The ghost of Tulare

Reviving an ancient lake may help solve California's water woes


Tufts of unmilled cotton line Utica Avenue like clumps of dirty spring snow. The road is like hundreds of others in the dun-and-green checkerboard of California's Central Valley, a two-lane highway running straight as a zipper past geometrically arranged almond orchards and vineyards. Steve Haze, a candidate for U.S. Congress, is out here on what he calls "recon," determined to debunk the local billboard slogans. "Congress-Created Drought" is common in fallow fields, right behind "Food Grows Where Water Flows" and "Water = Jobs." The signs were put up by corporate growers and water-management leaders, who complain that a federal court decision that reduced their irrigation deliveries to save a tiny fish put thousands of people out of work. Haze thinks the reality is more complicated.

"We've lost more jobs in construction than we have in farming this year," he says, piloting his granite blue Chevy pickup through clouds of fluffy bolls. "The real question is: How do we manage the water we have for farms, fish and people?"

Suddenly, Haze, who doesn't use turn signals, veers to the side of the road, fumbling for his camera with one hand while he steers with the other. This is what he was looking for, these several thousand acres of water –– the ghost of a massive lake that vanished more than a century ago. The water has been put here for storage, held in square tracts by temporary berms. To Haze, it's a sign of hope for the future. He would like to see this lake, called Tulare, brought back to life to help solve California's water problems.

"Some of the agribusiness people tell me, 'No, Steve, it's impossible. You'll have huge algae blooms. The water will evaporate.' But look, you can see it right there. Do they think I live in a room without windows?"

In fact, given the unfortunate confluence of water and fiscal crises in the state, Haze's dream of restoring Tulare Lake -- or at least parts of it -- appears more feasible than ever.

Fed by four rivers rushing out of the Sierra Nevada, the great lake -- once the largest freshwater body of water west of the Mississippi -- occupied some 600 square miles of California's southern San Joaquin Valley, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It was a crucial stop on the Pacific Flyway, with flocks of migrating birds feasting on the shallow lake's bounty. The Yokut Indians thrived on its shores for 10,000 years, at times making up the densest aboriginal population in North America, before European settlers squeezed them out. Years later, as geologist William Preston describes in his authoritative 1981 book Vanishing Landscapes: Land and Life in the Tulare Lake Basin, the lake still held so many clams, terrapins, mussels and perch that farmers would walk down to its shores and scoop them up with buckets.

Yet by 1871, reports Preston, the lake basin's "smooth ecotones of nature (had been) replaced by sharp edges: fields, fences, farmsteads, town plats and roads." By the turn of the century, diversions had so altered the lake's chemical balance that almost all the fish were dead.

The lake's final death knell came in the 1920s, when Georgia farmer James Griffin Boswell bought up 50,000 acres in the lake bottom and began planting cotton. His nephew and namesake, J.G. Boswell, expanded his inheritance into the country's largest cotton-growing empire, farming 160,000 acres in California alone. Boswell drained the last remnants of lake from the basin, and Tulare was reduced to a dusty bowl of bad air and murky canals.

The lake's disappearance has had far-reaching consequences. In 1852, Army engineer George Derby could stand in the Sierra's foothills and count the eponymous bulrushes, called tules, near the lake's shoreline. But on many midsummer days now, it's hard to see across the street. Sometimes it hurts to breathe.

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