Lewis Griswold

Griswold: Expert details history of Tulare Lake in new book

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Now he is making visits to community groups to tell what the book says.

Tulare Lake Basin is the name that scientists give to the San Joaquin Valley from Fresno to the Tehachapis.

There are four major rivers in the basin: Kings, Kaweah, Tule and Kern rivers.

Historically, they fed into Tulare Lake south of Hanford, which was 41/2 times bigger than Lake Tahoe.

In 1853, the lake was so full it overflowed to the north into the San Joaquin River.

That year, disgruntled sailors in San Francisco Bay stole a whaleboat and sailed south to the base of the Grapevine; that's how much water was in the lake.

The lake is gone now -- diverted upstream for irrigation -- or is it?

Austin's book has a 1971 photo of wind-whipped waves hitting the shoreline of Tulare Lake.

"Tulare Lake still comes back," he told a meeting last week of the Senior Adult Ministry at First Baptist Church in Hanford. "We just forget about this kind of stuff. Anytime you get water in the lake, we call it a flood -- because you don't want water in a lake, right?"

Austin is employed as a program manager at the National Park Service in Three Rivers.

He compiled a history of floods of the south fork of the Kings River so the Park Service could calculate how high to build a bridge at Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon National Park.

"People brought me all kinds of stories about floods and droughts," Austin said.

That got him fired up.

"I did the history of the other rivers," he said, on his own time.

In 1861-62 and 1867-68, all four rivers in the basin changed course and flooded the flatland.

It's not ancient history, Austin said: "It could happen again."

In 2009, the Kaweah River at Three Rivers went from a mild flow to a raging flood -- 27 cubic feet per second to 21,000 cubic feet per second -- in a few hours.

The dams aren't big enough to stop flooding on the Valley floor, he said: "They can hold half of the average runoff."

Tulare Lake rose so fast on Christmas Eve 1867 that hog farmers on the Tulare Lake bed had to run the hogs to refuge in Lemoore. Eleven years later, a scientist taking a boat across the lake looked into the clear water and saw a mystery -- a pig sty on the lake bottom.

Besides hitting up the Department of Water Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers for data, Austin dove into old newspaper accounts -- many of them handed to him by Visalia historian Terry Ommen -- of floods and droughts.

The book is getting rave reviews.

"It's the first scholarly work that evaluates the floods and drought of an entire hydrological area, the Tulare Lake basin," said College of the Sequoias biology and ecology professor Rob Hansen. "He studies four big rivers in one giant study. Nobody has ever done that."

The book puts into perspective the current three-year drought.

"We are not by any means setting a record, but we are pretty darned dry," Austin said in Hanford.

In 1924-34, "there was an 11-year drought" in the basin, he said. "No amount of reserves will get you through an 11-year drought."

There were a few floods in those years, but not enough to break the drought, he said.

Austin said he did no original research.

"I just collected the stuff other people have done," he said, but he frequently compiled data into graphs and tables that didn't already exist.

The book is free via PDF download by Googling the title, and is available in book form at Amazon.com. He gets no royalties.

He gives free presentations to community groups and can be reached at john_t_austin@yahoo.com.

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