TULARE The Phantom Lake


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Tulare Lake in California’s Central Valley was once the largest lake west of the Mississippi. By the year 1910, the lake had been completely dried by water diversion and land reclamation, along with the dislocation of the Valley’s indigenous people. Today the region maintains the most productive agricultural land in the world and in the same locale, the most impoverished Congressional District. Today a visionary land owner has begun adjusting to climate change by advocating partial restoration of what was once Tulare Lake.  Along with his new ideas, a successful and impressive lake and marsh restoration project is already underway.

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Tulare DVD cover Tulare Lake in California’s Central Valley was once the largest lake west of the Mississippi. By the year 1910, the lake had been completely dried by water diversion and land reclamation, along with the dislocation of the Valley’s indigenous people. Today the region maintains the most productive agricultural land in the world and in the same locale, the most impoverished Congressional District. Today a visionary land owner has begun adjusting to climate change by advocating partial restoration of what was once Tulare Lake.  Along with his new ideas, a successful and impressive lake and marsh restoration project is already underway.

Produced by Christopher Beaver

24 mins | 2016 | Closed Captioned


  1. staffadmin


    – [Voiceover] We’re now looking out at the vista of the Tulare lakebed right here. That’s all within what would have been the Tulare lakebed. the entire valley was wild nature. Tulare Lake was a permanent body of water up until historic times. Until settlement times, and probably, it was probably almost an impossible concept to imagine taming all of that, or putting it all under the plow, or cultivating all of it. My back is to the source of these waters. All of these waters came out of the Sierra, and lake would have been all of the land that’s west of us right now. The lake basically if you can imagine, pretty hard to picture this, but the lake stretched from here clear to the coast range. So where those distant hills are silhouetted there, where Kettleman City is today, Tulare Lake used to stretch from here, 20 to 30 some miles across the valley to the west side. Used to be water as far as you can see. The soil has been cultivated here for generations now. This area was probably first farmed in about the 1860s or 1870s. There were still streams flowing through the valley but those streams were now being diverted and used to grow agricultural crops. As the lake began to disappear, this lake bottom soil was and is some of the very best agricultural soil in the world. And the productivity of this ground is unquestioned.

    – [Voiceover] You can see how clean the levees are, so no weeds are taking out any water. No trees are removing any water. The water’s being channeled and taken right to a crop. May not be the prettiest, but it’s highly efficient. And we’re just south of Fresno County, which I just read in the paper once again is the number one agricultural county in the entire United States. They brought in over five billion dollars. And then we’ve got a nice little tomato field here. In the United States, 95% of all the processed tomatoes are grown here. Look at the color. So you see you gotta have good drivers. So you’ve got a driver driving the machine, you’ve got a sorter on the back. You’ve got a person driving this tractor. We call these tubs. Filling a tub. So when he fills that back one up, he’ll go to the front end. There’s another harvester going right there. That’s pretty ass-kicking huh?

    – [Voiceover] Well where we are now, is on this prehistoric shoreline of Tulare Lake, the flattest part of California. Just about in the middle of the state between San Francisco Bay area, and the Los Angeles Basin. See here? There’s the tip of an old one. That’s probably the tip of a spear point. Say 10,000 to 13,500 years ago. You can imagine the wildlife that was here, especially the waterfowl and things of that nature, and all the native grasses. This would probably go oh maybe 20 miles of water, this direction. And you would see a shoreline surrounded by swamps. You would have inlets, you would have sloughs out in here where wildlife abounds. People would be existing on all of that. Hundreds and hundreds and thousands of people lived around this lake at the time of European contact. And it’s been referred to by a lot of the archeologists as a “Aboriginal Garden of Eden.” You know back when, especially when the Yokuts lived here. Big, freshwater lake, all the animals around it. Herd of tule elk. You can imagine.

    – [Voiceover] Well, at least at some point in the historical past, 150 years ago, if it was a big water year, this might be all one big vast lake. There would be millions of ducks and geese out here. There was antelope, elk. There were sturgeon, giant fish hundreds of pounds in size. The biggest lake in surface area west of the Mississippi River. Tulare Lake. And the Europeans showed up, and decided to convert it into cotton farming.

    – [Voiceover] Let’s see, let’s turn it.

    – [Voiceover] It’s called signature quilt, where each resident has signed their name, and then it’s stitched over in thread. Part of the valley history is part of my family’s history as well. When they came here there was a Tulare Lake.

    – [Voiceover] They used to have quilting parties, and the ladies in the group they would all get together, and they would piece the top and they would quilt them. And I’ve seen these from other communities, they would sign it. At this edge is Mr. J.W. Beaver, my great-grandfather And right here is Mrs. Kate Beaver, and that is my great-grandmother. They were married, and they became part of this community at the time this quilt was made, int he early 1870s.

    – Here’s the map, showing how large Tulare Lake actually, you know, could expand to. The Phantom Lake. And then, I don’t know, does it give a date at the bottom?

    – [Voiceover] 1910.

    – [Voiceover] And you know people would go to the lake for a weekend, or even a week. They would fish, and they would also go on duck hunts. And actually my husband’s great-grandfather, he helped support the family by shooting ducks and selling them. And so it was really kind of important to our community all those many years ago.

    – [Voicevoer] This is what’s left of Tulare Lake. They had ships on this lake, and barges, in fact one of my great uncles had a barge on this lake. And Grizzly Adams came and hunted here years before the gold rush. And with really in just a few short years, it was trapped out. So it’s actually saline, is what I’ve read. And this clay soil, and this soil, I am told is naturally clay like. It has a lot of clay in it. And so when irrigated water and the clay soil meet up it creates salinization.

