Postcard from California: A phantom lake rises again

At the start of the California Gold Rush in 1849, Tulare Lake was the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi River: In wet years, the shallow inland sea that is fed by four rivers covered 800 square miles or more of the lower San Joaquin Valley.

After white settlers displaced the indigenous Yokuts Indians, ferries and steamships plied Tulare Lake’s ports, and a thriving commercial fishery supplied salmon, sturgeon, and terrapins to the finest restaurants in San Francisco.

Fifty years later, Tulare Lake was dead.

By the turn of the century, farmers had tapped its tributaries for irrigation, cutting the rivers’ flow. In the 1920s, Georgia cotton king J.G. Boswell came west and drained the remaining wetlands to stake out what became the world’s biggest cotton plantation. After the Depression, huge taxpayer-subsidized irrigation projects transformed the valley, including the desiccated lakebed, into one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.

In rainy years, low-lying parts of the Tulare Basin flooded, and old-timers recalled the prediction of a Yokuts elder named Yoimut. Before her death in 1936, Yoimut predicted to an ethnographer that Tulare Lake would return one day. “It will fill up full and everybody living down there will have to go away,“ she said.

This year, her words are again ringing true.