Kayode Kadara is worried about the rising waters near his home. Just a few months ago, this landscape in California’s Central Valley was a dry basin filled with pistachio and almond groves.
Then a winter of historic rain and snow brought Tulare Lake – a massive freshwater body drained a century ago by agricultural canals – rushing back from the dead. Workers from state agencies have brought sandbags in by helicopter, rebuilt levees, and constructed walls to hold the deluge back.
“We are surrounded by water,” Kadara says.
For places like Kadara’s hometown of Allensworth, a historically Black community on the shores of Tulare Lake, the return has brought concerns about the future, and who will get flooded first. The rising waters now threaten tens of thousands of people in Kings county and the surrounding San Joaquin Valley, a huge agricultural area that grows nuts, fruit and vegetables. Vast swathes of farmland have already been inundated, with scientists predicting the lake could exist for two years and continue to fill as runoff from an unprecedented amount of snow in the southern Sierra melts.
Allensworth’s 600 residents have been keeping the floods at bay by plugging culverts that could move water from the lake into their town with sandbags, gravel, plywood and large rocks. Currently, the statewide snowpack holds the equivalent of more than 60in of rain, according to state data, which could be unlocked over the coming months and bring even more water gushing into the basin.
“It’s hard to control bodies of water in times like this,” Kadara says. “This is unprecedented – it’s new for all of us.”
Tulare Lake was once the largest freshwater body west of the Mississippi. In the mid-1800s, before canals diverted its water flow, the lake was a permanent feature of the San Joaquin Valley, covering nearly 800 square miles – about four times the size of Lake Tahoe.
In a drought-hit region that typically begs for moisture, the arrival of too much water at once is a paradoxical, slow-moving disaster. And in San Joaquin Valley, where some of the state’s largest megafarms sit side-by-side with family farms and small, unincorporated communities like Allensworth, many fear the fallout from the Tulare Lake flooding will be spread unevenly.
Allensworth was the first town in California established exclusively by African Americans, in 1908, as a place to “live, govern, and be self-sufficient apart from Jim Crow”, Kadara says. Now predominantly Latino, it has become known as “the town that refuses to die” for its persistence through challenges. It began as a thriving farming community, a tradition that continues with small-scale farms like Tac Farm, which Kadara farms with his brother-in-law and which received funding to develop sustainable practices and cooperative methods.
The town has also long struggled with access to clean drinking water; some wells have arsenic levels 15 times the legal limit, and at times the water has simply stopped flowing to the town at all.
Tensions are high across the region, pitting smaller farmers against groups like the JG Boswell Company, one of California’s biggest farming operations. . In mid-March, the banks of a creek were reportedly cut in the middle of the night, causing water to rush towards Allensworth. A levee in nearby Corcoran has an armed guard.
“There’s some very powerful agricultural interests who, essentially because of the nature of the land ownership, have a certain amount of power in terms of engaging in unilateral actions that might actually harm adjacent communities,” said the UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain in a recent briefing about Tulare. “Unfortunately, the reality is all of these areas are likely going to flood eventually this spring as the flooding continues to worsen.”
‘One of the great dramas of California’
The resurrection of Tulare Lake is tugging up old debates in a landscape long defined by the pivot from wet to dry. The San Joaquin Valley is one of the most engineered places in the world, says Mark Arax, a journalist and author of The Dreamt Land, who comes from a family of Central Valley farmers.
After the Gold Rush, American settlers grabbed four rivers across the middle of California, and through dams and canals, ditches and pumps, they turned the Sierra snowmelt into a latticework of irrigation. They used a farm implement called the Fresno scraper to flatten the earth so that it hardly rose or fell an inch, Arax says, allowing irrigated water to glide across it “like a billiard table”.
In doing so, the settlers erased the marshland, the desert land, and Tulare Lake. They turned the former lakebed into the most productive farmland in the world. But there was a catch: in years of heavy rain and snowmelt, “all those contrivances of man aren’t enough to keep this lake from coming back.”
It happened in 1983, and then in 1997, and again this year. “If you put aside the hurt to the farmer, you almost want to root for the lake,” says Arax. “It’s really one of the great dramas of California and it’s playing out right now.”
The history of the area is also intertwined with the Boswell family, cotton growers from Georgia who came west, bought land in the Tulare Lake bottom and transformed it into one of the richest cotton patches in the world, an act that Arax describes as “immense hubris”. Water wars were common, with the Boswells battling another agricultural family, the Salyers, in flood years over whose land would be under water, a case that went all the way to the supreme court in the 1970s. The JG Boswell company still owns 150,000 acres of land in California, and has a reputation for secrecy, despite being a leading national producer of pima cotton and tomato paste.
Today the cotton fields on the lakebed have been replaced by nuts and fruit, including 10,000 acres of pistachios. These are permanent trees that cost a lot of money to put in – not row crops that can go idle when it floods. Depending on where the crops are in the flooded area, it could mean a soggy year – or a complete loss of income for a year or two as the waters recede.
“The stakes are ever higher now,” he says. “These guys are panicking, because their trees are under two to three feet of water and that’s just the beginning.”
Future of the farmland
One potential future for the lake, Arax says, is to allow a portion to come back to life, which could help recharge the underground aquifer that has been long depleted by agriculture. Farmers overdraw the basin’s aquifer by around 820,000 acre-feet per year, and this pumping has caused the southern Central Valley to sink faster than almost any other place in the world.
The lake was once an immense wetland with millions of birds and ducks, a part of the Great Pacific Flyway. Indigenous groups lived at its shores.
“They could return one of the great features of the west to the California map.”
There’s a good chance that the lake will rise to a level that it hasn’t been seen a century or more. In 1983, the lake covered 82,000 acres – this year some experts have estimated it could get as large as 100,000.
In Allensworth, residents are taking matters into their own hands. A few weeks ago, as the rivers rose, Kadara and dozens of other people plugged the flow of water through two culverts along Highway 43, beside the BNSF Railway tracks. It’s working, for now, but the town is still battling runoff from the White River coming into the community from multiple points along the BNSF train tracks, with no solutions in sight, Kadara says.
Also high on Allensworth’s list of needs is mosquito repellent, as the standing water heralds a fierce mosquito season. Another worry, community organizers say, is the Tulare compost facility, which has been converting sewage into fertilizer since 2016. When that part of the lakebed floods, the sewage – along with toxic heavy metals – will become part of the water system, potentially contaminating groundwater and local streams. Two other compost companies are nearby.
Whatever comes next, Allensworth’s fate will be intertwined with the water, says Kadara. “The rainfall, the snowfall, the snowpack will be a major issue for the next several months.”
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