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Tulare Lake, once second largest fresh water lake in United States as late as early 1880s, is history
tu;lare drain
Photo courtesy Tulare Lake Basin Alliance An irrigation pipe drops water into a pond in the Tulare Basin.

Up until the early 1880s it was a 150 mile journey from Manteca to the second largest freshwater lake located entirely within the boundaries of the United States.

Covering 690 square miles, it made Lake Tahoe at a mere 191 square miles small in comparison.

The body of water more than 10 times larger than Clear Lake — Northern America’s oldest lake at 2.5 million years — was known as Tule Lake. It was so named due to the swaths of large bulrush along the lake’s edge that would grow as tall as 10 feet.

Tulare Lake essentially disappeared in 1899 from the lower southwest portion of the San Joaquin Valley.

Its demise was the result of reservoirs being built in the Sierra and diversions via canals to quench the growing water demand of agriculture and cities.

It serves as a lesson in how man’s alteration of rivers by the creation of reservoirs and diversion canals has significantly changed the natural face of California since the first miners in 1848 harnessed water in their search for gold. It is water that ultimately created a state today that is home to 39.5 million people or roughly a 200-fold increase in 173 years as well as the most productive farm region in the United States if not the world.

Five rivers once flowed into Tulare Lake — the Kings, Keen, Tule, White, and Kawaeh. There was no outflow point. Water loss was due to seepage and evaporation. Whenever the lake reached 207 feet in elevation, it would spill over its banks. The lake would then expand to as much as 1,645 square miles. The last time the lakes spilled was in 1878. And the last time it reached 200 feet was in 1880.

When spillage occurred, which wasn’t infrequent, water would make its way into the San Joaquin River up past present-day Manteca and Lathrop into the Delta and ultimately the San Francisco Bay.

The lake’s deepest point was 28 feet at the 207-foot elevation

The actual lake basin when it was self-contained would have covered land where the community of Corcoran and Stratford are today with 25 feet of water.

Tulare Lake at one point was the southernmost point that Chinook salmon migrated. Now that distinction belongs to the Merced River some 100 miles to the north.

The lake was teeming with wildlife. Besides being a key stop for migrating birds along the Pacific Flyway it harbored an abundance of fish.

During a three-month period in 1888 there were 73,500 pounds of fish caught that was shipped from Hanford to San Francisco.

The lake had plenty of western pond turtles that met the demand for terrapin soup for decades in San Francisco.

There have been rare occasions since 1900 when small parts of the original lake have been covered with water due to years of exceptional precipitation.

Tulare Lake — just like Owens Lake — disappeared in a matter of decades. Tulare was primarily to support agriculture and Owens to sustain growth in the Los Angeles Basin.

If the lake were in place today, it would be a stark reminder that due to severe fluctuations of hydrology in California nature’s reservoirs will shrink substantially during drought.

Today with the entire state in at least severe drought and 47.8 percent of California including all of the Central Valley in the most dire drought category of exceptional, the lake’s historical fluctuations over 2,000 years underscores that mega-droughts of years or more that hydrologists believe we have entered are the norm and not the exception.



To contact Dennis Wyatt, email