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Wildlife vanish in Tulare Basin: Three great California Rivers now canals that intersect in a T

Updated: Jan 4, 2022

June 12, 2015

Tree swallows fly around a small patch of tules that have sprung up where water converges to be pumped into the South Wilbur Flood Area April 10, 2015 near Kings County, Calif. The reservoir is used for water storage by the Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District. The body of water is situated in part of the San Joaquin Valley that used to contain the Tulare Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the western half of the continental United States. The lake was dried up by the year 1900 due to emerging agriculture in the region. Swallows used to nest in trees that would have lined the lake edge when it still existed, now they nest near the pumps. Leah Millis/The Chronicle

At a place called “the Pocket,” three California rivers — the Tule, the Kaweah and the Kings — meet near the end of their journey from their Sierra headwaters to the bottom of the San Joaquin Valley.

It is a stark and barren place of pale dirt and blue sky, a moonscape but for the water. The three rivers are now canals that intersect in a T.

A burrowing owl perches briefly on top of an irrigation structure, catching the eye of ecologist Rob Hansen. “One of the few living parts of the wildlife system out there,” he said.

Nowhere is the environmental cost of food and the scourge of drought more stark than here in the Tulare Basin. People use nearly all the water and land, leaving little for wildlife.

The desert species have it best. “There’s still almost 5 percent of their landscape here,” Hansen said. “The prairie, the forest, the wetlands, those are down to 1, 2, less than 5 percent.” It’s all farmland now, with cities encroaching.

Biologist Rob Hansen points at a map a friend made that illustrates what the old Tulare lake would have looked like when it still existed before the year 1900 in Tulare County April 10, 2015 in Shandon, Calif. The Tulare Lake was the largest freshwater lake in the western half of the continental United States. The lake was dried up by the year 1900 due to emerging agriculture in the region. Leah Millis/The Chronicle

Hansen, an ecology professor at the College of the Sequoias, president of the nonprofit Tulare Basin Wildlife Partners and a private consultant, doesn’t want to see farming leave the valley. Yet he fears that the tiny fragments of nature that remain are being pushed to their last edge.

He spots an American white pelican, an inland freshwater bird with a 10-foot wingspan that used to nest here in the thousands. Now only a handful visit, flying from Nevada and alighting near irrigation canals.

Dozens of common tree swallows swarm a tiny patch of tule rushes at an irrigation pump. The swallows were native here, but now they just pass through.

“All they can do here today is cross this landscape, feeding as they go,” Hansen said. “They need the tules to stop and rest for a while.”

Last year there were more tules and small willows. Someone has since bulldozed them.

“There’s so little left here,” Hansen said. “It’s not like we have much to protect.”

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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