California farming valley scrambles to save future as Tulare Lake floods take over

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(CALIFORNIA) — The relentless downpour from this year’s record rainfall in California has caused a long-dormant lake to reemerge after being bone dry for generations.

And now farmers, residents and officials who live around Tulare Lake are scrambling to save their land, protect their homes and salvage their livelihood as waters continue to creep inland.

“If the weather would get real warm, then I think we’re all in trouble. There’s a lot of people going to be in trouble,” Peter de Jong, a 10th-generation California dairy farmer, told ABC News.

The central California lake, which is fed by the rivers and streams running down from the Sierra Nevada, was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. But in the 1880s, the water was diverted to be used by farmland and the lake dried up.

Farmers would cultivate the dried-up land for crops and cattle, and the region grew into the largest dairy-producing county in the nation.

Flooding from this year’s winter storms, which left record snowfall in the California mountains and later excess water from the melting, has deluged Tulare and Kings counties, leaving streets and properties under several feet of water.

De Jong said he was forced to let a house on his farmland that is used by workers flood damage to save his cattle.

“We moved 2,300 milking, 200 dries and probably in the neighborhood of 1,000 heifers off this site,” he told ABC News.

Although the farmer said he’s installing levees to control the water, experts said it could be years before it dissipates and crops can be replanted.

And the deluge doesn’t appear to be ending soon, according to Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA.

“Something like 95% of the water that was up there a month ago is still there [in the Sierra Nevada], and still waiting to come downstream. So, as significant as the flooding is right now, it’s likely to get considerably worse in the weeks to come before it abates,” he told ABC News.

Corcoran, California, a city located near the lake with a population of nearly 20,000, is rushing to raise its levees in response to the changing water levels.

When asked if he felt town residents were “sitting ducks,” Corcoran City Manager Greg Gatzka said, “It all depends.”

“We just don’t know how much because it’s going to be a matter of how much gets dispersed,” he told ABC News.

ABC News’ Timmy Truong contributed to this report.

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