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The Lake That Will Not Die

A BRISK CROSSWIND tugs at the car as it cruises through rain-cleansed air down Interstate 5 toward Oildale. To the east, the vast San Joaquin Plain is foreshortened all the way to muscular Sierras dusted with snow. Much closer, two long rows of palm trees stand as forlorn sentries along a soggy farm road. We are slipping down the Great Central Valley’s western edge along the first rise of treeless western hills, emerald now and dotted with muddy cattle.

    Hurrying south, past multicolored patches of vegetation flecked with standing water, the rich aroma of wet earth thickens the air; it is a smell, invasive and comforting, that city dwellers do not know. This country boy sucks it hungrily into his lungs.

    “What smells so funny?” asks my son, Carlos. “Can I roll the window up?”


    Roadside ditches are full, and occasional mallards and coots can be seen in them, but that does not prepare us for the vision that abruptly appears farther down the freeway: a vast and unexpected sheet of water extending as far as we can see, appearing to fill the entire southern end of the Great Valley.

    I nose our car to a stop on the highway’s shoulder and Carlos, who has endured this trip many times, asks, “What’s all that water, Dad? I don't remember it.”

    For a moment, I do not answer because we are seeing a ghost. Finally I reply, “Tulare Lake.”

* * *

    Tulare Lake was once the largest body of fresh water west of the Great Lakes. Formed by the entrapped drainage of four Sierra rivers, the Kings, Kaweah, White, and Tule—its highest level was recorded in 1862. That year it covered 486,400 acres to depths exceeding forty feet, actually swallowing two other significant lakes, 8,300-acre Kern and 4,000-acre Buena Vista, which trapped drainage from the Sierra’s longest stream, Kern River, in a sub-basin to the south. In fact, the entire southern end of the Great Valley—120 miles by 50 miles—resembled a primordial sea, its broadened periphery dotted with displaced rabbits and foraging cattle, its shimmering surface darkened by uncountable waterfowl, for this was a linchpin in the Pacific Flyway.

    Most wet years well into the late nineteenth century, Tulare Lake covered 200,000 acres and measured 75 by 25 miles during its high season, ebbing and flowing like a huge tidal pool in the midst of an otherwise desiccated landscape. Historian Frank Latta claims it virtually dried up during prolonged periods of drought. The annual pulsing of local wetlands was determined far less by its scant rainfall than by snowmelt in the southern Sierra Nevada, which fed all the streams that emptied into this basin.

    As a result, the region was a land of startling contrasts: vast reed beds, marshes, and ponds surrounded by bleached grassland or land with no grass at all—even sand dunes on the lake’s southern and southeastern shores—while mallards and coots and Canadian honkers fed in the proximity of horned toads and jackrabbits. To the east side, along the Kaweah River's alluvial fan, a dense oak forest extended to the water’s edge, and alkali flats, like earth crusted with snow, could be found glaring along miles of marshes and sloughs.

    Lakes and wetlands were unique features of a remarkable geomorphic amalgam known as Tulare Basin: Tulare Lake Basin to the north, Buena Vista Basin to the south. The northern basin was dominated by the large lake for which it was named. William Preston in Vanishing Landscapes, his bench-mark study of the locale, describes it this way: “an area delimited on the north, west, and south by the boundaries of Tulare and Kings Counties and on the east by vaguely determined but readily visible limits of cultivation . . . a topographic basin with interior drainage.” Buena Vista Basin lay below the present Kern County line, enclosed roughly by the locations of present-day Delano, Wheeler Ridge, Taft, and Buttonwillow. Southeast and southwest of Bakersfield, the aforementioned Kern and Buena Vista lakes collected the flow of Kern River. Between and among those two bodies of water existed many channels, marshes, and swamps, while another good-sized, tule-lined pool called Goose Lake filled to the northwest near Buttonwillow.

    During wet years, Buena Vista Slough linked the sub-basins. As geographer Preston explains, despite the distinctness of those sections, “historically the word ‘basin’ was used to describe the entire southern end of the Valley as a unified landscape.” In years of extreme precipitation, such as 1862, the entire territory was a single vast lagoon.

