An American lake that was drained 100 years ago to create farming land has reappeared – causing havoc, sparking feuds and fuelling concerns about the impact of climate change.
California’s Tulare Basin produces a significant proportion of the United States’ supply of almonds, pistachios, milk and fruit. But now it resembles an ocean, and people are worried.
The rains have led to floods that have damaged towns and deluged farms and have begun to refill what was once the sprawling Tulare Lake.
“This is a slowly unfolding natural disaster,” Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Water Policy Centre of the Public Policy Institute of California, told NBC. “There’s no way to handle it with the existing infrastructure.”
And more water is on the way, it is feared.
Experts say a months-long, slow-burning crisis will play out next.
A historic snowpack looms in the mountains above the basin – as it melts, it is likely to put downstream communities through months of torment.
The flooding, which follows several years of extreme drought, showcases the weather whiplash typical of California, which vacillates between too wet and too dry.
The influence of climate change can make the state’s extremes more intense.
‘Impending monster’ in the mountains
In the farming communities that dot the historic lake bed, accusations of sabotaged levees, frantic efforts to patch breached banks and feuds – common occurrences during flood fights in the area – have started already, said Matt Hurley, a former manager for several water districts in the Tulare Basin.
“The problem this year is it’s just begun. We may have water running at or near our flood level – in all of our streams, through August or September,” Mr Hurley said.
“This impending monster – a 50-foot-plus deep snowpack that we haven’t seen in 75 years – is sitting up there, and we just don’t know how fast it’s going to turn into water and come out of the mountains.”
California officials have geared up for a long fight against flooding. Nearly 700 people were assigned to help with the emergency response just in Tulare County, where floodwater has damaged more than 900 structures so far.
The flooding could also spell disaster for farmworkers and those who live in the rural communities that dot the Tulare Basin.
“This is a low-income community. People are not out here stocking up food. They go pay cheque to pay cheque in a lot of cases,” said community organiser Kayode Kadara, from the nearby town of Allensworth.
“All we’ve heard so far is with this unprecedented snowfall, what we’ve seen so far is a baby flood.”