    – [Voiceover] So is it salt?

    – [Eileen] Uh-huh.

    – [Voiceover] All this white stuff?

    – [Eileen] All the white stuff. And when this happens in a field it’s not viable land anymore. You can’t grow crops on land that has that much saline in it. And so, the landscape changed from its course. It’s just too bad that it happened so quickly, so drastically, and I think with little concern for how it was going to affect a few generations down the road. Is what it comes down to.

    – [Voiceover] Looks like Arctic tundra huh, or something? Well this a big evaporation pond for agricultural waste water. The soils of the western San Joaquin Valley are underlain by a clay layer, that black the downward percolation of applied irrigaiton water. And that water builds up over the years, salts. Whatevers in the soil it gets dissolved, goes in the shallow ground water. And it’s poisonous water, and they have to find a way to get rid of it. And the cheapest and easiest way to get rid of it, is to evaporate it. So this is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Only it’s not pesticides that’s the poison, but it’s minerals that occur naturally in the soils on this side of the valley. And the problem that they’ve been unable to solve for half a century, is where do we put all of this salt? And the poisons, the trace elements, the heavy metals.

    – [Mark] To try to simplify the water issues, it’s where should the water go and why? And who is gonna determine it’s highest and best use? We had an opportunity for example, this winter to store a lot of water in San Luis Dam, but a decision was made that that water needed to flow out the delta, to protect fish, and they didn’t store that water. And now we’re in a drought that’s probably the toughest drought we’ve been in in 30 years.

    – [Voiceover] We’re getting the ice down on the bottom. Five-nine, five-six One reason why snow is so important to California, is that in most, in most years, when we’re fortunate, it accumulates during the winter, November through March or April, and it’s essentially a frozen reservoir. What we call our built reservoirs are relatively small. Very small compared to the volume of runoff from the snowcap.

    – [Voiceover] Right here, I don’t remember ever having to do this.

    – [Voiceover] And that’s what’s so dicey now, with all the issues of climate change, because if you, instead of accumulating snow, say at this elevation, if you’re getting mostly rain, that runs off immediately. So you don’t have that effectiveness of the storage that the snow provides. In other words, if we go from snow-dominated to rain-dominated winters, then how reservoirs are managed is gonna change very dramatically.

    – Global warming Well if you believe there is such a thing, and there probably is it’s gonna get. It’s gonna get warmer of course, going to get drier. There will probably be less moisture here. If you have no snow melt in the mountains, chance of seeing water out here is pretty slim, ’cause that’s really the source of the water. When it does have water in the basic. I guess it depends on how much global warming that you have.

    – HIghway 41 is the historic shoreline for Tulare Lake.

    – [Voiceover] This high way?

    – [Steve] Yes, yep. There are different ways of looking at water and how we manage water especially here off of the Sierra Nevadas and in this case the Kings River. We just crossed the highway and you look there, and you see all the trees. You know that’s a living river. And then you look here, you see some of the trees, and you just look out there towards the historic lake, nad it turns into canals with gates, water diversion systems to control every drop of water that came down the mighty King’s River, and the question is, is there a way to still grow cotton, grow other crops, and restore the lake, and the river, just like it was on the other side of that highway? Instead of building bigger dams up in the Sierras, you let those waters flow down you manage those flows, and you have it come down this Kings River and you have it come into the Tulare Lake. The lake bottom area may have no more than 12 landowners, major landowners and 60 residents and just imagine that you’re only going to use 10% of the lake, to start with, and that’s multiple beneficial use. Good drinking water, as well as to lay water on the lands for irrigation purposes and for the environmental benefits, and for recreational purposes. What’s called quality of life.

    – [Rob] Almost everything on the floor of the valley today is managed water, there’s very little water that is not, it all belongs to somebody. To an irrigation distinct, a grower, it’s you know, its on its way somewhere, for some sort of use, a town, and primarily farmland though. The spot where we’re standing is where the tractor has a siphon down in the water, and it’s using a pump to suck water up out of the large canal following through the pipe here, being placed out in a wetland where the farm ground was relatively salty ground, but it’s the sort of gorund where water on that same ground can support tremendous habitat and wildlife values. We’re literally in what might have been farmland five years ago. Watching a female grackle come across to land in the in the tules and redwind blackbirds, and dozens of ibis. There’s just a richness of wildlife here because this is a restored remnant of the Tulare Lake. Right along here right at the edge of the water where it was shallow this is where the plant grew that gave the lake its name. The Spanish word from an Aztec word for the kind plants that grew in a marsh and so marshy area where tules grow was called tulare. These were the plants that the Yokuts would tie into a bundle shaped like the pontoon of a catamaran that allowed them to go out and fish and hunt for waterfowl out in the marsh. There really was no easy place to cross the Tulare marsh. In those early days, I guress really it’s my fondest hope is that we can come to an understanding in the valley where agriculture and environmental or habitat conservation can go hand in hand. I think that if we are allowed to view ourselves as being in opposing camps, I think it ends up creating an artificial hostility that doesn’t need to be there.

    – Who knows what’s gonna happen to this. You know, they may start farming it again, or they may just let it grow over with weeds, just not sure. I suspect at some point, the lake’s gonna come again. I think there’ll be times when you just, there’s just more water than these reservoirs and these dams can hold back. And this is all gonna flood again.

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