April 7, 2023 - After a record-breaking rain and snow year in California, Tulare Lake has reformed. I write this just as below-average cold temperatures across the Western U.S. are ending and a warm-up approaches. I worry about communities and towns in the San Joaquin Valley which are already inundated by rain floods, and now may be experiencing even more floodwaters as the 300% of average southern Sierra snowpack begins to melt.
Some links about Tulare Lake reforming:
I am partly fascinated at how Tulare Lake is reforming, as this shows how natural processes such as floods are still something Californians are grappling with. I wrote about this in 2010 in my book. Nothing has changed except to see this happen on a mega-gargantuan level as the winter season of 2022-2023 breaks all records since modern record-keeping began.
History repeats itself as levees break, and floodwaters seek to disgorge into primeval natural channels and basins that have existed for thousands of years before industrial agriculture and massive state and federal water management projects in the southern San Joaquin Valley.
I have seen this over the years of observing the natural world: water will flow where it wants to go, eventually, forcefully, despite modern attempts to block it.
Following is my original manuscript written in the 1990s and 2000s, and heavily edited for my 2010 book. I have received email requests to re-publish this material on this website during this remarkable water year in California.
One title I thought of long ago for this chapter was Water's Edge. But the name Tulare evokes much more of the local history, Hispanic contributions, and endemic habitats of California's vast inland freshwater world, so much of which has disappeared.
But these watery habitats are always trying to return.
Since I wrote this chapter decades ago, I have come to appreciate ever more how crucial water is, and how abundant surface water environemnts were before European colonialism. Inland California was a water world almost beyond conception. And this contributed significantly to the state's rise as an economic superpower globally, as surface and ground waters were pumped, diverted, dammed, diked, and channeled for industrial agriculture on a grand scale.
This came at a cost, however, as groundwater pumping lead to subsiding lands in the San Joaquin Valley, and the pursuit of profits caused farmers to grow ever more water-thirsty crops such as almond trees for export to Europe. This was literally shipping California water off to luxury markets, unsustainably. The extreme drought of 2020-2021 showed this. Central Valley water-starved orchards were bulldozed down by the hundred-acre. I saw it. There simply was not enough water for the agricultural boom.
Yet California's natural processes persist, despite markets and development projects to try to conquer and control water. This last winter season brought the drought to an extreme halt, and then the winter proceeded to dump a record amount of rain and snow on the state. Nature is unpredictable. I tried to convey this message in my book, that humans will have a hard time controlling natural processes until they understand them better and learn to live with them sustainably. I hope the residents of Alpaugh and other towns being flooded in this basin stay safe and get the help they need to survive this.
Getting Your Hands Dirty
Owens tui chub
Again, we went out to parts of the shallow marsh edge with shovels and hand clippers, and dug small open pools a few inches deep. The toads did not need much to be happy – that night they discovered the new open water and began calling their soft piping songs; the next morning the pool glittered with strings of tiny black eggs encased in clear “jelly.” The toads seemed to favor disturbance, and I pondered on what sort of natural processes created such disturbances before we came along with our shovels and metal blades to annually dig new pools.
The question of the past came up: disturbance must have been a regular part of this valley ecosystem. The Indians regularly set fires, they dug marsh plants with digging sticks, and trimmed willows and mesquites to increase the quality of new growth for basketry material or to increase edible mesquite beans. Native grazing animals, although not present in larger numbers in these desert river valleys, did graze marsh plants and trample open water in spots – elk in the Central Valley, Bison in northeastern California, and deer, antelope, bighorn sheep, and rabbits added minor grazing effects in other parts of the state.
But as I learned pulling cattails for toads at my home, we humans have always been a part of the landscape. For thousands of years people have been changing, caring for, and manipulating marshes and other habitats. And I do not think it is a bad thing. The idea of “wilderness” may be the artificial one. At Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park one day, Timbisha Shoshone elder Pauline Esteves explained to me that people needed to take care of the springs around here, tend to them. “We are related to the springs, to the water,” she said.
Marsh Foods and Fibers
What an amazing world this must have been. From my own explorations of the marsh remnants, I could tell that tules and cattails (Typha latifolia) probably dominated deepwater fresh marshes, while shallower marshes were a riot of American threesquare (Schoenoplectus pungens), Alkali bulrush (S. robustus), Baltic rush (Juncus balticus), Spikerush (Eleocharis palustris), sedges (Carex nebrascenisis and others), and Bur-reed (Sparganium eurycarpum). Common reed (Phragmites australis) , called “cane” or carrizo in Spanish, choked wet places especially along the margins of rivers, and helped to prevent the banks from washing away in floods (Watson 1880).
