See the rebirth of California’s ‘phantom’ Tulare Lake in striking before-and-after images

Aerial view of floodwaters surrounding a structure, covering much of a fence and the bases of trees next to a breached levee
A pipe yard on 10th Avenue in Corcoran is submerged as the resurgent Tulare Lake continued to expand last week.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A once-mighty body of water is rising again in Central California.

Tulare Lake was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River and was last full in 1878. It was mostly drained in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as its tributaries were dammed and diverted for agriculture.

In recent weeks, after relentless storms, formerly depleted rivers are roaring from the Sierra Nevada into the valley, spilling from canals and broken levees into fields as the phantom lake reemerges.

These satellite images from NASA show the farmland west of Corcoran, a town of around 22,000, before and after flooding.

Three side-by-side satellite photos from March 2, March 27 and April 1 show a wide flooded area expanding west of Corcoran
NASA’s MODIS satellite imaging system shows where floodwaters refilled parts of the once-dry Tulare Lake in California over recent weeks. The false-color images show water in deep blue and vegetation in bright green.
(National Aeronautics and Space Administration)

In 1983, a record-setting year of rain, Tulare Lake reached its most recent high point, flooding some 82,000 acres of farmland.

“Every 15 years or so, in the wake of a record winter storm or heavy spring snowmelt, the dams and ditches cannot contain the rivers,” Mark Arax wrote in The Times that year. “When that happens, the great inland sea, at least a hint of it anyway, rouses from its slumber.”

In this interactive slider, the image on the left shows farmland in October 2021 on what was previously Tulare Lake. The image on the right, from March 24, 2023, shows murky water overtaking vast swaths of the land.

Some 10,000 acres of farmland have already flooded, and more inundation is likely as California’s record-setting snowpack melts off.


With temperatures on the rise, communities are bracing for that next environmental threat from the snowmelt.

A sheen on the surface of floodwaters surrounding half-submerged farm equipment and a barrel tank
Chemicals appear to leak from a container near submerged farm equipment at a home on 6th Street in Corcoran.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

These false-color images from NASA use a deep blue to show water and a bright green to show vegetation. The image on the left, from March 2022, shows a dry lake bed and relatively arid farmland. On the right, water has overtaken a large area and vegetation has expanded considerably.

In addition to ruining crops, the reemergence of Tulare Lake has brought fears of contamination by Los Angeles County’s sewage sludge.

If a sewage plant in the area were to flood, the surrounding farmland would no longer be suitable for growing human food. Nearby levees will be put to the test.

Aerial view of floodwaters rippling as a vehicle drives along a submerged road
A vehicle travels on the flooded Garces Highway in Corcoran last week.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“I think what we’re all hoping for at this point is that it melts gradually,” Antoinette Serrato, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Hanford, said of the snowpack. “If it melts gradually, then most of the levees are designed to be able to hold that.”

A map shows the rough boundaries of Tulare Lake, between Interstate 5 and Highway 99 in the southern San Joaquin Valley
(Paul Duginski / Los Angeles Times)

Before white settlers arrived in the Central Valley in the 1800s, Tulare Lake was the center of life for the Native Yokut people who lived by its shores and along the rivers.

Then farmers began diverting water and claiming land in the lake bottom.

The lake’s rise is “just a very small reminder of what was once here,” Leo Sisco, the tribe’s chairman, said in an interview with The Times last month.

A mailbox rises on a post out of muddy floodwaters
A mailbox stands in the floodwaters that have innundated farms near the community of Stratford.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Times staff writers Ian James, Susanne Rust and Brennon Dixson and staff photographer Robert Gauthier contributed to this report.