California’s Wet Winter Brought Back an Ancient Lake

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

Tulare Lake was once the largest lake west of the Mississippi River. Over the past century, dams and water diversion have dried out this lake that dates back to the Pleistocene Era.

Tulare Lake is now mostly a dry lake with some wetlands and marshes in the San Joaquin Valley. The lake is located in California’s Central Valley about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The Tulare lake basin is bordered by the Sierra Nevada to the east, the Coast Ranges to the west, the San Joaquin River to the north, and the Kern River to the south. The cities of Fresno, Visalia, and Bakersfield are located within close proximity to the lake.

An ancient lake, the origins of Tulare Lake date back about 600,000 years ago. The Tulare Lake region was formed millions of years ago according to the Lemoore-based Sarah Mooney Museum.


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A shaded relief map of the Central Valley in California showing the location of Tulare Lake.
The historical boundaries of Tulare Lake in California’s Central Valley. Tulare Lake GIS data from Endangered Species Recovery Program, CSU Stanislaus. Map: Caitlin Dempsey.

Historical Tulare Lake

The hydrology of Tulare Lake is primarily influenced by four rivers: the Kings, Kaweah, Tule, and Kern. These rivers, fed by snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada, once provided the primary source of water for the lake.

Tulare Lake’s water levels would fluctuate seasonally, expanding during the spring and early summer as the snowmelt increased river flows, and shrinking during the dry summer and fall months.

Historically, the lake had an average depth of 20 to 30 feet and covered an area of approximately 600 square miles during periods of high water.

With the diversion of water for agricultural purposes starting in the late 1870s, and the construction of dams and reservoirs, the lake’s size has been significantly reduced. Today, Tulare Lake is primarily a seasonal lake, with water accumulating during wet years and evaporating during dry periods.

A map from 1873 with a brown tint showing the State of California with a cropped version of the same map on the right to show the location of Tulare Lake in blue.
A map from 1873 showing Tulare Lake. Map: Map of San Joaquin, Sacramento and Tulare Valleys, State of California, prepared under the direction of the Board of Commissioners on Irrigation, appointed under the Act of Congress approved March 3rd 1873, showing the country that may be irrigated and a provisional system of irrigation.

In the Fourth Edition of “California As It Is” describes the disappearance of the Tulare Lake:

The most interesting natural phenomenon that has transpired in Kings county since its organization is the vanishing and reappearance of Tulare lake, a body of fresh water, for years the largest in area of any lake west of the Rocky Mountains. This lake at one time within the memory of some pioneers yet living covered one thousand square miles of territory, extending from Kern county northwesterly to near Lemoore. From 1854 to 1872, a period of sixteen years, the area of this lake changed but little. But along in the ’70s, irrigation from the streams that poured into this basin which forms the depression in the great Tulare valley, the borders of the lake gradually receded. It is the opinion of Dr. Gustav Eisen, who knew the lake in 1875 and who made a study of it again in 1898, that the use of the waters from the streams by the farmers caused the gradual recession. In a well-written article on the subject Dr. Eisen relates that recession was rapid at the end of the first three years of irrigation farming. The tapping of Kings and Tule rivers, and Cross creek which is fed by the Kaweah river, and the spreading of the water out upon the plains through great systems of canals and laterals caused the southern end of the lake to shrink materially. The shore line in 1854 represented the diagram of an oyster, but by 1875 the southern end had shrunk until it was about a mile in width.

….

From 1875 to 1880 the lake grew smaller and smaller and in 1882 the border had left Kern county entirely. In 1888 [sic] it had become almost circular in shape. From a body of water almost eighty miles in length in 1858, by the time Kings county was formed it had shrunken to about two hundred and twenty square miles.

Finally, in 1895, there was no lake.

California As It Is, 1883, page 200-201.

This map entitled, “From San Francisco Bay to the Plains of Los Angeles : from explorations and surveys” created in 1859 shows Tulare lake in the Central Valley. The map was created as part of an effort by the U.S. War Department to survey potential routes for a railroad line from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.

A black line drawing map on yellowed paper from 1859 showing the state of California.
From San Francisco Bay to the Plains of Los Angeles : from explorations and surveys” showing Tulare Lake in Central California. Map: 1859 via loc.gov.

California’s wet winter has caused Tulare Lake to re-emerge

Safeeq Khan, agricultural engineer and adjunct professor in civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Merced noted in an article published by NASA, “The Tulare basin floods occasionally, especially during extremely wet years and years with abundant snowpack on the Sierra Nevada mountains.” According to Khan, the Tulare lakebed last flooded in 1969, 1983, and 1997.

The incredibly high precipitation California has experienced over the 2022-2023 winter rainy season has increased flooding in the state’s Central Valley.

This series of Landsat 8 satellite images shows the re-emergence of Tulare Lake between March 2 and April 1, 2023.

Three side-by-side satellite imagers showing fields in green and an emerging lake in dark blue.
These three Landsat 8 satellite images show the emergence of Tulare Lake near Corcoran, California between March 2, and April 2023. Images: Landsat 8, NASA, public domain.

References

Blunt, A. B., & Negrini, R. M. (2015). Lake levels for the past 19,000 years from the TL05-4 cores, Tulare Lake, California, USA: geophysical and geochemical proxies. Quaternary International387, 122-130. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2015.07.001

California as it is (4th ed.). (1883). San Francisco Call Company.

Cassidy, E. (2023, April 4). Return of Tulare lake. NASA Earth Observatory. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/151174/return-of-tulare-lake

Austin, J. T. (2013). Floods and droughts in the Tulare Lake Basin. Sequoia Natural History Association.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.