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In a matter of months, the San Joaquin Valley flip-flopped from severe drought to severe flooding. And now, as the big snowpack in the Sierra Nevada becomes the “Big Melt” in the Valley, who’s underwater, who’s helping clean up, and what does it all mean for our region’s future? This weekly segment featuring interviews with reporters, water authorities, growers and others who live and work in the Valley explores historic flooding and its aftermath.

Water Whiplash: What can Tulare Lake’s past tell us about its future?

An archival photo originally published by historian and columnist F.F. Latta, upper left, in the Hanford Sentinel.
F. F. Latta
Hanford Sentinel
An archival photo originally published by historian and columnist F.F. Latta, upper left, in the Hanford Sentinel.

Tulare Lake, the ghost lake that’s re-emerged in Kings County for the first time since the 1990s, has reached an eye popping 170 square miles in size. Although that’s roughly the size of Lake Tahoe, it’s still a fraction of how large the lake once loomed before the rivers that fed it were dammed and diverted in order to irrigate agricultural fields.

For this episode of Water Whiplash, we peer back into the lake’s history with Hanford Sentinel features editor and reporter Parker Bowman. He described the evolution of the lake before and after European contact in a recent piece called “600,000 years of history, and Tulare Lake isn’t done yet.”

Listen to the interview in the player on this page, and read the transcript below.

PARKER BOWMAN: It was a pretty large lake, 700 square miles. It was the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. And it was very very shallow, a very shallow lake, and it shifted around a lot. Around the lake, miles and miles of swampland and then outside of that you would get into forests, very lush forests. And just full of all kinds of wildlife: elk, tons of birds, reports of grizzly bears that would burrow little holes in the mud and live in the mud, too beat the heat.


BOWMAN: Yeah, so very different from what it is today.

KLEIN: And some really abundant fisheries. And turtles, a large turtle market here.

BOWMAN: Yeah, the terrapin is the type of turtle it was. And it was so important that there's an area, I forget exactly where, called Terrapin Bay. And yeah, the terrapin were scooped up, netted up, and sent to the Bay Area, and then from the Bay Area were shipped all across the coast. And it was sort of a delicacy turning these poor little fellows into stews and soups all down the coast.

KLEIN: And then there were the people. So, according to one account you read, the lake was home to the largest or densest population of Native Americans north of Mexico.

BOWMAN: Yeah, absolutely. The Yokuts people arrived about 5,000 years ago. The number is sort of in debate. It's anywhere from 16,000 to 80,000. And they lived all throughout the Central Valley but there are three tribes specifically that lived on the lake: the Tachi Yokut, the Wowol and Chunut, the pronunciations of which I'm sure I've not done well. And their story of Creation is that the world was once completely covered with water with one oak tree coming out of the water. And I think that that speaks volumes to how important the lake was to those people.

KLEIN: That's really beautiful. But then of course the Spanish arrived in the 1770s followed by American settlers and everything changed.

BOWMAN: Yeah, absolutely. The Spanish, they mostly came in and colonized the coast. And I think that the Spanish kind of just weren't interested in dealing with the swamps and things until, I think, later on, they got curious about converting the Yokuts to Christianity. And then of course, they also were curious in forced labor and things like that as well.

KLEIN: And they were ultimately the ones, or not just the Spanish, but ultimately these settlers to this area were ultimately the ones who then wanted to rein in the water and create all this infrastructure to divert the water towards agriculture.

BOWMAN: Yeah, absolutely. That came once California became a state and more folks started coming in. And yeah, it wasn't too long after that that people kind of got the idea to get rid of the lake. And not necessarily to get rid of the lake, but just to divert water from the lake. But once people started getting their hands on the water, it was only a matter of time before all the water went to agriculture.

KLEIN: And so, in your research for this reporting, you were digging through all these archival articles and accounts from some of these early settlers here in this area. And from what you've read it didn't seem like it was necessarily all that pleasant to place to visit or live near.

BOWMAN: It's kind of hard to tell if that was the perception or if maybe that was the perception that people wanted to put out there when they were making the argument to dam up the lake. Maybe a little bit of both. But there was one story, I read from a local newspaper here, not ours, that, when writing a story about a few tourists who came out to see the lake from the Midwest, the newspaper, I believe editorializing, said that they turned these people away and said that the only reason that you would ever want to go out to the lake is if you wanted to quote—“induce and ungovernable impulse to suicide.” And I think that kind of speaks volumes to how people kind of viewed the lake once permanent settlements started coming in. That was written in 1900.

KLEIN: And so from what you've read and researched, you know, is there anything that the lake’s past can tell us about its future?

BOWMAN: Absolutely, you know, a lot of it, is very cyclical. Even as early as those columns in the 30s, people were advocating for dams. And that's a fight that's still going on, even though we have three that have been built since those early calls for dams and reservoirs. Every time the lake comes back the conversations begin again, and then, you know, you put up with a couple years the flooding, and then the floods go away and we go back to our drought status and people kind of forget about it. It's been there for 600,000 years, and before that it was part of Lake Corcoran, which was a much bigger lake that encompassed much more of the Valley. And then that was around for an additional 200 or so hundred thousand years. John Barker [sic], who was an early newspaper founder here and part of the initial gold rush, he said that the lake would come back and that we would all feel “Jupiter's wrath.” I think that that's what we're feeling now, and I think that that's an inevitability, that at some point the lake will return permanently.

KLEIN: Well, Parker Bowman, a features editor and reporter at the Hanford Sentinel, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

BOWMAN: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Editor’s note: in the audio version of the interview, the name “John Barker” is mispronounced as “John Baker.”

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.