FRESNO, Calif. — Here in Fig Garden, a suburb that creeps up to the edge of the San Joaquin River, on land my neighbors prefer not to think of as a floodplain, the rain started falling in late December and didn’t stop for two weeks. My lawn turned into pond. Geese were honking like they haven’t honked in years.
As the last big storm was nearing, I got a call from my aunt and uncle, California natives who high-tailed it to Cleveland a half century ago. “You guys all right?” they asked.
The pond had yet to reach my front door. “I think we’re going to be OK,” I said.
I reminded them that there are seven dams on the San Joaquin. I don’t know of any other river in America that has been more corralled by man. Over 90 percent of its flow is shunted via canals and ditches to farmland that produces almonds, pistachios, table grapes and mandarins. “Food Grows Where Water Flows,” shout the signs hanging from used-up cotton trailers along Route 99.
“Yes, I understand all that,” my aunt said. “But I heard on the news that a bomb cyclone is headed your way.”
I am a chronicler of menace as all California writers eventually come to be, but in all my years writing about this place, I had never heard of such a thing. Then the storm blew through like any other. I decided to chalk up the bomb cyclone to some bored meteorologist who, like Charles Hatfield, the notorious California “rainmaker” in the 1910s, needed a new way to sell a storm.
Tulare Lake, near Corcoran, Calif.Credit…Adam Perez for The New York Times
The great deluge of 2023 has come and gone and left us Californians wondering what to make of it all. Do we shake our fists at the sky or thank the heavens? How to apprehend the loss of life and property alongside the gift of rain and snow that might break a decade’s drought?
In a state a thousand miles long with 100 million acres of wildly different landscapes inside it, the way we tell the story depends on which California we call home.
I’ve been through a handful of floods, and they needed no hype: 1964, 1969, 1982 to 1983, 1986, 1995, 1997, 2005, 2017. A flood year always breaks the drought years, or so my grandfather the raisin farmer told it. Drought is California. Flood is California. In the wettest years, rain and snowmelt coming down the rivers produce some 200 million acre-feet of water. In the driest years, they produce 30 million. Between the extremes lies an average year, which happens so infrequently that it is a myth we tell ourselves. As long as we keep faith in the average, it is us and not nature in command.
When we’re in the midst of drought, we have no memory of flood. When we’re in the midst of flood, we have no memory of drought. Amnesia is how we built agriculture across marsh and desert and houses in floodplains and canyons of fire.
There are two windows for floods in California, and they affect different parts of the state in different ways. The storms of December and January that fly off the Pacific Ocean wreck coastline and heave giant rocks and mud down hillsides. They punch holes in roads that swallow cars. They swell creeks that have been sand for decades. They swamp the houses of farmworkers on a side of town where flood control is the bond measure that never makes the ballot.
This month’s storms took the lives of 22 people, including a 43-year-old woman whose car was washed into a vineyard in Sonoma and a 5-year-old boy who, on the drive to school with his mother, was swept off by a surge of the Salinas River. This we mourn.
And yet many of us in the San Joaquin Valley watched the rain come down with relief, knowing this might spell the end of drought, knowing that the great water-moving system built by the federal and state governments more than a half century ago was up to the task, knowing the levees in the delta, dug by Chinese laborers in the 1860s, were still standing.
Now we await the second window of flood, from mid-January to early April, the one that comes with the sun. These floods occur when a heavy snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is met by warm rains — a so-called Pineapple Express.
I remember one flood of this sort, the flood of 1997, because it introduced me to a place where the hubris, madness and ingenuity of California’s defiance of nature was on full display: a vast basin of farmland just 50 miles from my house that once held the biggest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi.
It was early February 1997, and the flood had started to fill the basin up. “Tulare Lake has come back to life,” my colleague from the Sacramento bureau of The Los Angeles Times shouted over the phone.
What the hell was Tulare Lake? I pulled out my AAA map and there in a corner of Kings County, next to the town of Corcoran, the cotton capital of the West, was a square of blue that designated the lake.
I got in my car and drove down to Corcoran to see it. The floodwaters were now pushing past the contrivances of the cotton growers, past dam, canal and ditch, past pumps designed to send rivers’ flow backward. The phantom lake, at least a hint of it anyway, made square by the hard lines of levees, had found its old spot.
I climbed atop a giant earthen levee at the base of a dirt road. The sun was high, it was balmy outside, and I tried to orient myself. This is cotton land, I muttered. Only there was no earth to be found.
For 10 miles in one direction and nine miles in another direction, an inland sea stretched before me. Nature had come back. Ducks and mud hens, blue and white herons, pelicans stabbing at catfish and carp. The wind was whipping whitecaps past telephone poles.
What was this remade place? I asked myself.
At Tulare Lake, at the terminus of the Kings, Kaweah, Tule and Kern Rivers, four bands of Yokuts, people native to the region, had lived along the shore as late as the 1840s. The lake took up some 800 square miles, dominating the California map. It was shallow enough that the women scoured for mussels with their toes. The men rode boats made out of bulrushes with a hole to spear fish.
The Indigenous people were long gone by the early 1920s, when the Boswells and Salyers, cotton farmers chased out of Georgia and Virginia by the boll weevil, showed up in Corcoran. The lake had been halfway drained by all the upstream farmers. The cotton growers dried up the rest. They planted a new plantation. The South, its Black cotton pickers, its Jim Crow, rose up in the West.
When the epic flood of March 1969 rolled in, the entire experiment might have been written off as folly. All the earth-moving in the world wasn’t going to shore up the main levee against the constant lashing of waves. That’s when the cotton king J.G. Boswell reached out to a man on the other side of town who had 40 junk cars that would make a perfect buffer.
By the time Boswell was finished, he had purchased 5,200 pancaked jalopies for $78,000. Using cranes, his men laced eight miles of the big curved levee with Chevys, Cadillacs, El Dorados, Pontiacs and Thunderbirds. It was a bumper-to-bumper bulwark. The lake ended up holding at 130 square miles. A cotton crop was salvaged.
Last week the farmer Don Cameron was standing on his sprawling land at the butt end of the same Kings River. He too had come through the storms just fine. His Red Wing boots caked in mud, he looked to the abundant snowpack on the distant Sierra. Would the Pineapple Express come in February and melt it all in a hurry? Would the spoils of floodwaters carry north to the delta and out to the ocean? Or would he be able to capture a bit of that flow for his grapes, almonds, pistachios and tomatoes?
Having spent the past decade chasing too little water for too much cropland, he had turned his farm into a basin capable of storing floodwater in the earth to recharge the depleted aquifer he counted on for irrigation.
“Two weeks ago, I was living the life of drought,” he said. “Now I’m looking at the snowpack and maybe the promise of floodwaters. I’ve been farming here for 41 years, and the water I’m pumping out of the ground is dropping a foot-and-a-half a year. It’s not sustainable.”
He pointed to the mountain to the east. “Those waters up there,” he said, “are our lifeblood.”
Graphics by Jeremy Ashkenas, Taylor Maggiacomo and Gus Wezerek.
Mark Arax (@arax_mark) is a writer whose most recent book is “The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California.”
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