Vanishing Lakes: Tulare Lake

By Matthew C. Pace

Apr 14 2023

The California Central Valley was once a matrix of riparian grasslands and vernal lakes with a complex seasonal flooding history related to winter rainfall and mountain snow packs in the Sierra Nevada. Today, only 1% of the original riparian grassland landscape remains. Located in the southern part of the Central Valley, Tulare Lake was once one of the largest freshwater lakes and most important waterfowl habitats in the United States, containing extensive reed marshes. In fact, the word Tulare derives from the Classical Nahuatl “tōllin,” meaning “sedge” or “reed.” Tōllin was incorporated into Spanish as “Tulare” by Spanish explorers and settlers.

The destruction and loss of Tulare Lake was caused entirely by human activity. The draining of Tulare Lake began after the Civil War: its source rivers were dammed, and water from the lake was diverted for agricultural irrigation and human consumption. By 1898, the lake had dried to such a point that The New York Times reported "Tulare Lake Dries Up," adding "only a barren desert of mud" remained, and that the land was under development by farmers who (too optimistically) promised "the land will grow any kind of crop with very little irrigation."

Today, Tulare Lake has completely vanished and is replaced by an expanse of agricultural crop land. In rare wet years, such as the winter of 2023, a portion of the lake briefly reappears (submerging farms in the process). Tulare Lake, and its extensive ecosystems, however are no more.

Preston, W.L. (1981). Vanishing Landscapes. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 1–243.

Tulare Lake Dries Up. (15 August 1898). The New York Times.