California battles a ‘ghost lake’ – and its own political divisions

The water stretches all the way to the horizon, white clouds reflected on its surface, as shorebirds caw and fish jump. Looking at it now, it’s hard to believe that only two months ago, there was no lake here at all.

Until recently, this land was covered with pistachio trees – acres of them, along with cotton, tomatoes, and other crops. Now it’s all under water, with just a few half-submerged tractors and the roof of a shed hinting at what the fields around Corcoran looked like before 2023’s record rainfall.

“Everyone was praying for rain, and now everyone’s praying for it to stop,” says Corcoran Deputy Police Chief Gary Cramer. He briefly excuses himself to stop some people from driving past the “closed road” sign. “Every time I come out here,” he adds, “the water just gets higher.” 

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Tulare Lake, which didn’t exist mere months ago, could overwhelm a town and two state prisons. To meet the challenge, local, state, and even federal agencies are having to work together.

Since Tulare Lake appeared this spring, it has grown to 100 square miles – making it one of California’s top five largest lakes. And it’s about to get bigger. 

As the weather warms, causing this year’s record snowpack to run down from the Sierra Nevada – “The Big Melt,” as scientists and locals alike nervously call it – four of the rushing rivers will end right here. In preparation, trucks are throwing up clouds of dust while driving across a 14½-mile-long levee, hurriedly reinforcing the last defense protecting Corcoran’s downtown and two of the state’s largest prisons. Farther in the distance, crews rescue valuable equipment from telephone poles before they, too, slip under water.

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