California Is Worried About A “Ghost Lake”

As shorebirds caw and fish jump in the water, it’s hard to think that this area was completely devoid of a lake only two months ago.

Acres of pistachio trees, cotton, tomatoes, and other commodities once covered this area. Only the roof of a shed and a few partially submerged tractors remain of the fields that once surrounded Corcoran before the record rainfall of 2023.

They prayed for rain, and now they are praying for it to stop.

Tulare Lake, one of California’s five largest lakes, formed this spring and has since expanded to cover 100 square miles. And it’s only going to grow from here. 

This year’s record snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is melting as the weather warms, and four of the rushing rivers will flow into this area due to “The Big Melt,” as scientists and residents fearfully call it. 

The crucial factors will be how quickly the snow melts and how quickly upstream communities and reservoirs can absorb the water. But one thing is sure: stopping the lake from flooding Corcoran and the other communities in the Tulare Basin will require the combined efforts of everyone in the area. The conservative valley, home to Republicans like U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the Democrats governing the state from the capital of Sacramento, will need to work together to manage reservoirs, communicate emergencies, raise levees, and contain environmental damage. 

The water rises to a height of 179 feet above sea level, while the levee protecting downtown Corcoran is 188 feet above sea level. The state consented to raise the levee by just four feet to 192. That’s not enough.

Some claim that the state’s slow response to levee repairs is because Democratic state authorities cared little about the welfare of the Corcoran Republican stronghold. Locals here laugh at liberals in the cities who prioritize protecting the delta smelt, a little fish just 2 inches long, while denying farmers access to the water they need to feed the nation. 

The area has become a litmus test. Can Democrats and Republicans work together on an issue as bipartisan as flooding?