Can letting Tulare Lake live make the Valley thrive?

What if the return of Tulare Lake during last year’s storms wasn’t just the result of getting too much water too fast for the flood-control infrastructure to handle it? What if – instead of a blow to the local economy affecting the lives of the richest to the poorest – the refilling of Tulare Lake is really the fallout from a century and a half of mismanagement of the Valley’s greatest natural resource: water?

Could the flooding of Tulare Lake Basin show us a way to strengthen the Valley’s ecology and economy? The global climate, for whatever reason, continues to change with unpredictable and ultimately destructive consequences, and the largest lake west of the Mississippi could be a Valley asset instead of a foe.

 

The Sociology of Tulare Lake

Those are some of the questions raised in a recent scholarly work by Vivian Underhill, a University of Colorado-trained hydrologist who also holds a PhD in feminist studies. In The Return of Pa’ashi: Colonial Unknowing and California’s Tulare Lake – which appears in the most recent issue of the peer-reviewed journal Open Rivers – Underhill reexamines how the lake was lost and why it may be in everyone’s best interest to let it remain.

Pa’ashi or “big water,” as Tulare Lake is still known by the Tachi Yokuts, has disappeared and returned many times in the 175 years since the Gold Rush drew thousands of Europeans to this side of the Sierra Nevada. For millennia, the lake had covered thousands of square miles of the Valley floor.

Then in 1898, it disappeared for the first time.

It wasn’t prolonged drought that did in Tulare Lake; it was farming. The largely forgotten history of how waterways that filled Tulare Lake were diverted to convert the rich land beneath it into prime acreage for growing is the focus of Underhill’s work. Draining Pa’ashi, she says, is where the Valley’s water and poverty woes really began.

“I think it deeply behooves us to take into deep, careful consideration (the lake’s) history,” Underhill said. “Keeping this deep historical record of the past in the present shows how we got to the present we have now.”

She makes a good argument.

 

Una Buena Vista

When the first Spanish explorers crested the Tejon Pass and saw the Valley floor for the first time, the sight that greeted them seems impossible to believe to anyone visiting Kern County today. Before them stretched nearly 4 million acres of open wetlands crisscrossed by rivers, dotted with open marshes, covered with tule reeds standing a dozen feet tall.

According to Underhill’s research, of the 800,000 acres of saltbush scrubland that stretched along the lakeside between Bakersfield and Fresno only 4 percent remains today. In its place are endless acres of monoculture fields and arid, dusty stretches.

Were those wetlands – or at least some substantial percentage of them – still present the Valley would likely not be facing a water crisis. Tulare Lake, Underhill argues, was a bulwark, providing a stabilizing influence on the Valley’s environment and keeping the land from running dry.

As it becomes increasingly clear our efforts to tame the landscape have had terrible unintended consequences that could end in the failure of agriculture in the Valley, Underhill believes it is in everyone’s best interest to stop clinging to the remnants of “colonial” thinking that pits farmers against their land.

Valley residents should embrace the lake’s return, she says, welcoming its ability to change our weather patterns for the better, to provide habitat for dwindling wildlife, to recharge our failing aquifers and to provide new economic benefits.

“Instead, the constant questions are how to get more water when there’s never enough, whether that water is contaminated, how to keep on surviving among the valley’s various extractive economies,” she wrote.

 

The Ghost of ‘Settler Colonialism’

The early farmers who began the work of diverting waterways for irrigation and turning wetlands into farmland didn’t come up with the idea of “reclaiming” the Valley floor. They were incentivized by the federal government, which offered them ownership of the land they cleared.

It was a key element of American Manifest Destiny, the idea that the country should grow to occupy all the land west of the original thirteen colonies. Remaking the land was preordained for the American people by a higher power in that view. Nearly two centuries later, the flavor of that thinking, thinking that led us to the brink of ecological disaster, still permeates our institutions and philosophies.

“Settler colonialism remains a  key issue to consider when we think about how we can respond to climate change and living on the land,” Underhill said.

A new perspective is needed, she argues. Instead of conquering the land, we should seek to find means of taking advantage of the benefits natural features like Pa’ashi present without causing their destruction.

“Another thing I see really clearly is to shift our view of Tulare Lake,” Underhill said. “It’s not flooding. It’s a lake that wants to remain.”

 

Climate Change and Water Scarcity

There is no doubt the state’s water troubles are detrimental to the state’s agricultural industries.

As reported this week by SJVWater.org, more than 900,000 acres of Valley farmland will be forced out of production during the next 15 years as less water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will be moved south and new laws restrict the use of groundwater. Ironically, 900,000 acres is almost exactly how many acres of wetland have been drained here.

Then there’s the weather.

The freak series of atmospheric river-driven storms that inundated California in 2023 have resumed in 2024, though so far with less rainfall. At least two more major storms are headed toward us right now, and the 1.5 inches of rain those systems will likely bring will make it into Tulare Lake, causing it to grow again.

We can expect to see rain years like that and the devastation it brought to our homes and businesses more often as the world’s climate continues to change, Underhill says, echoing a slew of other climate experts.

“Flooding of that magnitude will recur more frequently,” she said.

