The Largest Watercourse West of the Mississippi, Last Seen 130 Years Ago Has Reappeared

Source: Huntington Library / openrivers

Most people know about the Mississippi and the places it flows. Yet there’s another watercourse that was the biggest in the country west of the Mississippi that mysteriously disappeared more than a century ago. Let’s look at how this massive lake reappeared and what it means for the people living near it.

A Really Big Lake

Tulare Lake used to be the most significant body of water west of the Mississippi. In its prime, it could float agricultural supplies a massive three hundred miles from one end of it to the other, making transport of goods that much easier.

Source: Wikimedia Commons/Trace Fleeman Garcia

While it’s not nearly as big as the Great Lakes, it’s still quite large. The fact that California has suffered an extended drought for some time makes the watercourse’s return almost miraculous.

Man-Made Irrigation Has Destroyed the Original Channel

When the lake dried up more than a century ago, farmers in the district had to find ways to supply their crops with water. Irrigation channels were dug to make it easier to water their crops.

Source: Flickr/Deane and Natasha Schulze

In doing so, however, the farmers inadvertently destroyed the lake’s original bed. They had assumed after a while that the lake was never coming back and had dried up completely for good.

Hard To Imagine Today

When we look at Fresno and that part of California, it’s almost impossible to think about a lake existing in such arid conditions. Yet that’s exactly where a massive body of water used to sit, making Fresno a one-time waterside town.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The lake itself isn’t formed from rainfall like many other lakes are. The water that made the lake comes from snowmelt all the way up in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. When the water melted, it pooled in the valley since there was no other way for it to go.

A Slow Process

How did such a vast lake disappear? The process of the lake’s demise started in the 1850s and 1860s. It had quite a bit to do with taking land from indigenous peoples in the area and California’s mandate to get public lands into private holders’ hands.

Source: Library of Congress

During that time, any land not already owned by someone else was termed “public” land. Naturally, native tribes in the area tried to get the land in their name to protect their rights. The State of California had other ideas.

Irrigation and Reclamation

To get the land into the hands of owners who wanted it, the state would have to find ways to irrigate the otherwise arid land. They already had a massive lake that wasn’t being used much by anyone else, so they started using it to irrigate the arid lands around the area.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Additionally, lands that were waterlogged that could be drained would also be “reclaimed” by American owners. It was the perfect setup to see a massive lake being drained and reclaimed while the water went on to make the arid soil in the region a little more arable.

Today’s Valley Has Signs of This Work

With so much incentive to build irrigation canals and drain the wetland, it was natural that so many people would be involved in it. However, it wasn’t easy going. Records show that the work was done in short bursts, stopping and restarting occasionally.

Source: Wikimedia Commons/Mark Yasuda

Looking at the valley’s floor today would reveal many of those canals still in existence. Even though there was no more water for them to carry, they remain a testament to how much people are willing to do to get their hands on some land.

The Return Of the Lake

California sometimes has rainfall, but it’s not nearly enough to cause Tulare Lake to return. Yet, in 2023, a series of fortunate events lined up almost perfectly. Climate change might have brought this lake back to life.


A massive snow event was followed by uncharacteristically heavy rainfall. The snow, of course, settled in the Sierra Nevada range. When the rain hit, it caused the snow to melt, and that meltwater returned to the one place it could go – Tulare Lake.

A Not-So-Regular Visitor

This isn’t the lake’s first attempt to make a comeback, either. Researchers note that in the 30s, the 60s, and the 80s, the lake returned in some form. Yet it would drain out again each time as there wasn’t any way to replenish the water.

Source: Flickr/Jamie McCaffrey

In the past, people mentioned how much the landscape and fauna changed. There are records of wetland birds so numerous that they would form a massive flock that would rise up if startled.

An Important Stopover Spot for Migration

Tulare used to play a significant part in the migration of birds. It formed part of the Pacific Flyway – the migration route for birds coming from North America along the Pacific coast. Tulare would be a landing stop on their trip to warmer lands.

Source: Flickr/Mike’s Birds

Sadly, when Tulare died, much of the region’s biodiversity died with it. Today, many species that would have found a home in the lake are critically endangered. When the lake recovers, the biodiversity does with it – if only for a short while.

Property Loss Combined With Restoration

Most news about the lake focuses on its return and how it impacts farmers in the region. Naturally, a lake this size that suddenly shows up where there wasn’t one before can lead to massive property damage.

Source: California Department of Water Resources

Yet, the properties within the valley don’t predate the lake; they exist there because the water was drained to create them. Flooding like this may continue, permanently inundating those farms under the lake’s water. There is little that can force this result of climate change to be any different.

Is The Lake Back For Good?

It’s too early to say if the lake will stick around this time. Since the rainfall and snow that caused the lake’s recovery are anomalies, there’s no telling how long the lake will stick around for this time. However, climate change has already affected many areas of California.

Source: Flickr/Mary Anne Enriquez

Fresno and the new Tulare Lake might remain fixtures in this part of the state if the snow and rainfall continue to happen regularly. While the farmers may be less than happy about this, the animals who call the lake home may begin recovering after a hundred and thirty years of waiting for the rain to fall.

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Charlotte Clad

Written by Charlotte Clad

Charlotte Clad is a brilliant writer who possesses the remarkable ability to craft content that goes viral and leaves an indelible mark on readers. With an innate passion for storytelling and an unwavering commitment to her craft, Charlotte has consistently pushed the boundaries of creativity to captivate audiences worldwide.

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