(Corcoran, CA) It’s no secret that the heart of California’s Central Valley was once the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi, dammed and drained into an empire of farms amid of the XXth century.

Yet even longtime residents were stunned this year by how quickly Lake Tulare resurfaced. In less than three weeks, a parched expanse of 50 km² was transformed by raging storms into a vast flooding sea.

The lake’s revival has become a slow-motion disaster for farmers and residents of Kings County, which has a population of 152,000 and a $2 billion agricultural industry that ships cotton, tomatoes, safflower, pistachios, milk and many other things all over the planet. As Lake Tulare widens and deepens, the risk of losing entire crops, submerged homes, and failed businesses increases.

Across the region, the surprise barrage of atmospheric rivers that have swept across California over the past three months have already saturated the ground, overflowing canals and breaching levees. There are now fears that record snowpacks in the southern Sierra Nevada will liquefy as the spring heat intensifies and form a torrent that will inundate the Central Valley.

Already larger than all but one of California’s reservoirs, Lake Tulare (pronounced tor-r-i) could stay in place for two years or more, causing billions of dollars in economic damage and displacing thousands of farm workers , while transforming the area back into the giant natural habitat it was before it was conquered by farmers.

“This could be the mother of all floods,” said Phil Hansen, 56, a fifth-generation farmer who has already lost more than a third of his 18,000 acres to a levee failure. “This could be the biggest flood we’ve ever seen. »

Several communities have already been evacuated and hundreds of homes and farm buildings have been destroyed or damaged. Sandbags are transported by helicopter. Tens of thousands of dairy cows were transported to higher ground. Last month, authorities said a local poultry farm surrounded by water was debating whether to move or cull a million chickens. Farmers argue over which land will flood first, knowing that flooding is likely to be a matter of time, not probability.

Scientists, historians, and farmers see the lake’s rebirth as an epic match between nature and man. For now, nature seems determined to win in an era of climate change marked by long periods of drought followed by storms that bring more water than can be handled. Runoff has no natural place to flow, and experts say there’s no easy way to send that water to other parts of the state that could drain it. use for irrigation or residential purposes, even as the state desperately seeks long-term solutions to combat the drought.

Around the farm and town (notorious for its prison) of Corcoran, grey-blue waves surge towards the horizon. Snow-white cranes soar above the earthen levees that so far protect approximately 22,000 residents and inmates. The submerged fields are devoid of the tomatoes and pima cotton that normally fill them, an agricultural Atlantis larger than the Manhattan of New York.

The bed of the lake is essentially a 1275 km⁠2 tub – the size of four Lakes Tahoe – that dates back to the Ice Age. There was a time when mammoths watered on the shores of Lake Tulare and Tule elk roamed the swamps.

Today, the landscape is one of the most heavily landscaped in the country. Large dams, operated by the federal government and funded over the years by large farmers, manage the water in the Kings, Tule, Kaweah and Kern rivers. Downstream, farmers and cities have erected hundreds of kilometers of dykes and canals.

In 1983, when a long-lasting snowmelt submerged approximately 210 km⁠2 of the lake bed, the damage in Kings County alone cost nearly US$300 million in today’s dollars. and it took two years for the water to disappear, according to John T. Austin, author of Floods and Droughts in the Tulare Lake Basin, a book about the area. That summer, two men kayaked through floodwaters from the banks of the Kern River, just outside downtown Bakersfield, to San Francisco Bay. A winding 450 mile journey through what would normally be sunscorched land.

Since then, the population has nearly doubled, both in Kings County and in the San Joaquin Valley that encompasses Fresno and Merced, an area now home to about 3 million people.

Mark Grewal, agricultural consultant and former executive of the J.G. Boswell Company, one of the nation’s largest private farms, said the long-term, region-wide economic impact could be exponentially greater. than in 1983. Because the staples grown today – high-end crops like walnuts, tomatoes, and Pima cotton – are much more expensive and see their value rise with inflation. The region is so crucial to global supply that severe and long-lasting flooding could drive up prices for consumers.

Kings County Sheriff David Robinson recalled that he was 12 during the 1983 flood and never expected to see such a sight twice in his life. In an interview, his deputy, Robert Thayer, said the aerial footage was not reassuring. Both men called the risk of flooding “biblical.”

“It will impact the world, if people can relate to it,” Robinson said at a news conference, after asking the public to stop using the lake for boating. “We’re going to have a million acres of water covering an area that feeds the world. »

Last week, in his white van, Mr Grewal, 66, drove through a plowed landscape that could soon end up underwater. According to him, the melting snow would have far worse consequences than the floods that have already occurred.

“A heavy snowmelt in May would be a disaster,” Grewal said. “This lake could cover hundreds of square miles by the time everything collapses. »