Members of the San Joaquin Agricultural Society boated around the muddy sloughs of the Delta, noting the reclamation, diking, cattle and horse grazing, hay-making, grain crops and orchards in 1861. They saw an Indian rancheria by Bear Creek after leaving Stockton, and passed by camps of Chinese fishermen on the banks netting perch, trout, salmon, and “slough-fish,” to salt and send to the gold mines, as well as catching beavers, otters, and muskrat. They met hermits such as “Whisky Bill” living in the quiet riparian woodland depths, and workers stripping the bark off trees to ship to San Francisco for use in tanning. They noted the “millions of blackbirds” (Tricolored blackbirds -- Agelaius tricolor?) that nested in the tules and circled overhead musically warbling. Mount Diablo dimly rose above the broad level landscape. They happily commented on the “improvement” of thousands of acres of tule lands as they saw flags of the levee-builders, but with a fleeting note of recognition of the disappearing “charms of solitude” and strange beauty of the freshwater marsh. As they drifted down Georgia Slough from the Calaveras River, they wrote about the “wide expanse of sky and land” that,
The Sky Was Blackened
Ring-necked ducks, field sketches.
Cinammon teal and gadwall field sketches
Mallard, cinnamon teal, and pied-billed grebe field sketches.
A survey party exploring San Joaquin Valley in 1853 found Wood ducks (Aix sponsa), as well as grizzlies, plentiful by the Kaweah River. Across an alkaline desert they approached Tulare Lake, where they found elk, Long-billed curlews (Numenius americanus), Common snipe (Gallinago gallinago), and an Indian village (Grayson 1920).
At Buena Vista Lake they similarly found great quantities of ducks and geese -- 185 fowl were killed with ten shots.
Egret and coot field sketches.
Little green heron field sketch.
Goldeneye, mallard, and violet-green swallow field sketches.
Peregrine falcon field sketches.
Lesser sandhill cranes (called “little brown cranes”) (Grus canadensis canadensis) were formerly common, “thousands” seen feeding in open grasslands near marshes, wintering in the San Joaquin Valley, San Francisco Bay transitional marsh grasslands, and once in the Los Angeles region. They may have bred in the Central Valley at one time as well (Remsen 1978). Greater sandhill cranes (G. c. tabida and G. c. rowani) were formerly common in interior California, but their breeding range has been greatly reduced; they no longer nest in the Central Valley marshes. The rare large white-colored Whooping crane (G. americana) was also once a California bird, although now no more: John J. Audubon reported it from “upper California northward”; ornithologist Lyman Belding once saw a flock in 1884 over the tules on Butte Creek, Sutter County, and another flock in April 1841 near Gridley, Butte County (Grinnell 1944). Today this endangered crane has suffered a range shrinkage down to a narrow belt in central North America. I watched two at Yellowstone National Park one spring feeding in a wet meadow at dusk, picking up grasshoppers and frogs.
Whooping crane field sketches at Yellowstone Natiuonal Park.
Whooping crane field sketches.
Geese such as Canada (Branta canadensis), Greater white-fronted (Anser albifrons), Snow (Chen caerulescens), and Ross’ (C. rossii) have rebounded from their lows around the year 1900 thanks to the efforts of sport hunters. Two diminutive subspecies of Canada geese, the Aleutian Canada goose (B. c. leucopareia) and Cackling Canada goose (B. c. minima) were formerly much more common in winter the length of the state, but are still at low numbers. Bird illustrator John Cassin (1865) called the Aleutian goose “one of the most abundant of the species of geese” on the West Coast. Snow geese he described as extremely common and widespread all over California marshlands -- flocks of white birds must have appeared like snow patches covering the ground as they fed in grasslands or loafed on marsh edges. By 1913, population drops were estimated as one goose left for every 100 to 1,000 geese present in the late 1800s, due to habitat loss (Banks and Springer 1994). The endemic “Tule goose,” a large form of the white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons gambeli), is known to winter only at certain marshes in the Sacramento Valley and Suisun area, and may be in danger of going extinct (Small 1994).
Black-necked stilts field sketches.
Black-necked stilts flying field sketches.
Sora and Virginia rail field sketches.