Allensworth.

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

ALLENSWORTH, Calif. – Halfway between Fresno and Bakersfield in California’s central San Joaquin Valley, a creek runs through a once-dry field of patchy grass in Allensworth. This patch of land belongs to the family of Kiara Rendon.

She’s lived and worked in Allensworth for the past five years. She never expected to see flooding.

But on March 20, water started gushing onto her family’s property, and Rendon rushed home to help her sister.

“All of that was full of water and it was coming inside the property,” Rendon said, while surveying the soggy grass days later.

Rendon’s sister is five months pregnant. But that didn’t stop her from helping build a ditch near her home to stop the water from going onto her property, Rendon said.

Cal Fire eventually sent a team to dig a larger ditch to divert the water, which came as high as six inches that day.

This water wasn’t coming from just anywhere. The fight was against water runoff that was coming from swollen creeks which had breached levees and banks, and all of it flowing into Tulare Lake – what was once the largest freshwater lake in the western United States.

 Runoff accumulates in a ditch to the side of a road.
Soreath Hok
Runoff accumulates in a pool off the side of Hwy 43 near Allensworth in Tulare County.

Rendon’s family home in this part of Tulare County is on the shoreline of the former lake.

Up until the 1800’s, the lake was fed by five Sierra Nevada rivers – the Kern, Kings, Kaweah, White and Tule. In its heyday, the lake expanded with snowmelt, and receded by fall or winter. Its size ranged anywhere from 1200 square miles, to 800 or 600.

The flooding Rendon experienced was unexpected because, for years, the Central Valley has been parched. Just months ago, the U.S. Drought Monitor categorized the region as being in an “exceptional drought.”

That’s the most severe level on the national drought scale.

But relentless storms since late December dropped record rainfall.

Now the state has tied with 1952 for an all-time largest snowpack. All of the snow will melt, and that has left communities like Allensworth fearing the worst of even more flooding.

“It’s scary, because now we have all this water. But where is it going to go?” Rendon asked.

The whiplash is producing a fight between nature and man in this part of California, and has sent residents like Rendon’s family fighting to protect their homes.

Tulare Lake’s native roots

For thousands of years, the region was a resource that sustained the Native American Tachi Yokut tribe. The Yokuts, as they were called, lived and fished along the shores.

In his book, “The Other California: The Great Central Valley in Life and Letters,” author Gerald Haslam describes the region of natural wetlands as “a land of startling contrasts: vast reed beds, marshes, and ponds … even sand dunes on the lake’s southern and southeastern shores.”

The marshes were filled with dense masses of aquatic vegetation. The Spanish named the region “tulares” for this reason.

Tulare Lake, Haslam wrote, was teeming with wildlife, “...mallards and coots and Canadian honkers fed in the proximity of horned toads and jack rabbits.”

Haslam details an abundant ecosystem that supported numerous fish, beavers, otters, elk, antelope, geese and the native inhabitants.

“The women fished with their toes and the men had these tule boats… they had holes in them and they would spear the fish,” said Mark Arax, a Fresno writer who first encountered Tulare Lake during the 1997 flood.

Water spills through a ditch that cuts through a green field.
Soreath Hok
A creek flows through a ditch dug by Cal Fire to alleviate flooding on Kiara Rendon's family property .

“When I walked up that levee the first time in ‘97, I got a little dizzy almost with vertigo,” Arax said. “The wind was whipping these white caps past the telephone poles. If you looked at the telephone poles, you could actually see marks where the flood had been in the past.”

Arax recalls looking at a map and seeing the outline of a square lake, marveling at human efforts to tame the expansive lake.

“They had squared off the lake. In fact, they had taken the rivers and they had so messed with the rivers in their bends and meanders that they were straight-jacketed,” he said.

In the late 1800’s, through reclamation, the U.S. began offering the land at a cheap price, giving buyers a financial incentive to help build a levee system.

