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Agricultural fields in California’s Tulare Lake Basin could be underwater for years to come, experts say

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(NEW YORK) — Farmers in one of the most prominent agricultural communities in the country will likely be living an underwater nightmare for the foreseeable future.

Central California’s Tulare Lake is filled past the brim, but with the blessings of an ample water supply also comes a curse: spillage that experts say could continue to drown fields and roadways for years to come. The flooding has left farmland, streets and properties under several feet of water.

Visual evidence of the decades-long megadrought that plagued the West and left reservoirs nearly depleted has nearly disappeared. An onslaught of moisture from dozens of atmospheric rivers that pummeled the West over the winter season has insured available water supply for the first time in several years, but it has also wreaked havoc in a region of California that yields a vast amount of the country’s produce.

The flooding that began in the Tulare Lake Basin in March, and then increased rapidly in the months that followed, is so vast it extends up to 24 miles past the lake’s rim, measuring at about 600,000 acre-feet of water with depths up to 15 feet, Kings County Sheriff David Robinson told ABC News, adding that an ecosystem unique to the floodwaters has even appeared.

About 90,000 acres of farmland in Kings County, California, is currently serving as the lake bottom for Tulare, Dusty Ference, executive director for the King’s County Farm Bureau, told ABC News. The water not only destroyed cropland but forced the evacuations of cattle and poultry, Ference said.

The flooding has also overtaken roadways, shops and homes around the region, displacing many residents in Tulare and Kings Counties. The water is expected to take up to two years to recede, Robinson said.

“The water’s going to be here for a while,” he said, adding that the California Department of Emergency Management has approved funding to purchase airboats in anticipation of the long-term flooding.

The regions within the Tulare Lake Basin are known for producing much of the country’s cotton, tomatoes, pistachios, almonds, walnuts, alfalfa, wheat, barley and cow milk. So far this year, the industry has seen $140 million in losses, Ference said.

The cost for these products will soon soar as attainability diminishes — not just in the U.S., but around the world, Ference said.

“Price will be affected because availability will be affected — the number of products on a store shelf,” he said.

The precipitation that fell as rain filled up the reservoirs first. As the weather began to warm in the spring, more and more of the record snowpack that fell in the Sierra Nevada mountains melted, causing several of the largest lakes around the state to replenish — some to capacity.

Lake Oroville, one of the many important reservoirs in the West that reached critically low levels during the height of the megadrought, reached full pool earlier this month.

Several other large reservoirs in the state are also close to full pool, including Lake Shasta, its largest, and San Luis Reservoir in Merced County, the fourth-largest, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

The images of floodwaters in the Tulare Lake Basin are in stark contrast to the nearly bone-dry reservoir that subsisted off minimal precipitation for several years on end, and the change happened fast. While satellite images from Feb. 1 show a lake bed barely filled with water, images taken just three months later show water spilling over the edges of the lake.

But this isn’t the first time the lake has flooded.

Tulare Lake, which is fed by the rivers and streams running down from the Sierra Nevada, was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. But in the 1880s, the water was diverted for agricultural use, and the lake dried up.

Farmers began to cultivate the dried-up land for crops and cattle, and the region grew into the largest dairy-producing county in the nation. Now, much of that valuable farmland is currently underwater, with similar events documented in the 1940s and again in 1983.

The Tachi Yokut indigenous tribe, native to the San Joaquin Valley, is hoping that water remains in Tulare Lake in order to heal the local ecosystem, tribe members told the Los Angeles Times. The lake is considered sacred by the Tachi Yokut and is considered part of the tribe’s origin story.

Water levels in Tulare Lake have now peaked and begun to recede. So far, 66,692 acre-feet of water has been diverted away from Tulare Lake and will be used to recharge groundwater and replenish storage, the office of California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Wednesday. The governor has also pledged more than $500 million in the 2023 to 2024 state budget to support flood response and projects to protect communities from future floods.

The mere inches of receding floodwaters do not negate the losses the billion-dollar agricultural industry in the region has suffered, Ference said.

“The river conditions have settled and given everybody a reprieve, but everybody is affected right now,” he said. “There’s not a farmer that’s not affected somehow.”

The influx of water may not be over. There is still snow melting in the Sierra Nevadas, and an El Nino event is expected to bring additional moisture to Southern and Central California, forecasts show.

But water management officials in the Tulare Lake Basin are confident that those events should not produce a massive increase in water flow to the lake, Ference said, perhaps saving the region from further inundation.

“We’ve got to get the lake dry,” Ference said. “That’s kind of our number one goal for stabilization right now.”

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