Bring Back Lake Tulare?

For those unfamiliar with California’s History, at one time not so long ago there was a giant lake about 1/2 way from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Lake Tulare.

Kern Lake, originally Laguna de los Tulares,[1] was the smallest of the three large lakes in the Tulare Basin, in the southwestern San Joaquin Valley of California.

It was the first of the lakes fed by the Kern River. Kern Lake is now a dry lake bed, due to agricultural diversion of the Kern River waters and the aquifer.

Tulare Lake from Wiki

Tulare Lake from Wiki

Original Image

As an interesting note, it wasn’t the only lake in the area that has been lost. Here’s the second largest:

Buena Vista Lake, is a former fresh-water lake now a dry lake in Kern County, California in the Tulare Lake Basin in the southern San Joaquin Valley, California.

Buena Vista Lake was the second largest of several similar lakes in the Tulare Lake basin, and was fed by the waters of the Kern River. The Kern River’s flow went into Buena Vista Lake southwest through the site Bakersfield via its main distributary channels or south through the Kern River Slough distributary into Kern Lake and then into Buena Vista Lake via Connecting Slough.

In times when Buena Vista Lake overflowed it first backed up into Kern Lake making one large lake. When this larger lake overflowed it flowed out through the Buena Vista Slough and Kern River channel northwest of Buena Vista Lake through tule marshland and Goose Lake, into Tulare Lake.

In the mid 20th century, Buena Vista Lake dried up after its tributary river waters were impounded in Isabella Dam and for agricultural irrigation and municipal water uses.

Today Lake Webb and Lake Evans occupy the lakebed of the northern shore the former Buena Vista Lake.

Now what got me thinking about these lakes, other than the general constant awareness of California and drought, and knowing that these old lakes were highly variable as the rains varied, and wondering of any old records of lake extent might be useful for recording prior drought periods; was, well, they might be illegally gone.

You see, L.A. was busy sucking the life out of Mono Lake and had it on the path to dehydration via the very same “dam the tributaries and run off with the water”. They had bought up the water rights after all… HOWEVER, there’s a law on the books saying that you can’t cause a “navigable water” to become unnavigable. Folks found some very old pictures of rowboats doing excursions on Mono Lake. Folks sued. L.A. lost. We got Mono Lake back.

Well, in this article here (bold marking added by me):

That starts off with a fanciful story of a pseudo-satellite making an image of California in 1851, they present both a recreation of what such a photo might have looked like, but also have this bit of interesting history:

“[The Central Valley] used to have a big lake and lots of marshes from water runoff from the mountains. Dams and irrigation stopped all that many years ago. But I’ve always wondered what it looked like around here before that.”

Surprisingly, a satellite picture in 1851 would have shown a large lake in the southern part of the Valley. Tulare Lake once was the largest freshwater body west of the Great Lakes, and its fish-rich waters supported local Indian tribes for centuries. Tulare Lake’s size varied widely, dependent on both rain and mountain snows for nourishment. At around the time this picture would have been taken, it would have measured about 580 sq. mi (1,500 km2). Thirty years later, it would have swelled to almost 700 sq. mi (1,800 km2).

“You could take a boat from Bakersfield to Stockton using the waterways as shown”, Mr Clark says. “A 50 foot schooner sailed the lake for many years and there were five piers for loading and unloading located around the lake. The current community of Alpaugh is located on what once was one of the islands you see depicted.”

But in a process reminiscent of the drying-up of the Aral Sea or Lake Chad [5], Tulare Lake was depleted by the diversion of its tributaries for the purpose of irrigation. By the early 20th century, the lake was largely dry.

Only very occasionally, when rains or snowmelt flood this area of the Valley, does a dim shadow of Tulare Lake return, to blame the humans for its death by designed desiccation…

Now I’m no lawyer, but I’m pretty sure there was no statute of limitations in that navigable waters act. In theory, showing that those waters were navigable, and now are no longer navigable due to diversions, would require all that water be allowed to return… This would put most of Kern County under water, along with dramatically changing the character of California. $Billions of farm land and several cities would go “POOF!” (or perhaps that’s “glug…”)

Here’s a link to the image they have on the page. It’s easier to see were the lake was in their image (and ‘hit the link’ for the rest of their shtick… it’s pretty good.)