By the early 1900’s, the land was bought up and the lakebed went dry. Its water was harnessed in an intricate system of canals, dams and levees. That irrigated water feeds tens of thousands of acres of farmland grown in the lake’s footprint.

Arax says that makes the Tulare Lake Basin one of the most engineered landscapes in the world.

“They went to some extraordinary lengths to efface that lake. But you know, the ground remembers. It does. It's got a memory. I mean, that's at least how the Yokuts would say it,” Arax said.

Modern challenges of drained lake

According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s California Water Science Center, the Tulare Lake Basin is developed extensively with orchards and vineyards that take years to grow. Lucrative nut crops like pistachios are now planted on thousands of acres of the lakebed.

Flooding these crops could mean huge losses.

Fear of losing crops has led to a scramble and even accusations of water diversions that have flooded some farms over others.

Farmers and emergency crews are doing their best to battle the rising water.

Cal Fire has been working with local officials to divert the water. Helicopters have been dropping sandbags to try to shore up levees and canals.

“The strategy is to kind of make sure that where we're stopping the water is not actually hurting someone else. So, it's tricky because we have to really look at ‘If we stop this water from moving here, where is it going next?'” said Sean Norman, the operations section chief.

Three white pickups trucks and a red fire truck staged outside a warehouse.
Soreath Hok
Emergency responders set up a flood response basecamp at the International Agri-Center in Tulare, CA.

Norman said fighting off flooding became more challenging as the water moved farther west, toward small communities like Alpaugh and Allensworth.

East of [Highway] 99, it was easy. We could plug the hole and get the river back in its channel. Now that we’ve gotten out to the west, the topography is actually more challenging because it's flatter and the water just wants to plain out,” he said.

Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow with the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California, expects an extended period of runoff that will start in May and last through July.

And with reservoirs already full, that’s a problem for the Valley.

“There’s not a lot of room to absorb the shock of this spring snowmelt runoff and we really don't have in place the infrastructure to deal with it,” Mount said.

He said the southern San Joaquin Valley will experience sustained flooding that most Californians typically don’t experience.

“That's what's going to be jarring for people – is to see these sustained high flows that don't go away when the storm passes,” Mount added.

What comes next?

The flooding in communities from late March was just a taste of what some say could come later this summer when most of the snow melts.

Like many other residents in Allensworth, Rendon chose to stay despite evacuation warnings. But staying also meant fighting back the waters. As floodwaters first started rushing toward the community, residents tried to stem the flow by plugging up pipes that run underneath the tracks.

“And they almost got arrested for it,” Rendon said. “I understand they're only trying to prevent this chaos from happening.”

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway company said that left the water nowhere to flow and endangered railroad operations, according to spokesperson Lena Kent.

“They thought they were doing what they needed to do to protect Allensworth, but they really were creating a situation that wasn’t safe,” Kent said.

Allensworth community leader Kayode Kadara maintains that free flowing water coming through culverts underneath the railroad remains an issue, but he has had nowhere to turn to for answers.

“Nobody's taking responsibility for how to either plug or create a bypass,” he said.

But officials are at least hearing the concerns, he said. Kadara recently gave a tour of Allensworth to Karla Nemeth, the director of the California Department of Water Resources.

“It's important that at her level she fully understands the issues and the impacts that we face and most importantly how we move forward,” Kadara said.

Through the concerns, Mount, of the Water Policy Center, points out a refilling lake may mean benefits for wetlands, birds and insects that naturally inhabited the area. And it could help recharge depleted groundwater, he said.

But for those who call the area home today, it feels like a slow-moving disaster. Water experts say there’s no way to stop the water from flowing completely, so the focus should remain on preparing for floods, and the recovery that comes after. But there’s even questions about that.

“What's going to happen here? Where are we going to go after?” Rendon asked.

Soreath Hok is a multimedia journalist with experience in radio, television and digital production. She is a 2022 National Edward R. Murrow Award winner. At KVPR she covers local government, politics and other local news.