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In normally dry Kings County, Tulare Lake has carved a long, soggy road ahead for farmers

At Tulare Lake’s peak, Cory Vanderham estimates 90% of his dairy farm was underwater.
Kerry Klein
At Tulare Lake’s peak, dairy farmer Cory Vanderham estimates 90% of his land was underwater.

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

KINGS COUNTY, Calif. — Cory Vanderham’s dairy cattle have waterfront property.

Waves lap at the shoreline as ducks, geese and swallows flit and flutter in every direction. Vanderham’s Australian shepherd, Opi, takes a dunk at every opportunity he can get.

But here’s the thing: Vanderham’s dairy is in the middle of agricultural fields, outside Corcoran in normally dry Kings County.

“There’s no water like this,” he said. “We’ve never had this before.”

That is, not until this past March, when Tulare Lake refilled for the first time in a quarter of a century.

Sometimes referred to as a “Ghost Lake,” it was the largest body of water west of the Mississippi River until it was dammed and diverted in the early 20th century to make way for agriculture. It has reappeared a handful of times in wet seasons, most recently in 1997.

The lake peaked in size earlier this month and forecasters predict it could take more than a year to fully disappear again.

Up until a few weeks ago, Vanderham estimates that about 90% of his dairy was underwater, including some of his cattle pens.

He had just days to evacuate thousands of animals.

Vanderham was forced to relocate half his cattle and sell off the other half as floodwater inundated his property.
Kerry Klein
Vanderham was forced to relocate half his cattle and sell off the other half as floodwater inundated his property.

“I went 11 days without seeing my kids,” he said. “I would sneak home every once in a while, like at one or two in the morning, to quick shower up and kiss my wife.”

Still, Vanderham has kept his business running and the milk flowing.

But many others weren’t so fortunate.

According to a county tally, roughly 94,000 acres of orchards, row crops and pastureland were drowned by the lake, and another 16,000 destroyed by floods elsewhere in the county.

A full recovery could take years.

“We're just living it day by day and seeing what the day brings to us,” Vanderham said.

Strangers come to the rescue

At the start of winter, Vanderham had 10,000 cattle. Moving them was never part of his plan. But in mid-March, with so much rain and snowmelt surging into San Joaquin Valley rivers and creeks, water breached the banks of a nearby canal.

“That's when we knew that it was getting super serious and it was time for us to go,” he said.

Fortunately for him, it took just a few hours of phone calls to find dairies with space to take on his milking cows. Then, as word spread, people began showing up to help move, many of them strangers.

All told, Vanderham estimates people with around 45 livestock trailers came to his aid. Within three days they relocated 4,500 cattle, or around half his herd, to nearby dairies, where he was able to resume his operation.

In the background, the shoreline of Tulare Lake can be seen lapping at the edges of Vanderham’s heifer pens.
Kerry Klein
In the background, the shoreline of Tulare Lake can be seen lapping at the edges of Vanderham’s heifer pens.

“They took times out of their own operation, took times from their own families, to come and help somebody that they've never met in need,” Vanderham said. “It was pretty rad.”

The other half of his herd, mostly heifers and calves, he had to sell off.

Crops take a hit

Loss is visible all around the lake.

Where orderly rows of trees should be, now lies what looks like a vast sea — smooth as a mirror.

Thousands of acres of pistachios, wheat and alfalfa were wiped out. So were 18,000 acres of safflower, used for making cooking oil, which is nearly half of the state’s entire supply.

Kings County Farm Bureau Executive Director Dusty Ference warned that the county’s processing tomato industry likely also took a big hit. Even though growers appeared to lose 3,000 acres of tomatoes, or roughly 10% of the county total, Ference pointed out that the floods happened before typical tomato planting season.

“You've got to take into consideration the acreage that wasn't able to be planted,” he said. “So that number is going to be larger than the 3,000 acres reported, I suspect.”

Nearly 40,000 acres of the lake bottom were planted with cotton, one of Kings County’s top grossing agricultural products. The county produces more than a third of California’s entire supply.

If growers planted the same amount this year as in 2021 — the latest year for which the county’s crop report is available — nearly 90% of this year’s cotton crop was obliterated.

“We're probably going to be headed for a conversation about store prices,” said Ference. “And it's really important for me to remind people that might hear this that growers aren't going to see a large uptick in their income because of the downed supply. There are several entities in between the grower and the consumer where those markups are seen and, unfortunately, it doesn't make its way back down to the grower.”

Although much of the land currently underwater is owned by J. G. Boswell Company, one of the largest agribusinesses in the country, Vanderham is among a handful of comparatively smaller landowners in the lake bottom.

Kings County Supervisor Doug Verboon also told KVPR that poultry giant Foster Farms lost hundreds of thousands of chickens from one facility when it was ordered to evacuate, although a Foster Farms representative did not respond to a request for comment.

Back in March, the county estimated agricultural losses at around $900 million.

Verboon says the total is likely now much higher, factoring in repairs and renovations, lost profits and jobs, and indirect losses to other industries.

“In my lifetime I’ve never seen this…we’ve seen some floods, but not to this magnitude,” said Verboon.

Gaining land back — inch by inch

Even the crops that survive may not be harvestable for a year or more.

“It’s probably a two billion dollar loss to our economy over a year, and with uncertainty of what next year’s going to bring…that's a great loss for our community,” said Verboon. “We're only 153,000 people, we’re a small county. We're dependent upon agriculture for the income.”

To help farmers, the county is slashing property taxes for flooded land, but it’s still unclear whether the state or federal government will offer any additional relief.

In the back of the pickup truck, Opi the dog can’t wait to jump into the water.
Kerry Klein
In the back of the pickup truck, Opi the dog can’t wait to jump into the water.

Vanderham, the dairy farmer, isn’t waiting around for help.

He’s doing what he can to keep his dairy operation running and his cows in good health, he said.

Most of them remain at a dairy he’s been leasing near Hanford. He’s moving them back trailer by trailer, but the commotion affects milk production.

“The stress of being moved, the stress of having to go from a different style of barn, doing all that in general puts a little bit of stress on the cows,” he said.

As the stress dissipates, so does the lake — but slowly.

Vanderham estimates he regains an inch or two of land every day.

Next, he’ll have to clean up his property, re-plant his cattle feed, and purchase another 5,000 head of cattle to replace those he was forced to sell.

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.