    The hub of it all was indeed vast Tulare Lake and its inter-connected wetlands: a trough within a basin within a valley. Its volume swelled and shrank and swelled again in the west-center of the basin named for it, extending east from terraces near present-day Kettleman City toward gradually rising terrain adjacent to Corcoran. The site of Lemoore marks the lake’s approximate northern boundary, while to the south the state historical monument at Allensworth stands on the edge of what was once shore.

    In fact, attendant wetlands extended far south past Buttonwillow in Kern County, east toward Tulare and Visalia, and north along Fish Slough well into Fresno County; the west was sealed by the inner edge of the Coast Range, specifically Kettleman Hills. The Sierra Nevada and the Coast Range are nearly seventy-five miles apart here, deflecting rain clouds from the widened valley, so this is an arid to semiarid realm, a desert, absorbing only five to ten inches of rain annually. Nonetheless, in the past, standing water was its most signal characteristic.

    Each spring Tulare Lake would swell with snowmelt, then recede dramatically by fall or early winter. Local pioneers played a kind of agricultural roulette by planting grain as water retreated on the drying lake bed, then harvesting before the next cycle’s runoff once more filled the depression—they “plowed pollywogs in spring, and harvested frogs in winter,” or so local folklore had it. It was usually a profitable strategy, but not always.

    In 1906, for instance, a late date when most of the lake's tributaries had already been diverted for irrigation, William Hubbard found his equipment trapped when water rose faster and higher than expected. Hubbard, who farmed east of Delano and annually planted grain far to the northwest on the lake’s rich floor, moved his threshing machines to an island locals had never seen covered with water, then escaped by boat. This was, however, a wet year and soon his gear was six feet below the lake's surface—an appropriate depth since all the machinery was ruined and so was the farmer. Eventually the rusted equipment was dragged back to his yard where it stood for years, known as Hubbard's Junkpile.

      The diversion of tributaries for irrigation had begun in the 1870s. That same surface water could no longer flow directly into Tulare Lake, which as a result suffered a steady decline not only in quantity but also in quality, because irrigation runoff leached salts from alkali soil. Streams continued to be diverted into this century, and soon diminished runoff could no longer dilute intensified salinization; at the turn of the century the lake was too saline to support significant aquatic life, and its once~thriving commercial fishery was finished.

    Thirty years later, Kings River—the lake’s most important source of water—was irrigating more land than any other stream in the world except the Nile and Indus rivers, over a million acres. Little wonder then that only a piddling flow ever reached the old lake bed most years and, as Donald Worster points out, “that destroyed grower unity, and overloaded the courts” because ex-partners battled over limited resources. When dams such as Pine Flat and Isabella were finally built on major streams thirty-plus years ago, they served as the coups de grace in a process of diminution that had begun nearly a century earlier.

    Today, reclaimed and plowed and planted, the old lake bed is farmland. Cotton and safflowers are produced where fish were once netted. In fact, the very existence of that vast sheet of water is but a vague memory, which dramatically demonstrates how much humans have altered even this open terrain in California's core. Someone driving through the Central Valley today isn't apt to recognize that only 4 percent of the landscape is estimated to remain unaltered: nearly all of its natural wetlands are gone, nearly all of its native grasslands no longer exist, nearly all of its oak woodlands have been destroyed. In the nineteenth century, hogs were run on Atwell’s Island southeast of Tulare, and no fences were needed because the settlement could be reached only by boat; today the island is a dryland farming town called Alpaugh.

* * *

    “Back in I955, right after I finished high school,” I tell Carlos, who thinks the fifties were neat, “a couple of buddies and I drove up to Alpaugh to do some duck hunting. I’d heard a pal of my dad's say there were lots of them at a place called Tulare Lake.”

    “Well, we crisscrossed dirt roads, drove along miles of ditches and sloughs, saw a million red-winged blackbirds and a billion tules, and one mudhen.”

    He laughs, “Only one mudhen?”

