(KSEE/KGPE) — For more than a century the former lakebed of Tulare Lake has been turned into farmland in California’s Central Valley.

The footprint of the lake, when full, could reach 690 square miles, stretching from Kettleman City east to Corcoran and north to Lemoore.

It was considered the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi.

This lake was home to a wide variety of wildlife but also served as a waypoint for Native Americans, Spanish missionaries and Mexican nationals for centuries.

As the newly formed state of California began to grow in the 1850s, increased farming in the southern San Joaquin Valley would drain the waters of Tulare Lake.

In 1879, the Kaweah, Kern, Kings and Tule Rivers were damned, leaving the lake nearly dry by the early 1900s.

The nail in the coffin would come when Pine Flat Dam was completed in 1954, holding back the waters of the Kings River.

However, flood waters have occasionally recharged the lake several times in recent decades. In 1938, 1955, 1969, 1983 and 1997, unusually high levels of rainfall and snowmelt would replenish the lake, which sometimes reached 100 square miles of the surface.

Early 2023 has also had unusually high levels of rainfall and snowmelt.

Rainfall and Snowmelt threaten to overload Pine Flat Dam

2.6 million-acre feet of water is expected to pass through Pine Flat Dam, and the dam can only hold about 1 million acre-feet. Normally, the water goes North to the San Joaquin River, but there’s so much water there now, that the water has to be released to the Kings River too.

“The Kings River has been flowing high now for the last two to three weeks with all of the storms we’ve been having,” said Randy McFarland, a consultant for the Kings River Water Association.

“We haven’t had a big water year like this since ’82, ’83, and this one has the potential to be the biggest water year ever recorded or observed in modern history,” McFarland said.

McFarland is part of the team overseeing water going from Kings River into the Tulare Lake Canal, where the water will get distributed to farmland or evaporate over time.

“It gives you some idea, we’re talking about a lot of water,” McFarland said. “So, the corps has to make room for it and that’s what flood releases are for, and that’s what’s happening right now,” said McFarland.

After the water is released from the dam, it makes its way here South of Stratford on Highway 41, where it splits into three ways, the Blakeley Canal, the Kings River, and the Tulare Lake Canal.

The river is already on the rise. At the Kingsburg Golf Course, the water is already making its way into the parking lot.

“Anybody who has property along the Kings River or lives very close to the river absolutely has to be cognizant of the danger,” McFarland said.

McFarland believes the river could rise another five feet with flood water releases. He says putting water into the old lakebed isn’t new, they’ve done it before when there is too much water and nowhere for it to go.