The relentless downpour of this year’s record-breaking California rainfall has caused a long-dormant lake to resurface after being bone dry for generations.
And now, farmers, residents, and officials living around Lake Tulare are scrambling to save their lands, protect their homes, and save their livelihoods as the waters continue to creep inland.
“If the weather were to get really warm then we would all be in trouble. A lot of people are going to get into trouble,” Peter de Jong, a 10th-generation California dairy farmer, told ABC News.
Fed by the rivers and streams of the Sierra Nevada, Central California’s lake was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River. But by the 1880s, the water was diverted to use farmland, and the lake dried up.
Farmers cultivated the parched land for crops and livestock, and the region grew into the country’s largest milk-producing county.
Flooding from this year’s winter storms, which left record snowfall in the California mountains and later excess water from melting, has inundated Tulare and Kings counties, leaving streets and properties several feet under water.
De Jong said he was forced to rent out a house on his farmland, which is used by laborers to rescue his livestock.
“We removed 2,300 milking, 200 drying and probably close to 1,000 heifers from this site,” he told ABC News.
Although the farmer said he is installing levees to control the water, experts said it could take years before it clears and the crops can be replanted.
And the deluge doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon, according to Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA’s Institute of Environment and Sustainability.
“About 95% of the water that was up there a month ago is still there [in the Sierra Nevada], and still waiting to come downstream. As significant as the flooding is at the moment, it is likely to get significantly worse in the coming weeks before abating,” he told ABC News.
Corcoran, California, a town near the lake of nearly 20,000 people, is rushing to raise its levees in response to changing water levels.
When asked if he thought the townspeople were “sitting ducks,” Corcoran town manager Greg Gatzka said, “It all depends.”
“We just don’t know how much because it matters how much is distributed,” he told ABC News.
ABC News’ Timmy Truong contributed to this report.