NASA images show the reappearance of a long-lost California lake

NASA images show the reappearance of a long-lost California lake

In recent years amid prolonged droughts, there was little sign that Tulare Lake ever existed. But more than 100 years ago, the seasonal lake would grow annually into the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi River as water from snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada poured into tributaries feeding the lake.

But the lake’s size diminished beginning in the mid-19th century as farmers diverted water for agriculture and animal grazing. The construction of levees and dams in the 20th century further depleted the lake’s water sources. Tulare Lake now only refills in especially wet winters, like this most recent one, when more than a dozen atmospheric rivers dumped near-record amounts of rain and snow. The lake saw significant flooding in 1969 and 1983, when the southern Sierra snowpack saw snow levels of well above average.

The NASA images show that the Tulare Basin was covered in agricultural land as recently as Feb. 1. By April 30, water had flooded the area, and Tulare Lake reformed. A series of images shows the lake growth from March 2 to April 28.

A May 4, 2023 photo shows aerial views of Success Dam that feeds the Tule River, where excessive water flows from melting Sierra snow, have flooded Central Valley communities.

A May 4, 2023 photo shows aerial views of Success Dam that feeds the Tule River, where excessive water flows from melting Sierra snow, have flooded Central Valley communities.

Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag

Satellite image from NASA shows Tulare Lake in San Joaquin Valley on March 29, 2023.

Satellite image from NASA shows Tulare Lake in San Joaquin Valley on March 29, 2023.

NASA

After one of the wettest California winters in recorded history, the Sierra Nevada snowpack is massive, sitting at 325% of average for this time of year as of Friday. Through the remaining days of spring and into summer, that snowpack will melt, with rivers and reservoirs expected to swell across the state from all the runoff.

Tulare Lake is expected to continue to grow as the snow melts, reaching peak size in late July with an estimated volume between 900,000 and 1.1 million acre-feet and a surface area of 130,000 to 150,000 acres, according to the latest modeling from the California Department of Water Resources. For reference, the city of Chicago is about 148,000 acres. (An acre-foot is equal to 326,000 gallons of water.)

“The lake is growing at least around 3,000 acre-feet a day,” said Andy Bollenbacher, a forecaster with the National Weather Service’s Hanford office. “Water managers can sometimes divert some of that water, it varies day by day.”

As the lake expands, the city of Corcoran (population 22,000) is threatened by flooding. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced May 11 that the state will provide funding to bolster Corcoran’s flood defenses, including raising the Corcoran Levee in preparation for continued high water.

“DWR is working closely with county officials to keep local communities informed as the spring snowmelt season continues and ensure any requests from counties for technical assistance or materials are quickly fulfilled,” the agency said.

Satellite image from NASA shows Tulare Lake in San Joaquin Valley on March 18, 2022.

Satellite image from NASA shows Tulare Lake in San Joaquin Valley on March 18, 2022.

NASA

This upcoming weekend, with hot temperatures expected across inland California, the weather service is warning that the snowpack could see rapid snowmelt, leading to increased flows in rivers, especially the Merced River, which runs through Yosemite National Park

“Water reaching the Tulare Lakebed is determined by many factors, including reservoir releases and diversions for agriculture water use, which increases as temperatures on the valley floor increase,” the California Department of Water Resources said in a statement to SFGATE. “DWR does not anticipate any immediate increase to flood risk this weekend due to high temperatures, but DWR is working closely with Tulare and Kings counties to continue to prepare for continued runoff this spring and summer and to urge Californians to pay attention to all public safety messages from their local authorities.”

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