Personally, I think it would be a far better use of Kern County than the present cotton growing and grazing… but then again, I don’t live there. It would likely solve the salinity groundwater problems they are having, and even help flush excess selenium out of Kesterson… as the lake would again, from time to time, flood the rest of the San Joaquin valley with water that otherwise would evaporate leaving minerals behind.

It sure would be exciting, and horridly catastrophic… So I suppose we can expect a Sierra Club and Greenpeace suit any day now…

There were several unique species from the lake area, including the Tule Elk. Only a few of them survive (hard to be a lake elk in a desert…); but with the return of the lake, those species would have a home again. Even if the people were homeless.

Me? I’m going off to the patio to watch the rain clouds during our drought as I decide “should I laugh, cry, or just sit in the corner and look dumbfounded?…”

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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11 Responses to Bring Back Lake Tulare?

  1. Ian W says:

    Lake Elk are a whole lot more cuddly than a Delta Smelt. You would have thought some litigious green lawyer would have taken up their cause before now.

  2. Julian Jones says:

    Mob grazing (as promoted by Savory Institute –, where soil carbon is restored would probably fix this pretty quickly, together with a few other obvious solutions …

    And probably allow some cotton as a rotation.

    But a lot more steak to eat if applied to all the arid regions.

  3. p.g.sharrow says:

    Maybe even better, Repair the break in the Natural Dike at Carquinez and refill the Great Lake of California!
    When the Conquistadors invaded Mexico they were told of a gold rich empire to the north with a vast inland sea populated with islands. When the Spaniards got here 200 years later they found the great inland valley was a wilderness that even the natives avoided. They found neither the empire or nor the gold!
    As a child in the 1950s I remember still seeing the beach bench marks on the hills around Sacramento. They are nearly invisible today.
    The bed of that Great Lake is now the most productive farming area in the world and the thousands of tons of gold found there in the 1800s, fueled the boom that turned the agrarian United States into an industrial Giant. …pg

  4. E.M.Smith says:

    @P.G.: Hmmmmm…..

    From the wiki:

    The sediment is dropped within the valley and the clear water then exits into a bay or the ocean, so the apex of the delta is at this exit, a configuration said to be inverted from that usually seen. Inverted deltas typically do not last long in geological terms, since they tend to fill up with sediments rather quickly and eventually become normal deltas.


    The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta

    A classic example of an inverted river delta is the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which lies at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers in California. The water from the rivers that drain the entire, large California Central Valley exit t

    Wonder just how long IS “doesn’t last long”…

    So in geologic terms, it must be “new”… Wonder if it was formed via the strait wearing in, or the sea level rising 10K years ago…

  5. p.g.sharrow says:

    There is an upturned delta in the San Francisco Bay side of the Carquinez Strait called Mare Island. this would indicate to me that the cut was completed quite recently. The steep clean sides of the up stream part of the cut would also indicate a recent completion. The Great Valley has had other outlets over it’s existence as the San Andreas Fault moves along and the Coast Range grows. The present outlet was likely a capture by a local creek of the waters of the lake and resulted in fairly quick wash out into the sea level bay, 200 feet and several miles below. Just my WAG from what I see on the ground…pg

  6. E.M.Smith says:


    Well, “digging in” to it was a bit frustrating. At first I thought it was that the Central Valley had drained into Monterey Bay and cut the Monterey Canyon, but that looks to be wrong as the canyon was made when the land was down near Santa Barbara (and might have been made via the Colorado River!) and then moved north with the San Andreas…

    I do remember a road trip to Monterey that went past a dead river bed and claimed it HAD been a prior drain, but of exactly what I’ve forgotten… Most likely the Salinas or related river had simply moved where it went. I.e. a coastal drainage change, not Central Valley.

    Looking here: coupled with the natural history of the San Francisco Bay, I think makes it clearer.