    “More than one. Anyway, we were half-lost and felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, so when we finally ran into an old black man fishing in a canal, I stopped the car and went to talk with him. I started out by asking him if he’d caught any fish, and he smiled and showed me some small catfish he had in a bucket.

    “Then I told him we were looking for ducks, and he smiled again: ‘They’s ducks all over here.’

    “That led me to ask him where Tulare Lake was, and he said, ‘It ain’t here no mo’.’ The finality of those words—‘no mo’ ’—has stuck with me ever since. We never did see the lake.”

    Carlos gazes at me, then asks, “And then what happened?” He has seen many movies and expects action.

    “Nothing,” I admit. “We went home.”

* * *

Tulare Lake Basin is now indistinguishable from the San Joaquin Plain that borders it to the north. Just above the alluvial fan that separates those two geomorphic regions, the San Joaquin River crosses the dominant prairie, then winds north along the Valley’s western edge. Tributaries in that fiat realm all drain into San Francisco Bay, and open grassland—not standing water—characterizes it.  In 1861, William Henry Brewer described the San Joaquin as “a plain of absolute desolation.” Today those two distinct environs—the barren plain and the boggy basin—have been rendered indistinguishable by development and reclamation, and they are lumped under a single name: the San Joaquin Valley.

    Yet Tulare Lake Basin, also called Tulare Valley, once boasted its own distinct regional identity. An 1888 Business Directory and Historical and Descriptive Hand-Book of Tulare County, California, for instance, advised local residents, “All Tulareans should co-operate in giving the name of their great valley a wide and honorable notoriety, leaving the inhabitants of the San Joaquin to look out for the name and fortune of their portion of the state.”

    It is more than a little ironic that the same publication would complain about the lake itself, by then already diminished by stream diversion and considered an impediment to agricultural development: “the one natural feature of the county that our conscience will not let us praise. . . . It is a great unsightly mudhole.”

    Historically, although the huge lake was its nucleus, the basin housed those rich, complicated wetlands that included numerous freshwater aquatic communities. Marshes were de- fined by warm, shallow water clogged with dense masses of sedges, cattails, rushes, reeds, and other aquatic vegetation—the generalized “tulares” for which the Spanish named this region. Small local swamps added trees and shrubs where riparian forests met marshes. Wildlife abounded in both. There were also many boggy ponds, convoluted sloughs or channels; everything was poorly drained and seasonal.

    Floating “islands” of tules, many large enough to support the weight of several people, are reported to have drifted wind-blown across Tulare Lake's surface. Those bulrushes decomposed in the water, enriching it with their nutrients and triggering a complex and abundant food chain. Little wonder, since tules, some growing to a height of twenty feet, surrounded the water in unimaginable profligacy. In 1850, U.S. Army surveyor George Horatio Derby said he had to fight his way through a dense, two-mile-wide band of tules to reach open water on Tulare Lake. In The Land of Little Rain (1903), novelist Mary Austin described that ribbon of vegetation this way:

ghostly pale in winter, in summer deep, poisonous-looking green, the waters thick and brown, the reed beds breaking into dingy pools, clumps of rotting willows, narrow winding water lanes and sinking paths. The reeds grow inconceivably thick in places, standing man-high above water; cattle, no, not any fish nor fowl can penetrate them.

    The region's long summers created a semitropical environment as cold snowmelt water sat among decaying vegetation in poorly drained, shallow beds, where it warmed and evaporated, so diseases such as malaria were a menace. Zephryn Englehardt reports that malaria and cholera epidemics killed nearly three-quarters of the area's abundant Indian population in l832-33.

    Despite such pestilence, there was prescience in William Henry Brewer’s observation: “The soil is fertile enough, but destitute of water, save the marshes near the river and near Tulare Lake.” The dry land was indeed fertile, as development has proved, but Brewer added a caveat: “The marshy region is unhealthy and infested with mosquitoes in incredible numbers and of unparalleled ferocity. The dry plain on each side abounds in tarantulas.”

