Tulare Lake in 1875
Courtesy UC Riverside archives

Spanish soldier and California explorer Pedro Fages was chasing deserters in 1772 when he came across a vast marshy lake and named it Los Tules for the reeds and rushes that lined its shore.

Situated between the later cities of Fresno and Bakersfield, Tulare Lake, as it was named in English, was the nation’s largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. It spread out to as much as 1,000 square miles as snow in the Sierra melted each spring, feeding five rivers flowing into the lake.

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Its abundance of fish and other wildlife supported several Native American tribes, who built boats from the lake’s reeds to gather its bounty.

When the snowmelt was particularly heavy, the lake rose high enough that a natural spillway would divert water into the San Joaquin River and thence to the Pacific Ocean through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and San Francisco Bay.

It was a fairly common phenomenon in the 19th century, but the last time it happened naturally was in 1878. With the arrival of the railroad, the region was becoming an agricultural center and farmers were diverting water from Tulare’s tributaries for irrigation.

As those diversions expanded in the 20th century, Tulare Lake gradually shrank and disappeared altogether after World War II, when Pine Flat Dam blocked the Kings River, its major tributary, and levees channeled natural flows.

Once dry, the lakebed became the site of immense cotton farms, principally those of the Boswell and Salyer families. However, every few decades nature would reassert itself, piling up so much snow in the Sierra that the dams and levees were unable to contain the Kings and other rivers and Tulare Lake would be recreated.

I personally witnessed one such recreation, in the spring of 1970, as editor of the Hanford Sentinel. The Kings River runoff was so intense that Pine Flat Dam came within a few feet of being overtopped. I visited the dam during that period to report on what was happening and was taken inside the concrete structure, which was groaning and slightly leaking – a bizarre and somewhat eerie experience.

Pine Flat Dam held but water roared down the mountains in the Kings and other rivers and very quickly, or so it seemed, Tulare Lake reappeared.

The Boswell and Salyer families, which had feuded for years, battled over whose lands would be flooded. Guards with shotguns patrolled the Tulare Basin Water Storage District’s levees as rumors spread about clandestine plans to dynamite them. That didn’t happen, but the Salyer holdings were inundated and the two agribusiness giants waged a legal battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The most spectacular re-emergence of Tulare Lake in recent years occurred in 1983 as record snows in the Sierra once again overcame human efforts to control its rivers. The lake was so high that two men, Bill Cooper and John Sweetser, kayaked 450 miles in 11 days from central Bakersfield to San Francisco Bay. They paddled down the Kern River, across Tulare Lake, up the Kings River and through the Fresno Slough into the San Joaquin River for a downstream run into the Delta and San Francisco Bay.

This bit of California history is offered because snowfall in the watersheds of the Kings and other rivers that flow naturally into the Tulare Lake basin is surpassing the record level of 1982-83. It’s almost certain that Tulare Lake will once again spring to life.

The probability is even generating some hopeful, if unrealistic, speculation that state and/or federal governments could buy up the lakebed’s fields and bring back Tulare Lake permanently.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.