California’s Ancient Lake Reapeared After 130 Years And Nearly Vanished Again 

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Tulare Lake in the San Joaquin Valley repapered after 130 years, leaving researchers stunned. Before disappearing, it was the most extensive body of fresh water west of the Mississippi River. 

The lake’s history


Tulare Lake, also known as Pa’ashi, means “big water” in the Tachi Yokut Tribe language. The lake was over 100 miles long and 30 miles wide but vanished in the late 19th century, becoming known as California’s Ghost Lake. 

The historical significance 

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Vivian Underhill, formerly a postdoctoral research fellow at Northeastern University with the Social Science and Environmental Health Research Institute, discussed in the 1800s that the San Joaquin Valley had Fresno as a lakeside town. Due to California’s “reclamation” process, which aimed to convert public land that historically belonged to Indigenous people into privately owned agricultural fields, “ancestral lakes” were eradicated. 

Partial reappearances

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The lake started disappearing likely in the 1850s or 1860s and was gone by the 1890s. Due to heavy rains and snowmelt, it reappeared, reportedly in the 1930s, 1960s, and 1980s. Yet, it was not until 2023 that it made its official comeback. 

The dry area has its lake back

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Though far from its former size, Tulare Lake’s reappearance is vital for various reasons, including bird population, Underhill stated. She explained that losing that habitat has been a significant issue in bird conservation and diversity, but she was amazed by how they always find the lake. 

Positive impact

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Underhill revealed that the lake’s return has been a spiritual and powerful experience for the the Tachi Yokuts community. The community enjoyed traditional ceremonies, which included hunting and fishing, as their ancestors did many decades ago. 

California’s winter 

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An influx of snow and rain likely caused the lake’s return, and snow only melted faster with rain. The water went into a depression that filled, recreating the so-called Ghost Lake. It took only months for nature to start changing and growing. 

Tulare Lake’s destiny 


Efforts are underway to drain the lake once more due to fears of further flooding. However, Underhill believes the lake wants to stay, and due to climate change, floods will only increase regardless of the current efforts. 

The flooding caused grief

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While the lake brought great joy to some of the community, excessive flooding negatively influenced the farmworkers and growers—those who own the land and employ the workers. Some don’t speak English and are losing their homes due to floods. 

The lake shrunk 

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The Guardian reported in March that the lake shirk to just over 2,600 acres, confirmed by the Kings County Office of Emergency Services. Sergeant Nate Ferrier with the Kings County Sheriff’s Office said the positive side is that farming is returning to life.

Farming, the lifeblood of the county

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Ferrier called farming the lifeblood of Kings County, adding that one of four jobs is agriculture-related. Farmers are ready to return to work, though the lake will not be forgotten, especially not by the Tachi Yokut Tribe members. 

It was always a place for lakes and wetlands

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Underhill, however, believes that the area was always meant to be for lakes and wetlands, so the current agriculture is a tiny part of its rich geologic history. She believes that it was not the flooding but the lake’s return. 

Future fears 

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Back-to-back storms driven by robust atmospheric river systems rocked California last winter. The San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles area were flooded, which caused traffic hazards. San Diego was already hit by a storm in January, only to be devastated again a month later.

Kate Smith, a self-proclaimed word nerd who relishes the power of language to inform, entertain, and inspire. Kate's passion for sharing knowledge and sparking meaningful conversations fuels her every word.