    During most years, the fluctuating water of Tulare Lake was plied by steamboats and various other vessels, since the lake sent waterfowl, fish, frogs’ legs, and even turtles to faraway dining establishments. An l883 history of Kern County proudly states:

From Tulare Lake come the turtles that make the rich turtle soups and stews in San Francisco hotels and restaurants. . . . These turtles are sent in sacks to San Francisco. During the Season more than 180 dozen found a ready sale at the bay.

    Local Indians, the Yokuts, had developed buoyant tule rafts with holes in their floors through which they could spear fish. After American settlement and control, professional fishermen during the 1870s and 1880s claimed to have caught up to eight tons of fish from the lake with only one haul of a horse-drawn seine.

    In the old days, game was abundant here and the Yokuts had no tales of starvation in their repertoires. They were considered fortunate indeed by tribes dwelling in the surrounding hills. This area was also seen as a paradise by early American trappers and hunters. Beavers and otters were so common in the 1820s, for instance, that Jedediah Smith once took 1,500 pounds of pelts in a single tour. In 1844, John Charles Frémont was astounded by “multitudes of wild fowl, principally geese.” Tule elk were still common then, and pronghorn antelope also grazed the surrounding plain. Grizzly bears and coyotes abounded, and gray wolves were even reported. Wild horses—the progeny of escaped Spanish stock—had established themselves long before Fremont visited; “we found plenty of mustangs, wild horses, in 1807 . . . ,” recounted Felipe Santiago Garcia, “and lots of mission cattle.”

    The entry of European livestock signaled a major, irreversible, but often unnoticed alteration of the basin's character. Today wild oats, European foxtail, Bermuda grass, and bur clover are simply assumed to be common regional flora, but botanist Beecher Crampton points out that those weeds and grasses, among many others, were transported in packing material, in the soil surrounding cuttings, in ship ballast, and, most important, in and on domestic animals, which were walking seed bags. As a result, even the Yokuts’ usually benign practice of burning areas of dry prairie grasses to encourage earlier sprouting of the next crop actually helped hardy European annual weeds and grasses to replace natives.

    By 1833, trapper Zenas Leonard observed that indigenous perennial bunch-grasses had been almost totally replaced. Consequences of that alteration were considerable, for this had been one of the world’s great natural rangelands; both antelope and elk had depended upon bunch-grasses, so the natural web that included the ungulates was upset and their survival was threatened. By 1977, with antelope and elk long gone and most of the prairie gone too, another botanist, Harold Heady, suggested that “alien species should be considered as new and permanent members of the grassland rather than as aliens.” This successful intrusion, of course, parallels the human dominance of European immigrants over the few remaining Yokuts.

    Another major change occurred when farmers began diverting the lake's feeder streams for irrigation. At that point the large but fragile pool began to shrink significantly. Twenty years later, the first of many reclamation districts was composed and initiated the process of opening to farming what had previously been lake bed: “as the waters vanished, speculators and settlers stampeded to Kings County,” states a 1913 history of the region. Farmers no longer had to wait for the summer dry-up to plant there.

    As geographer Preston points out, “reclamation abruptly terminated the lake's traditional role as habitat for migratory fowl.” It also abruptly terminated the lake itself—even the idea of it in the minds of most people. Its fishery had been destroyed; its resident beavers and otters were gone; its grizzlies and elk decimated; its remaining water impounded in a large evaporation pool and considered too salty to be of use. Ironically, the former lake bed would soon have to be irrigated.

    Little of what was once natural in this basin has been saved. Great agricultural productivity has been gained, but there is deep irony that this once wildly diverse section of California strikes outsiders as homogeneous—fields and towns and roads that look too much alike. As novelist A. T. Bezzerides wrote in Long Haul (1938), one drives on, “passing through the small towns, Fowler and Kingsburg, Coshen and Pixley, town after town, Famosa and Bakersfield, mixing them up, thinking one was the other.” The old lake bed now resembles nothing more than exactly what it has become, a grid of agribusiness.

