California’s once-dormant lake isn’t going away anytime soon because of this year’s worst storm sequence.
Tulare Lake, which was filled for the first time in 40 years after atmospheric rivers hit California with snow and rain, is shrinking now, but experts say it will take at least a year to completely evaporate.
“We’ll still have Tulare Lake next year,” said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California.
The sudden emergence of the lake, which was drained for farmland in the late 1800s, caused hundreds of millions of dollars in agricultural losses and required a major cleanup effort after the water ran out. Infrastructure is still hidden in the water.
Pacific Gas and Electric used divers and helicopters to pry critical electrical infrastructure from the lake bed this spring. And the sheriff’s office recently purchased a new airboat to travel across the surface of the lake without removing floating debris or hiding beneath it.
California’s weather swings wildly from wet to dry, a pattern experts expect will grow more pronounced as the atmosphere warms due to climate change. Tulare Lake has become a symbol of the consequences of California’s heavy rains, as decades of planning and engineering face new challenges.
According to satellite measurements from the California Department of Water Resources, Tulare Lake has grown to cover nearly 114,000 acres. Jason Ince, a spokesman for the agency, said the lake’s size has decreased since early June and is now about 111,000 acre feet.
Experts say that the water will eventually evaporate completely. The lake’s longevity largely depends on seasonal rainfall trends this winter.
“It all depends on what happens next winter,” Mount said.
The lake is now murky and polluted with farmyard manure, gasoline and other pollutants, Sargeant said. Nate Ferrier of the Kings County Sheriff’s Office, who recently visited the lake.
“It’s vast — mile after mile of water,” Ferrier likens the experience to floating in a “ghost town on the water.”
The lake — which this year has expanded by about 10 miles, satellite images show — is still a shadow of its historic size. It was once the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi.
Some wild animals have come back. Ferrier said birdsong echoed over the water during his visit. He saw a fish leaping from the shore.
Some environmentalists and the Tachi Yokut tribe of California have supported keeping the water in the lake. Allow the once abundant wildlife to returnAccording to the Los Angeles Times.
The resurrection of the lake has become a disaster for some farmers.
“We had about 60,000 cows that had to be relocated because of the flooding,” Tulare County Farm Bureau President Matt Watkins said of the spring flooding.
Kings County Agriculture Commissioner Jimmy Hook estimated the county’s agricultural damage in April to exceed $300 million, with tomato, cotton and pistachio crops among those affected by flooding.
Those losses have hurt, but the region avoided more devastating consequences this spring when colder weather slowed the melting of historic ice sheets that put the region at greater risk of flooding.
“We are lucky,” Mount said, adding that farmers in flood-affected areas were able to irrigate their fields, so the net loss may be minimal.
Although the early flood response in the Tulare Basin has been marked by tension and controversy, state, local and federal officials say they have implemented projects such as pumping, diversions and temporary diversions that ultimately mitigated the damage.
“It started with chaos,” Mount said. “They really got their act together.”
For Ferrier and other residents near the lake, it was a rough but fascinating section that offered a glimpse of what the landscape looked like a century ago, before irrigators drained the lake.
“It’s sad to see some of these things get flooded and the houses damaged and the farming industry hit, but it’s quite an event. This lake has always been here, and if you think about it, it’s supposed to be here,” Ferrier said. “We all prayed for rain. We all prayed a little harder.”
This article was originally published by NBCNews.com