Tulare Lake: A sacred lake returns and sparks conversation about a sustainable future in the Central Valley
It’s just July and some already want more rain in California’s Central Valley. Among them are Kenny Barrios and Carlos “Pops” Garcia of the Tachi Yokut Tribe of the Santa Rosa Rancheria reservation in Lemoore. They say another rainy season would strengthen the Tribe’s call for a natural return of Tulare Lake, which their ancestors called Pa’ashi; it might even lead to a preserve or park there. Says Kenny, a specialist teaching the native language of his tribe, ”I can imagine another hundred years of this lake. We just need to let nature take its course.”
We meet on a hot, muggy day at Cesi’s Cafe in Alpaugh. We order tacos al pastor, enchiladas, and tostadas. Kenny and Pops are the only non-white customers I see. Across the room is a table of very tall locals, some wearing cowboy hats. Kenny says one challenge is to persuade this population that a renewed Tulare Lake benefits everyone, despite the costs. These costs include lost jobs, property, and water rights.
For many centuries the Tulare Lake dominated the landscape of California’s Central Valley. The undammed rivers we today call the Kings, Kaweah, Kern, and Tule fed it. The lake ebbed and flowed with rainfall; one estimate puts its peak size at almost 700 square miles.
The valley was lush with plants, fish, and wildlife, wetlands and wide stretches of open water. A network of Native communities circled the lakeshore, including the Tachi. People sometimes traveled by water, in canoes woven from the native tule grasses. Pops hands me his phone to reveal a 1907 map of the lake. He says there was an island in the middle, sacred to the Tachi. We are eating lunch not far from that spot.
The Tulare Lake and landscape are gone, sucked dry by dams, levees, and irrigation ditches to support industrial-scale agriculture. It has left places like Alpaugh bone dry. But this past spring, epic snowfall and snowmelt blew up those systems and returned a 110-thousand acre lakebed to the valley floor. Experts say it could linger for several years, sparking continued conversation about whether the lake could and should be permanently restored.
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We are done eating, and Kenny asks, “Ready to see it?” And so we drive through shimmering heat up Route 43 through Corcoran, west toward Hanford. We pass stockyards, cattle, tomato and cotton fields, almond and pistachio orchards. We are tracing what may have been the northern edge of the lake.
We turn off Nevada Avenue, leaving behind rows of chicken coops. The land is drying but the levee road still ends in water. We stop next to a “No Trespassing” sign, one of many that dot the landscape. Near it hundreds of egrets and other shorebirds wade in a shimmering vista. The breeze is warm, gentle. Kenny says it too has returned to the valley floor, along with the water.
Pops points out some of the animals that have migrated to the renewed lake – a family of burrowing owls and a baby muskrat. Aquatic life is also thriving, he says. A veteran fisherman, he has trolled some of the lake in his fishing kayak. He’s especially excited to have seen shrimp and larger-than-ever crayfish.
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We head on, to 18th and Manteca Avenues, near the Mussel Slough, a small vestige of the original natural lake system. We stop at a small beach that overlooks another stretch of water so wide I can’t see the other side. A couple from Fresno has also stopped, and the woman says, “Can you imagine the money and power it took to dry this out?”
Kenny and Pops can, along with the rest of the Tachi. So far they have been left out of the conversation about the lake’s future.
And there are complications. The 170-acre Tachi reservation and casino is surrounded by industrial farmland, with no direct lakefront access or water rights under California law. Water quality and mosquitos are also an issue, especially with inflows normally blocked by levees and dams.
There are also the farmers, farmworkers, and allied businesses. They too have long histories in the valley and want to remain. Charles Meyer Sr. told the LA Times that the flooding has cost him about a thousand dollars an acre. He employs ten on his 600-acre family farm. He hasn’t had to let anyone go yet, but there is always that risk.
“There has been tremendous economic benefit that’s resulted from this artificial landscape,” says Todd Bridges, PH.D., Professor of Practice, Resilient and Sustainable Systems, at the University of Georgia. “Yet you have 20 percent of the population living in poverty and others close to it.”
“It’s not sustainable for a number of reasons,” he adds, “including the fact that the ancient ground water stores will soon be tapped out by agriculture.”
Many expect that to happen within 50 years, especially if cycles of flooding and drought rotate without a plan to contain some of the water during surplus years. The Tachi contend that a return of Tulare Lake will naturally recharge the depleted groundwater supplies.
“It’s worth their being part of the discussion to envision how the economy can be diversified in balance with the landscape and climate change,” says Bridges.
Tourism, of course, is one possibility. Tachi Palace Casino Resort on the Santa Rosa Rancheria is part of that; a renewed lake or some preserve system might be another. Some are also floating the idea that Olympic organizers make 2028 the first Olympics held on Native land. More simply, access to the lake for passive recreation and manually-powered boating might also be attractive.
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We end our drive at State Route 41 Stratford Kings River Bridge. When the river flooded, the levee below the bridge failed, feeding the renewed lakebed. That has Kenny and Pops feeling optimistic. If levees can come down once, they can again — allowing the river’s runoff and natural water levels to benefit all. One almost gets the impression that nature wants the lake to exist.
The Tachi will be holding an event on Oct 7, 2023 to support the return of Tulare Lake. It will take place just upriver from the Kings River levees at Ave 41 in Stratford. As we go to press details are forthcoming. Check Instagram @tularelakepaashi for more information as the time nears.
Questions? CALL Daimon at (559) 925-2580.