Some of you may be aware that during my working days I spent many years on the staff of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and I still follow affairs in that region with interest. The big story there this spring – aside from the massive snowpack – is the reemergence of Tulare Lake in the southern part of California’s Great Central Valley.
As recently as the middle years of the nineteenth century, Tulare Lake stood out as the largest body of fresh water – as measured by surface area – west of the Great Lakes. Then large-scale agriculture arrived, and the lake disappeared, replaced by farms.
Now, after a wet winter and to the surprise of those with little sense of history, the lake has reappeared, reclaiming almost two hundred square miles of its old home. All this made me think about Malheur Lake.
Like Tulare Lake, the body of water at the center of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge ebbs and flows with the ups and downs of the climate. Last summer, it almost disappeared. This season the Malheur Lake is back, enjoying the benefits of our relatively wet winter and spring.
Considering the two lakes as distant siblings led me to a significant insight. While the bed of Tulare Lake has been taken over by farmers, Malheur Lake’s bed is protected by our national wildlife refuge. This designation allows to lake to fill and evaporate seasonally with relatively little human restraint, and that process allows migrating and resident birds to find their niches and continue to prosper.
Interestingly, I am reading reports that significant numbers of birds have also been rediscovering Tulare Lake, but the long-term outlook there is more problematic. A return to drier years will see farmers again planting the bottom of Tulare Lake with crops like cotton.
Fortunately, in both wet years and dry, the bed of Malheur Lake remains available of wildlife.
For that, we should thank those who worked to establish the refuge more than a century ago. Their foresight still pays big dividends.
– Wm. Tweed