Return of Tulare Lake: Farmland impacted as lake basin fills in Kings County

Vanessa Vasconcelos Image
Friday, March 24, 2023
Return of Tulare Lake: Farmland impacted as lake basin fills
Tulare Lake was known in the late 1800s as the largest fresh water lake in the western United States.

KINGS COUNTY, Calif. (KFSN) -- In Kings County, floodwater is now covering a large area of agricultural land in the Tulare Lake Basin.

The water levels are something we haven't seen in nearly four decades.

The winter of 1982-83 was the last time we saw water going into the Tulare Lake basin.

That's because that water is diverted to the San Joaquin River.

However, an increased flow in all waterways leading to the basin has caused Tulare Lake to begin to re-emerge.

The lake was known in the late 1800s as the largest fresh water lake in the western United States.

"This isn't a one time this isn't a two-day this isn't a two week event. This will last through the summer most likely around September," explained Kings County Sheriff David Robinson.

In response to huge snowfall amounts within the Kings River watershed, the U-S Army Corps of Engineers began a flood release into the old Tulare lakebed to create room in the Pine Flat Reservoir.

"We have a lot of farmers that farm in the lake bottom and they understand that we get an event like this perhaps a 100 year event some of their land will flood again," Robinson said.

"So, there's a pretty good start on the lake's reconfiguration this year, how much will be there," said Randy McFarland with the Kings River Water Association. "Well, time will tell as it goes on. Kind of depends on how hot the weather is early on."

McFarland says the 1,000 square mile lake hasn't filled since the winter of 1867 and 68.

That's when water levels reached 207 feet above sea level.

"There is a high point of land in the northwest corner of the lake, it was able to go over and flood into the eventually into the San Joaquin River," McFarland explained.

It would dry up for the first time in 1898 as canals were dug from various rivers to irrigate farmland.

A home video from 1942 shows the lake's return after it was revived by heavy runoff from the mountains.

The lake remained at a quarter of its size for three years.

"Caused a lot of grief in Kings County and Western Tulare County. Then again in 1968-69, when we had a huge water year, and in 1982-83," said McFarland.

An 1876 map of Tulare County shows Corcoran would be underwater.

Kettleman City and Lemoore would be lakefront, and Alpaugh would be an island.

"The Alpaugh area, actually Alpaugh, was an area known as Atwells Island. It was a little bit higher," McFarland said.

As for the latest re-emergence of the Tulare Lake and how long we'll see it, McFarland says there is no natural outflow for the water.

"After it gets there, then it. The only way it's going to be eliminated is through evaporation, or what irrigation can take place," McFarland said.

The Kings County Sheriff is reminding everyone the Tulare Lake Basin is private farmland and trespassing rules will be enforced.