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HomeUSWorry and suspicion reign as once-dry Tulare Lake drowns California farmland

Worry and suspicion reign as once-dry Tulare Lake drowns California farmland


Sixth Avenue used to cut through miles of farmland. Now, the path has disappeared under the muddy water, its path marked by sodden telephone poles jutting out of the rising lake. The water falls just below the windows of a lonely farmhouse that stands next to the submerged road.

Thousands of acres of farmland have been inundated in this heavily cultivated stretch of the San Joaquin Valley. And the water keeps rising.

For the first time in decades, Tulare Lake is making a comeback in the valley, reclaiming the lowlands at its historic heart. Once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River, Tulare Lake was largely drained in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the rivers that fed it were dammed and diverted for agriculture .

This month, after a historic series of powerful storms, Ghost Lake has resurfaced. Rivers that dwindled during the drought are overflowing with runoff from heavy rains and snowfalls and flowing forcefully from the Sierra Nevada into the valley, spilling out of canals and broken levees into fields often filled with lucrative plantations. of tomatoes, cotton and hay.

“This is unreal,” said Mark Grewal, an agronomist who has worked on area farms since 1979, surveying floodwaters that stretched to the horizon. “I am amazed at how quickly it filled up.”

Mark Grewal, an agricultural consultant, stands on a flooded road near Corcoran, where Tulare Lake is making a comeback and inundating thousands of acres of farmland.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Along with the shock, the sudden resurgence of Tulare Lake has fueled conflict in one of California’s wealthiest agricultural centers, as spreading waters engulf fields and orchards and encroach on low-lying cities. In a region where major agricultural landowners have a history of disputes over water, flooding flowing into the Tulare Lake Basin has reignited some longstanding tensions and prompted accusations of foul play and mismanagement.

Residents of rural towns like Alpaugh and Allensworth fear that their homes are not a priority for protection against rising waters. And as water has inundated the canals, tensions have flared over where the floods should be directed and which farmland should be submerged first.

“When there is so much water, nobody wants it,” Grewal said. “Growers want to keep it off their land.”

More water is expected to flow into the basin in the coming weeks from the rivers that feed it, the Kings, St. John’s and Tule, among them, sending flows through the network of channels that crisscross the lake floor.

“All the arteries are full and they are going to get more full,” Grewal said. “It could be as big or bigger than ’83.”

That was the lake’s last high point, when heavy rains and snow unleashed runoff that, according to Grewal’s records, covered about 82,000 acres. During that fill-in, and a smaller comeback in 1997-98, Grewal managed farmland for the JG Boswell Co., the area’s largest landowner. He now runs his own consulting business, working with growers in the US and internationally.

The resurfaced lake has already inundated more than 10,000 acres of farmland, Grewal said, and will continue to expand over the next two months as historic snowpack in the Sierra Nevada melts and flows into the valley.

Near the town of Stratford, Grewal drove on a causeway through fields that normally produced tomatoes and where water now pooled in dark ridges on the lakebed floor.

“This is all going to go under,” he said.

approx.  borders of Tulare Lake, between Interstate 5 and Highway 99 in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

(Paul Duginski/Los Angeles Times)

In previous flood years, Grewal said, levees typically opened in an agreed order, sending water from one closed “cell” to another and filling the lake bottom in an orchestrated fashion. This time, he said, there have been delayed responses and more levee breaks than in the past.

“The flooding is not being handled properly,” Grewal said, noting that he works with a grower who has 2,400 acres of pistachio trees suffocated under water. “It’s a disaster, because there are breaks everywhere.”

In a mysterious incident, Jack Mitchell of the area’s Deer Creek Flood Control District alleged that someone had intentionally cut a levee with a backhoe in the dead of night. He says that he knows who did it, but the report has not led to an investigation.

Elsewhere, Mitchell said, the Boswell company at one point used massive equipment as a barrier, preventing Mitchell’s team from cutting a levee to send water deeper into the basin and away from cities. “It’s silly the way they’re doing it,” he said at the time. “He wants to go to the lake, and they won’t let him go.”

The Kings County Board of Supervisors stepped in to resolve the dispute and ordered Boswell managers to cut a dam and send water to the bottom of the lake, and to their fields and those of other growers, instead of trying to pump the water to areas of higher elevation.