    Viewing the basin from an airplane, however, reveals the un-erasable impress of sinuous, `disorderly shores that were once edged by a miles-wide band of tules; the old lake’s shadow is still distinctly there—however divided, however settled, however drained and irrigated—waiting for the next wet year. On it has been imposed the world's largest and most productive agricultural chessboard: what geographer Alvin Urquhart describes as geometry of ownership replacing geography of nature. But when nature provides more water than storage facilities can handle, the lake rises like a wet phoenix from the supine countryside—geography reasserts itself.

    In 1969, for instance, the Kings River overflowed levees and suddenly Tulare Lake was again among the state's largest. Nine years later, following another generous spring runoff, the non-existent lake covered some 70 square miles of land—a far cry from the 780 it once enveloped but enough to disturb farmers. Another of the levees keeping water out of the lake's old bed was breached in 1983, and 30,000 acres of cropland were suddenly inundated.

    That year the local irrigation district immediately sought permission to pump the offending water over the divide into the San Joaquin River, but there was a complication: white bass, an introduced, voracious predator of the young of game fish, infested the lake's latest reincarnation. If allowed into the San Joaquin’s drainage, they might destroy its native fishery.

    The following October, Tulare Lake’s ghost was still there and the Corps of Engineers issued a permit for growers to pump their land dry, but required that fish screens be employed. Only twenty-four hours after the operation began, white bass were gill-netted downstream in the San Joaquin River, and pumping had to be halted. Then, reports Marc Reisner in Cadillac Desert (1986):

Fish and Game — as if to underscore the catastrophic consequences of releasing white bass — poured a thousand gallons of rotenone, a virulent pesticide, into six miles of river around the fish screen. . . . A week later, Fish and Game performed a second mass poisoning.

    Eventually, despite urgent legal efforts by sportsmen’s groups and environmentalists to stop them, growers were again allowed to pump the nonexistent lake into the river, and even today no one is certain if that action may have doomed the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta’s rich fishery. Playing with nature is rarely without cost.

    Meanwhile, many local residents, their bottomland conveniently pumped dry, once more forgot the persistent lake, but some future wet winter it will be back to remind them. It will be back.

    The special ecological and geographic distinctions that once defined Tulare Lake have been obscured by diversion of its major feeder streams, by the draining of its wetlands, and by the agricultural development of the basin; as a result, many people who live in the area today are themselves unaware of its distinctiveness. They never saw that great sheet of water, those miles of tules, those uncountable waterfowl, and they cannot imagine them. In their experience, this has always been furrowed farmland, crossed by tractors and irrigated along shimmering rows. Lake? What lake?

* * *

    “Tulare Lake,” I repeat, not resisting the impulse to smile. “It doesn't exist.”

    This is just occult enough a statement to satisfy Carlos, so he says, “Far. . . out. . . ,” stretching the words.

    After one more long look at history, I pull the car back on to the interstate and continue our journey, glancing more than a driver should at Tulare Lake’s latest reincarnation.

    We leave the freeway at Seventh Standard Road and drive east. On one side an oil pump bows to us as we pass an inundated cotton field while, on the other, an isolated storm cloud trails tendrils of rain like a dark jellyfish in the sky. Well ahead—our perspectives distorted by angle and distance and crisp air—we glimpse the roofs and dark tree-clusters of Oildale, with steam plumes rising from the petroleum workings in the creased hills beyond. To the south, Bakersfield slopes on river bluffs.

    Finally, as the road emerges from a stretch of orchards into open fields once more, I spy an irrigator, his legs encased in rubber boots that sag like a hippo’s thick feet. He stands with hands cupping a smoke, leaning on a shovel, and he too surveys the distant glistening of a lake long dead. He waves as we pass and I give him thumbs up, then turn and smile at my son. Grandma and Grandpa's house is just ahead.

This story/article appeared in a variety of publications before being included in Haslam's The Other California: The Great Central Valley in Life and Letters, which was first published in 1990 by Capra Press, and is now available from the University of Nevada Press [Click Here!].

As of April 2023, abnormal California rainfalls fueled by climate change have led to the resurrection of Tulare Lake, much to the regret of people who had developed the empty lake bed in previous years. To learn more about the lake's reappearance, click Here and Here!

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