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A once vibrant California lake is back. Why that's not necessarily a good thing

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

In California's Central Valley, a once-vibrant lake is back, and that's not necessarily a good thing. Tulare Lake used to be the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. It was drained more than a hundred years ago and turned into farmland. Soreath Hok with member station KVPR in Fresno explains how the lake returned and the consequences that came with that.

SOREATH HOK, BYLINE: Kiara Rendon looks out on her family's 10-acre plot of land in the small rural community of Allensworth, the first Black settlement in California.

KIARA RENDON: All of that was full of water, and it was coming inside the property.

HOK: The day the water started gushing onto the land, Rendon got a frantic call from her sister.

RENDON: She's five months pregnant, and she was out here building a ditch 'cause she wanted to prevent it to go into her property.

HOK: Cal Fire, a state agency that responds to natural disasters, sent a team to dig a ditch to divert the water. Rendon never thought flooding would be an issue, but relentless storms since late December dropped some of the largest Sierra Nevada snowpack in state-recorded history. All that snow is going to melt, and in California's Central Valley, it naturally flows into the footprint of Tulare Lake. Rendon's home is right in the path of that rising water.

So if the water was to come in, you guys are, like...

RENDON: We're the first ones to get affected by the water and then everybody else.

MARK ARAX: You know, we always say that man reclaimed the desert. No, we didn't reclaim the desert. We claimed the desert. Nature now is reclaiming the land.

HOK: That's Fresno writer Mark Arax. For decades, he's given voice to the history and struggles that shape the San Joaquin Valley's rich agricultural landscape. Native American tribes relied on Tulare Lake.

ARAX: It sustained these Yokut Tachi tribes. They fished along the shores. They lived along the shores.

HOK: Then settlers came and developed the land for farming. By the early 1900s, Tulare Lake went dry, its water harnessed in an intricate system of canals, dams and ditches. Arax says that makes the Tulare Lake Basin one of the most engineered landscapes in the world.

ARAX: The strange thing is you're calling it a flood. I mean, it's the bottom of a lake, right? But we've gotten so used to being emptied that this becomes now a fight of man versus nature.

HOK: Lucrative crops like pistachios are now planted on thousands of acres of the lake bed, and flooding these crops will rack up huge losses. Arax says all of this raises the stakes for farmers.

ARAX: So to see the lake come back is quite a drama. It is one of the great dramas of California.

HOK: Emergency crews and farmers are doing their best to prepare for the rising water. There are reports of levees being cut to protect farmland. And Cal Fire, the first to help Rendon's family, has been working with local officials to divert the water. A video shows helicopters dropping sandbags to try to shore up levees and canals.

SEAN NORMAN: We're doing another evac for a levee failure.

HOK: Sean Norman heads an incident command team with Cal Fire.

NORMAN: So it's tricky because we have to really look at if we stop this water from moving here, where is it going next?

HOK: Researchers are looking at history for what to expect next. It's a flashback to 1983. That year, the lake refilled and flooded thousands of acres of farmland for at least two years. Right now, the snowpack level and the amount of water already in state reservoirs is nearly the same as it was 40 years ago. Jeffrey Mount is with the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California. He says the state still doesn't have the infrastructure to handle the snowmelt.

JEFFREY MOUNT: So there's not going to be a lot of places to put water in the near term.

HOK: The southern Sierra received three times the average snowfall this year. The water is coming, say experts. But for people like Kiara Rendon in Allensworth, this once-in-a-generation flood is a slow-moving disaster.

For NPR News, I'm Soreath Hok in Fresno. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Soreath Hok