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Two Long-Drained California Lakes Refilled by Floodwaters, Satellite Images Show

Two California lakes, both drained a century ago, have been partially refilled by floodwaters from recent storms, satellite images from NASA show.

Tulare Lake in California’s Central Valley was once fed by rain and snowmelt from the western Sierra Nevadas, but a system of dams and canals erected in the early 20th century diverted water away from the lake to supply regional farms. Once the largest freshwater lake in the West, Tulare withered, and farmers planted cotton, tomatoes, pistachios, almonds, and other crops in the dried lakebed.

Owens Lake, which lies on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas, was also long fed by streams flowing from the mountains. But the 1913 construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct redirected much of that water to Los Angeles, desiccating the lake.

In March, successive atmospheric rivers hit California, with the resulting floodwaters inundating farmland in the footprint of Tulare Lake. Near Owens Lake, severe floods eroded soil around the Los Angeles Aqueduct, leading to its partial collapse. Officials opened spill gates on the aqueduct to drain the damaged areas, allowing floodwaters to pour into Owens Lake.

False color satellite images from NASA show the extent of flooding in Tulare Lake and Owens Lake, with liquid water shaded in dark blue, vegetation in bright green, and snowpack in light blue.

Recent atmospheric rivers have left the Sierra Nevadas with a record amount of April snowpack, which now sits at 237 percent of the historical average, a stark change from last year, when the April snowpack measured just 38 percent of the historical average. Officials are worried that, as the weather warms, melting snow could fuel even more flooding.

“This year’s severe storms and flooding is the latest example that California’s climate is becoming more extreme,” Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources, said in a statement. “We have provided flood assistance to many communities who just a few months ago were facing severe drought impacts.”


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