Water has its way

Tulare Lake in California was once America’s largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. Over decades, it had been completely drained and turned into extensive farmland, the waters that once fed it diverted in other directions for irrigation and city drinking.

Then California saw years of drought and over-tapping of groundwaters. Farmers drilled beneath old lake beds to capture ancient water. Scientists and ordinary Californians wondered about lands that were literally sinking, and at how the suffering Colorado River with its dams and lakes was going to be divided up to serve states and tribes.

California was then covered this winter and spring with gargantuan dumps of snow and rain. And Tulare Lake reappeared, burying fields, buildings, power poles, vehicles and other manufactured goods that filled the lives of people who once lived and worked where the lake now IS. Today, it is at 168 square miles; imagine a lake sixteen miles long by ten miles wide!

The waters from a still impressive snowpack that would have once naturally filled the lake are now being diverted as much as is possible to reservoirs and to restoring groundwater to the parched California lands. But no one is sure when or how the new-old Tulare will return to recent boundaries—the guesses are a couple of years. With another wet winter and spring—as is forecast—that number of years could be wishful thinking for the mostly corporate farmers who just yesterday tilled the land that is now beneath the lake.

And the land that has been a job for many Californians and a breadbasket for the nation might be something else in two years—and certainly in twenty and thirty years. This year is a reminder of the resilience of water.


In our own country, waters’ journeys back to traditional places in traditional volume is also a matter of lawsuits and adjustments—and the inevitable aging of dams. There are lawsuits brought by tribes and environmental activists who want fish and natural rivers returned, fought by power companies, irrigators, and barge shippers. Four dams on the Klamath River are in fact being removed, and talk of removal or at least breeching of the four lower Snake River dams is animated.

A few years ago, Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson began advocating openly for the breeching of the lower Snake River dams. He proposed spending over $30 billion to compensate and refigure lost electricity, irrigation and transportation. He notes the many billions that have been spent in efforts to maintain salmon runs that are now facing extinction. And he thinks that salmon are ultimately important for the water, lands, and people of Idaho.

When Simpson first revealed his plans, Northwest politicians did not jump to get on his bandwagon. There was hesitancy and push back—and there were calls for more studies. The tribes did jump on—immediately. And as they have pitched their reasons for return, scientists are finding new ways in which salmon are intertwined with life. Salmon are food for forest creatures, and bring nutrients from sea to feed forests. They directly feed thousands of humans and animal relatives—the orca in the ocean depend on the salmon.

Breeching of the Lower Snake River dams is now a serious conversation, and we will all be watching to see what happens with the Klamath River. News is that the Yuroks, an awesome tribal power and stellar leader in resource revitalization, will not serve salmon at this year’s salmon feast. Numbers in the Klamath River are that low, and the Yurok are putting every present effort into long-term recovery.

Dams or no dams, water will have its way. Dams are finite things, and decades of standing in rivers has left huge volumes of sediment. According to the people dismantling the Klamath dams, some 20 million cubic yards of sediment has accumulated behind the dams over the last century! And what does the sediment hold? Ag chemicals, mining chemicals, industrial waste? Sediment behind the lower Snake dams seems relatively benign—not so upper river dams; not so main stem Columbia dams. And in addition to the planned removal of some dams, we keep an eye on Tulare Lake and its unplanned return and envision unplanned breeching.

Whatever shape dam removal takes now—or fifty years from now—will be covered not only by politics, but by the fleetingness of manmade corrections and diversions, and by the ways of water, wind, and fire.

We don’t know what those huge forces of nature will destroy and create, but more of us—non-tribal people—are listening to the wisdom of people who have lived here forever. As we listen long and hard, we might envision living with the natural world rather than living to dominate it. Learn to adapt to and with changing waters.

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Photo: Iron Gate Dam on Klamath River–Associated Press

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