“They weren’t very happy with me,” Supervisor Doug Verboon said. “Someone coming and telling them what to do is not good for them. But what he did was open a line of communication. So now we’re talking to each other and sharing ideas.”

Boswell’s representatives did not respond to emails from The Times requesting an interview.

Over the years, the company has built levees at the bottom of the old lake bed to control flooding. “The idea is to flood as few acres as possible to minimize losses,” Grewal said.

A truck navigates through a flooded pistachio field near Corcoran.

A truck navigates through a flooded pistachio field near Corcoran.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Local responsibility for flood control in the basin is divided among a dozen reclamation districts, which are controlled by property owners. State officials have visited the area to discuss response efforts. Director of the Department of Water Resources Karla Nemeth told the SJV Water news website that she and her team are assessing the state’s authority to intervene, if necessary, to help “deal with challenges that we’ve already seen arise in the last 10 days.”

Verboon said one problem that has complicated matters is bad blood between the Boswell company and John Vidovich, who also owns a large acreage in the basin. Their disputes, some rooted in disagreements over water rights, have led to litigation, and Verboon said they have refused to speak to each other.

“We all pay the price when they fight,” Verboon said. But he said he anticipates that the flooding, which will worsen in the coming weeks, could prompt the two camps to “work together to get this water out of here.”

During the 1983 floods, Grewal said, the decision was made to take a large portion of the rushing water and divert it to southern California cities. “They pumped a million acre-feet into Los Angeles that would have gone into the lake,” he said. “Boswell paid for that, just to drain the lake faster.”

Farms in the lake’s footprint depend on a mixture of water from irrigation canals and groundwater. In many years, limited surface supplies have led producers to pump heavily from wells. As the aquifer has gone down, the land has been sinking. In parts of the basin, that has altered where the water flows.

In an interview, Vidovich did not address the response to the floods. He said some of his company’s almond and walnut orchards have been flooded and “you just have to hope the trees get enough oxygen to survive.”

Other farmers have echoed the concern, saying that if water remains in orchards as temperatures rise, the roots will rot and kill the trees.

In lower Allensworth, residents have used shovels and tractors to build berms, trying to prevent ditches from overflowing and sending water into their homes. Its leaders have called for more help from state and county officials, as well as the adjacent railroad. Despite an evacuation order, many residents have said they plan to stay behind to try to defend their homes.

“The true spirit of Allensworth, to me, is helping people in need in our community,” said Melvin Santiel, pastor of Allensworth Christian Church. “And we have to because we don’t have anyone coming to help us.”

Santiel said he is concerned that some growers have been trying to keep water off their land, and that canals and levees have suffered from lack of maintenance. “California’s infrastructure was not ready for this,” Santiel said. “We have to come up with a major plan, because this water is not going to stop.”

Grewal said he believes Allensworth will be in danger when the snow melts and “they have to go.”

The return of Tulare Lake, he said, could put valuable land out of service for up to two years, reducing production of tomatoes, pima cotton, safflower and alfalfa. He said he expects farmworkers to relocate and prices for processed tomatoes and other products to rise.

However, the region’s big producers have weathered past floods and will survive this one, Grewal said. And the bounty of water will bring a significant boost to supplies.

On satellite imagery of the San Joaquin Valley, the footprint of the old lake bed stands out as a darker grayish area in patches of farmland. In the days before damming rivers, the lake could stretch for 790 square milesfour times the size of Lake Tahoe, with depths of 30 feet.

Before white settlers arrived in the Central Valley in the 1800s, Tulare Lake was the center of life for the native Yokut who lived on its shores and along the rivers. Farmers then began diverting water and reclaiming land at the bottom of the lake.

More than a century later, members of the Ranchería Santa Rosa of the Tachi Yokut Tribe live near what was once the north shore of the lake. Tribal leaders have agreed to diversions that will channel some of the floodwater onto their land, relieving pressure on the system and helping to recharge groundwater.

The lake’s rise is “just a little reminder of what once was here,” said Leo Sisco, tribal chairman.

The ghost lake, which the tribe calls Pa’ashi, remains central to their spiritual beliefs. Their traditional songs include passages that say when the water rises, “that’s the lake telling us, ‘Okay, it’s time for you to get out of here,'” said Robert Jeff, vice president of the tribe.

“That’s when our people would pack up,” Jeff said, “and we’d head into the mountains, to our other villages, until the water receded.”

“It’s time to move to higher ground,” he said.

Times staff writer Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.

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