The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

California’s Tulare Lake:
An Environmental Disaster

Apr 17, 2023

This winter’s unusually high levels of rain and snowfall have brought Central California’s long-dried Tulare Lake back to life. This re-appearing “phantom lake,” as it is called, has already flooded agricultural fields and towns in an area of 30 square miles (nearly 20,000 acres.) It will certainly inundate much more land in the coming months, as the record level of snow pack on the nearby Sierra Nevada range melts.

Covering 690 square miles, Tulare Lake was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. For thousands of years, the rich area around the lake supported a large population of Native Americans.

But beginning in the 1860s, the state and counties built dams, levees and canals on the rivers that fed Tulare Lake, on behalf of land speculators and big agriculture bosses. So much water was being diverted from these rivers into the fields of San Joaquin Valley that, in 1884, the Scientific American magazine warned of the impending “utter absorption” of Tulare Lake. By the early 20th century, the lake was almost dry.

The dry basin of the lake provided fertile and productive land, thanks to the sediments deposited at the bottom of the lake. Some of the richest agricultural dynasties in the country used this land to get even richer. Towns also emerged in the dry lake basin, providing homes to tens of thousands of farm workers working the fields—towns such as Corcoran, which now has a population about 22,500. Corcoran is also home to one of the biggest state prisons in California which, along with the rest of the town, will have to be evacuated as Tulare Lake rises.

In the past also, after particularly wet winters, Tulare Lake’s basin got flooded considerably—as in 1969, 1983 and 1997. During the 1983 flooding, the lake’s area reached 82,000 acres (about 128 square miles), its largest size in the 20th century; and it took two years for it to dry out again. Experts think that the size of the lake can get even bigger than that this time, once the snow on the Sierra Nevada melts.

So now, once again, fields and towns are under water, with more to come. Entire communities of farmworkers, already low-paid and struggling before the flooding, are losing their livelihoods AND homes. Once again, workers are paying the price for many decades of reckless land and water grabbing by big agriculture bosses.