The wet periods will be punctuated by years-long droughts like the one that the rains of 2023 ended. Yet restoring Tulare Lake and the rivers, sloughs and wetlands could provide us some protection as the climate grows more unpredictable.

“There is natural flood protection built into allowing these wetlands to stay,” Underhill said.

The lake provides a hedge against dry years, as well, providing a reservoir of water that could be used for irrigation, and continuously recharging depleted groundwater.

“If we allowed for the restoration of these sloughs, wetland and lakes it would be a natural protection,” Underhill said. “This restoration would be long-term and more reliable. How many times have we seen these (flood protection measures) fail?”

 

Rethinking Tulare Lake’s Future

Of course keeping Tulare Lake in place will require convincing those who own the land beneath the waters it’s the right thing to do. Legal and political remedies will likely be required, Underhill believes.

“There are ways of going around and above big agriculture,” she said.

Underhill is a hydrologist with experience working at government agencies, and in the process of her research for her writing on Pa’ashi and other California water issues, she’s come into frequent contact with state water officials. Many of them, she says, want new approaches to managing the state’s water, including ideas like keeping Tulare Lake in place.

“A lot of those people are very interested,” Underhill said. “They want to do the right thing. They want to create a California without ecological collapse.”

And ignorance is also something that must be overcome. Many with the power to make changes are still using ideas based on the ideas that drove Manifest Destiny. Underhill says they simply have not questioned the logic behind the policies.

“We need to root out that ‘common sense’ and make space for imagining how it could be otherwise,” she said.

Yet other water experts have no idea Tulare Lake existed before its sudden return last year.

“Often water managers don’t know about the history of this place,” Underhill said.

 

Outmoded Thinking

The mindset of those who manage the Valley’s lands and waters is contaminated – not unlike the lands and waters they oversee – with remnants of what once seemed like good ideas. The concept of forcing the land into overproduction led to the loss of Tulare Lake, and Underhill thinks the same behavior is creating our environmental woes now.

“It’s as big an issue today as it was in the 1880s as when this paper was written about,” she said.

And that is what prompted her to address the issue in a scholarly work.

Underhill wrote:

But until this year (2023), mainstream narratives of the Valley almost entirely avoided the lakes, exemplifying what Chickasaw scholar Jodi Byrd described in a talk at the University of California Santa Cruz as colonial agnosia. As Byrd said, colonial agnosia describes the failure “to comprehend the realities of colonialism by those people who might most benefit from these conditions.”

In other words, those who gain the most from keeping Tulare Lake dry don’t want to know – or don’t care – how their behavior creates distress. Ultimately, Underhill would like to see the land and water rights for Tulare Lake – for Pa’ashi – returned to the Tachi Yokuts.

 

A Wetter, Lusher Valley

Leaving Pa’ashi alone is the right thing to do. The benefits of letting Tulare Lake remain are manyfold, says Underhill. The widespread gains would be ecologically sound as well as economically beneficial.

It could also simply make the Valley a better place to live.

“If the lake was allowed to remain, it could be a major tourist destination,” Underhill said. “There are a lot of economic benefits to allowing Pa’ashi to remain there.”

Those who lived close to the lake before it was “reclaimed” remember skies black with migrating birds by the millions. They recall world-class hunting and fishing. They remember the towering tule reeds and the diverse wilderness.

Appealing to the next generations who will become the Valley’s new leaders could help change the way we view and treat our homeland.

“You have these stories about what Tulare Lake used to be like. A lot of people don’t know about that,” Underhill said. “The thing would be to share this with high schoolers and middle schoolers. If we can share this knowledge with people who are building lives there, we can help build change there.”

4 thoughts on “Can letting Tulare Lake live make the Valley thrive?

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  1. Water conservation in California has always been dear to me. I’m a native born, fourth generation Californian.
    I’m in favor of allowing Tulare Lake to remain. Also for the native peoples to reclaim it.
    How can you get this information out to the schools from grammar to college. Bring attention starting at grass roots level. Would you keep us informed on progress and how to help? Thanks!

  2. Letting Tulare Lake live would benefit California greatly. Rising temperatures and water scarcity would be two problems that this solves (partially). Imagine cooler air in Fresno! Plus, the opportunity to allow our aquifers to be recharged by this large water body is unpredented. I would fight to allow the lake to return. I think that the surrounding agricultural lands would also benefit from the richer and moist soil the lake would provide. And give the preservation and governance of the lake back to the native Americans. It ties to Gov Newsom’s reparation sensibilities because if we owe anyone anything, we owe plenty to the Native Americans.

  3. Huge bond was approved by voters to create additional water storage over 10 years ago yet Nothing built…maybe Sykes reservoir someday…take that money and buyout landholder keep lake…

  4. Tulare Lake is the poster “child” or the problem. It could B used 2 grow rice in wet years but its definitely a symbol of how people squandered water. The real issue is that CA hasn’t built the capacity 2 store water in wet years that would allow it 2 use irrigation &/or maintain river/wetland ecosystems in streams in dry ones. Feast 2 famine rain cycles have destroyed aboriginal cultures in the past in the desert SW. Smart people learn from past failures.

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