The early morning sun shone off the water. I parked at the “Flooding Ahead” sign and walked past deep gouges in the ground. The teeth marks of a bulldozer’s blade were still visible where it had dug in to strengthen the walls of an earthen berm along the edge of what was once a ditch and is now simply a slough meandering along a larger expanse of lake. My steps scared two pairs of mallard ducks from the tall, bright green grasses. Swimming coots trailed Vs in the water; the lake’s surface vibrated as insects hit the surface. Tiny swallows flew in formation together, feeding on small mosquitoes, yellow in the light. All around was the smell of pond life: decaying grasses and rich sediments.
This is Pa’ashi, which means “big water” in the Yokuts language: a lake so expansive that it stretches to the horizon like the ocean. Tiny algae leaves grew on the water’s surface along the shore, leaving in their swirling pattern the mark of the water’s currents. Occasionally bubbles burbled up from the brown, murky water along the edge. The water cast rippling reflections of light across the bottoms of signs and poles.
Pa’ashi, also called Tulare Lake, is located in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and after decades of being dry, it resurged in 2023. When I first visited its shores in late April the lake was still growing, fed by snowmelt and heavy rains. Atmospheric river upon atmospheric river, floodwaters overran levees and berms, and the lake reclaimed its former territory. It is now the size of Lake Tahoe. Most mainstream media coverage—from The New York Times to the Bakersfield Californian—has focused on what the lake has flooded: farm equipment, crops, dairies, and homes. They frame this water as catastrophic flooding that has destroyed millions of dollars of crops and equipment. But these are not (only) floodwaters. This is a lake returning.