Torrents and torrents of rain have drowned thousands of acres of farmland in California’s Central Valley this winter and resuscitated a lake that vanished decades ago. As far as the eye can see, water stretches to the horizon — across roads, across crop fields, through homes and buildings.
Now, the massive snowpack that piled up on the Sierra Nevada this winter is a dripping time bomb. As it melts, the flood could triple in size by summer, threatening the surrounding communities and costing billions in losses.
“All of the crops are completely flooded and ruined,” resident Martina Sealy said as she held her baby daughter and gazed out across white-capped water, where vast fields of cotton and alfalfa had grown all her life. “It takes a lot of jobs for people. That’s a lot of food that we provide for up and down California and all around the nation. It’s pretty scary.”
Even scarier when you realize the standing water that’s there now is just the beginning of their ordeal.
“This is just from the rain,” Sealy said of the flooded fields. “But when the snow melts, there’s nowhere for it to go besides here.”
Tulare Lake was once the biggest freshwater body west of the Mississippi until farmers consumed so much of the Sierra Nevada runoff that it dried up and, over the decades, the lake bed became crop land.
Water was always a concern here, but mainly because there was never enough. As thirstier crops like almonds and pistachios came into vogue, relentless pumping of groundwater made Corcoran one of the fastest-sinking areas of the nation, just in time for Tulare Lake to come back from the dead with a vengeance.
“The ground is literally sunk in some places by 10 or 15 feet over the past decade,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles. “That has literally changed the topography of the historical lakebed. Some places are lower even than they were the last time there was a big flood event.”
Longtime residents, like Sidonio Palmerin, remember how the last great flood in 1983 took two years to dry out while the loss of agricultural work hollowed out Corcoran.
“We lost half our school population and about one-third of our city population,” he recalled. “A lot of the people that were relocated lost their homes, their cars. It took a long time to recuperate.”
Since there was no massive snowpack to worry about in ’83 and the town was 10 feet higher, he’s among the town’s seniors who worry this time could be much worse.
“There are people that are disabled, people that don’t have transportation,” Mary Gonzalez Gomez said, standing in front of the only home she’s ever known. “And they’re so worried, if we get flooded, where will we go? What will we do?”
As the water piled up, the city and local farming interests started using earth movers to raise the 14.5-mile levee that protects more than 20,000 residents and 8,000 inmates in two prisons.
“God willing, that’ll protect the city of Corcoran,” said Sheriff David Robinson of King County.
But he knows they are racing against the melting snow.
“We’ve been fortunate with a very slow, mild spring so far,” he said. “But we know the heat’s coming.”
“Our snowmelt this season will be like an ultra-marathon in duration,” the National Weather Service in Reno said this week, “and we are just getting started on the first mile.”
Last summer, UCLA’s Swain published a paper that predicted more intense weather whiplash on a planet overheated by fossil fuel pollution, and in a worst-case scenario, relentless atmospheric rivers could not only make Tulare Lake permanent again — but could turn it into a vast, inland sea.
“As disruptive and as damaging as this year’s flooding has been, it’s still nowhere near close to what we foresee is the plausible worst-case scenario,” Swain said. “We know that climate change is essentially putting the weather on steroids and giving us greater and greater chances of seeing these extremely heavy precipitation events and severe floods, even as we also see more severe droughts and that in the same part of the world.”
But for now, just the water that’s already here is enough to throw lives like Martina Sealy’s into uncertainty.
“Tulare Lake is back,” she said. “And it may take over and put us out.”