    The SF Bay was a deep valley during the last Ice Age Glacial. So as recently as 10,000 years ago. No bay, just a very deep valley cut by fast moving water (thus the several hundred foot depth under the GG Bridge and fairly steep sides). So we know it was water with a several hundred foot drop in fairly short run “out the gate” then. I.e. fast moving. Then look at the wiki from above:

    Formation of Delta

    The narrow gap in the Coast Range that forms the strait has led to the formation of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, an inverted river delta, upstream of it, a rare geological feature. The strait is too small to allow the passage of huge amounts of floodwaters created during years with heavy rainfall/snowmelt events. Because the Delta area is the first to fill and last to drain in a flood event, silt and soil have more time to drop out of suspension, creating the inverted river delta feature.

    But that is now, with a near zero “slope” to the ocean. Make that a 400 foot drop over about 40? miles, and it’s a rapid moving cutting river that caries sediments very fast and keeps the valley drained. It could easily rise 50 feet in the channel during a flood (moving a LOT more water faster) and then drop back down for consistent bottom cleaning.

    This implies to me that the Inverted Delta is a byproduct of the glacial melt raising the sea level 400 or so feet, slowing the flow dramatically through the strait, and having the Delta waters back up behind it (so dropping sediments and making the mud deposits of the Delta filling in the prior valley / channel areas). Eventually the whole thing ought to fill in with an old meander river pattern and near zero erosion (especially due to damming and low flow rates even in winter).

    The “interesting bit” is what happens during the next glacial…

    With ocean levels again being a few hundred feet lower, the whole Bay / Delta region becomes very soft mud with a 400 foot slope to the ocean and reasonable rain levels… A fast river at the bottom cuts the trench back down rapidly and then the mud falls in and gets washed out the gate. In no time at all the San Francisco Bay recovers the (now filled in) margins and the Carquinez Strait again becomes a rapid flowing erosional cut, draining the sediments out of the “inverted delta” with it. We get a “modest” valley back on the inland side of it, and a deeper valley all the way to the Pacific downstream of it…

    Ought to be interesting…

    BTW, one also wonders what happens to the Delta Smelt when all that delta goes away again, and one wonders where the Delta Smelt lived before the Holocene and the creation of the SF Bay and Delta system?… One presumes some minor little edge marshes around the river / ocean interface…

  7. Larry Ledwick says:

    Found this item on the geology of the bay area, interesting reading. I was surprised by the bathymetry map on the last page, I expected to see a deep cut valley in the continental shelf but apparently outside the golden gate there is no such deep erosion valley like you see in the bathymetry of Monterey bay to the south. Interesting, where did that water flowing out of the golden gate drop off the edge of the continental shelf and into the ocean basin during low sea level glacial melt?

    Since the coastline moves north with the pacific plate, perhaps the outflow to lower sea level was the cut for Bodega canyon off shore of Bodega bay showing here:
    (source – )

    Click to access F-96.pdf

    Click to access F-98.pdf

  8. Larry Ledwick says:

    Drat forgot to post the original link I was commenting on:

    Click to access 021-036_RegionalSetting.pdf

  9. E.M.Smith says:


    There were whole mountains of silt and sand run down the rivers and out the Gate during the Gold Rush. So much so that Suisun and San Pablo bays filled in a LOT and so did large parts of San Francisco Bay (so much so that dredging was required to maintain shipping and that even now San Jose is no longer a navigable destination, where it had been when the Spaniards arrived). Much of that is now “out the gate”, so the bottom contours no longer reflect what was.

    Also note that due to the existence of those slowing and stratifying areas, the space outside The Gate may not have been a “turbidity erosional” feature like Monterey Canyon, but more of the typical alluvial fan deposition like near New Orleans. You might be looking for an old delta buried under modern silt and sludge… not a canyon.

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  11. Larry Ledwick says:

    Yes it would be nice to get a topography map of the bed rock under that area, to see if it is like the St. Lawrence and New York harbor out flows where there are deep canyons in the bedrock mostly filled with erosion deposits.

    This gives a chronology of some of the geological changes and some nice illustrations of how the various rock layers are stacked due to the subduction and transverse fault motion.

    Click to access Geology%20of%20the%20Golden%20Gate%20Headlands%20Field%20Guide.pdf

    This has some nice images showing sea floor and bay floor topography as though no water was present, and give a good hint where the deep erosion channel was cut west of the golden gate as there is a clear surface dip in the modern alluvial surface outside the golden gate which I am pretty sure is the surface of a deep erosion cut in the basement rock of the continental shelf in that area.

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