‘The Big Melt’ Has Begun in California

It finally feels like spring in California, always a half-full kind of season. Earth Day celebrations this weekend saw temperatures in the 80s in some parts of the state. After the driest three years on record, the storms that hammered the state all winter have effectively banished the drought and left reservoirs brimming. A wildflower “super bloom” is running rampant, as my flower-loving colleague Jill Cowan reported recently.

On the half-empty side, though, a hard reckoning is coming. Financial losses from the storms are expected to add up into the many billions of dollars, and that’s not even counting a bumper crop of potholes on the state’s streets, roads and freeways.

Now, an immense wall of snow has started to drain from the Sierra Nevada as the skies warm over a near-record snowpack. “The Big Melt is now officially arriving,” Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, tweeted late last week.

Is the Big Melt a big deal?

Yes, and in the sun-baked Central Valley, it’s getting bigger by the minute.

Already, the bed of Tulare Lake, which was the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi River before it was drained, has begun to refill in Kings County, submerging the great stretches of prime agricultural land and major dairy operations that took its place. And only about 5 percent of the snowpack has melted so far, according to Swain. (The indefatigable Swain has been an invaluable resource in educating the public on these complex climate disasters. Check out his live briefing on the Big Melt at 9 a.m. Pacific time on Monday.)

What’s being done about the melt?

Municipalities and private landowners have been trying to corral the flow of water into a web of levees. But even so, Tulare Lake, which covered an area larger than Manhattan when Soumya Karlamangla and I wrote about it a few weeks ago, has more than tripled in size since then, local authorities say.

Robert Thayer, the assistant sheriff in Kings County, who has been monitoring the inundation, estimated on Friday that the lake covered 100 to 140 square miles with an average depth of about 3.5 feet of water. Think Manhattan, Brooklyn and much of the Bronx, waist-deep.

The state water authorities brought together dozens of local agencies in Tulare on Friday for a strategy session. Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to head there this week.

Can all that water be managed?

State officials have said that they and local officials will have to make some tough choices as the snowmelt starts to course down the four rivers that feed the Tulare Lake bed. Karla Nemeth, the state’s director of water resources, told me last month that every planning scenario includes “significant amounts of acreage underwater for a long period,” and that several of them involve the prospect of runoff so torrential that it could require evacuations. The lake has no natural way to drain, and could remain for a year or longer, she said.

Over-pumping of groundwater during the drought has changed the basin’s topography, which makes it even more difficult to control and predict flows.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggested last week in its forecast that much of California could see normal or cooler-than-normal weather conditions through the first part of summer, so the snow might not melt too abruptly. Swain said, however, that if a prolonged heat wave or a warm rainstorm happened to hit the southern Sierra, accelerated runoff could do serious damage.

What’s at risk?

The lake is already encroaching on aging levees in the city of Corcoran, with two state prisons and a population of about 22,000. Hundreds of oil and gas drilling operations are in the lake bed. Fields that had been treated with fertilizers and other chemicals are now underwater, posing a potential hazardous waste issue. Power transmission lines and railroad rights of way cross the basin, including some preliminary high speed rail construction. Crops are at risk on a huge scale, including pistachios, Pima cotton and tomatoes.

All of these vulnerabilities add up to a huge jurisdictional challenge, as dozens of federal, state, county, municipal and private authorities, including the J.G. Boswell Co., one of the largest agricultural landowners in the nation, vie to determine whose land will flood and whose will be spared.

“The reality is, there is too much water to dig or build our way out of this,” Brian Ferguson, a spokesman for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, told me last week as he drove to Tulare from Sacramento. “But we have a moment now where the sun is shining and the snow is still on the mountain. The question is: How do we plan now for when the water comes?”

For more:

Tulare Lake Was Drained Off the Map. Nature Would Like a Word.

My State Is 1,000 Miles Long, and Not Everyone Living in It Hates the Rain.

See What California’s Record Snowpack Looks Like, Up Close.

California Has So Many Potholes, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bikers Are Trying to Fill Them.

If you read one story, make it this

Eureka! After California’s heavy rains, gold seekers are giddy.

The rest of the news

Lawsuit rejected: The California Supreme Court declined to block the rollout of Newsom’s sweeping new plan to compel people with severe mental illness into treatment, The Los Angeles Times reports.


Dragon catches fire: At least six Disneyland workers were treated for smoke inhalation after a fire Saturday night at the theme park.

Marshland: San Diego’s plan to transform much of recreation-rich northeast Mission Bay into marshland is facing powerful resistance, The Los Angeles Times reports.


Hospitalized: Scott Barnes, athletic director at Oregon State University and a former Fresno State basketball standout, was in stable condition Sunday after having a medical emergency while attending an awards ceremony, The Fresno Bee reports.


Fire retardant: A coalition that includes Paradise — where a 2018 wildfire killed 85 people and destroyed the town — said a potential court ruling against the U.S. Forest Service over the environmental effects of fire retardants could put lives and forests at risk, The Associated Press reports.

Wire fraud: A San Francisco man who posed as a film executive pleaded guilty to three counts of wire fraud and was sentenced to more than five years in federal prison, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

What we’re eating

Mushroom pot pie.

Where we’re traveling

Today’s tip comes from Kate Johnson, who recommends Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen in the Sonoma Valley: “This is a beautiful park with lots to explore: miles of hiking trails, historic buildings, and a fascinating back story about the writer and his wife who lived there."

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

Tell us

After a rainy winter, spring has arrived in California. Tell us your favorite part of the season, whether it’s road trips, festivals, sunny afternoons or wildflower sightings.

Email us at [email protected], and please include your name and the city where you live.

And before you go, some good news

René Hurtado and Maxwell P. Bochman first met in the summer of 2014, when Hurtado was selling Ghirardelli chocolate chip cookies in the stands at the Stockton Ports baseball stadium. Bochman was working in stadium operations.

“I remember when I first saw her working there — I talked to one of my co-workers and I was like, ‘I need to meet her,’” Bochman, 32, told The New York Times.

Fast-forward to 2023. Hurtado and Bochman chose to get married at, of all places, a Taylor Swift concert.

During a costume change at Swift’s March 18 show in Arizona, the couple’s friend, ordained for the occasion by the American Marriage Ministries, began reading vows from her phone, and the couple exchanged rings and a kiss. The whole ceremony took about three minutes.

“At first, none of the fans around us really knew what was going on, but after our first kiss, everyone burst into cheers,” Hurtado said. “They really did create that moment for us by their support.”

Swift didn’t seem to know what had happened, but a couple of songs later, someone from the stage team came up and handed the couple one of the singer’s guitar picks. The next day, Swift liked an audience member’s TikTok video of the wedding.

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back tomorrow.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Soumya Karlamangla and Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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