Tulare Lake returns from the dead, contamination rumors swirl

After flooding in the Tulare Lake Basin, a variety of diaries, farms and a compost facility were faced with rumors of contamination

TULARE COUNTY – Tulare Lake has been dry for nearly 100 years, but after the recent deluge, the phantom lake is seeing revival. In its resurrection, however, some are crying wolf over contamination.

For thousands of years, Tulare Lake was one of the largest bodies of water west of the Mississippi River. Its reign came to an end, however, when humans began constructing dams, irrigation districts and reservoirs. But after a historic flood hit Tulare County at the dawn of the new year, systems were overwhelmed with the increase of water, thus flooding the area where Tulare Lake once stood. However, since it has been dry for a century, it found itself sharing the same space as dairies, farms, and most importantly, a compost facility that produces enriched soil for growers throughout Tulare County.

“So far, everything’s been fine. The county reached out to us about two weeks ago and talked about the possibility of flooding in the area, so we’ve been looking at this carefully,” public information manager of Los Angeles County Sanitation District Bryan Langpap said. “Our mission is to protect public health in the environment. We’ve decided as an added precaution, what we’re going to do is ramp down our operations [for now].”

The Tulare Lake Compost (TLC) facility produces fertilizer through a process which combines green waste from the Central Valley with solid waste that is transported from Los Angeles County. The compost that this process creates is used in farmland all throughout the San Joaquin Valley. According to TLC, it improves water retention, as well as nutrients and agricultural productivity. However, concerns over possible water contamination loomed overhead after headlines began appearing about the potential pathogen threat due to flooding. However, Langpap said there has not been any unintentional flooding on the property.

Since TLC operates in the areas where the once colossal lake resided, some raised concern of their solid and green waste contaminating the waters. TLC is a 175-acre composting facility located near Kettleman City, which provides fertilizer and enriched soil to many growers in the Central Valley. TLC is owned and operated by the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts, and part of their process is converting human waste from Los Angeles into fertilizer, and it comes in tons. The LA Time published an article that the flooding of the area could carry the bacteria of solid waste into the lake and other flooded areas. However, Langpap said that the facility has already taken precautions for the flood.

According to him, the 175-acres were raised five feet above the surrounding ground when it was built. There is also the South Central Levee that sits just two miles east of the property. The levee has stopped flooding in the Tulare Lake Basin before, both in 1969 and 1983 when massive storms swept through the Valley. Even if the levee were to breach, the facility is built “on an island,” and would need five feet of water to even begin to reach the facility.

“Those were the two biggest floods in the last 100 years in that area [before recent storms]. In both cases, all the floodwaters were held east of that levee, and we’re on the west side of the levee. So, we’re in good shape,” Langpap said.

TLC and its operators are in communication with the local Sheriff’s department, and said that as historic snowpack melts and possible rain storms head the Valley’s direction, they are keeping a close eye on the facility. In order to keep any contamination out of the water, Langpap said they will not be producing compost until May or June. Any pathogen in the compost is killed within days of the process, so by the next storm, there will be no threat.

“You only have to compost for three days at high temperatures to kill any pathogens in the waste. We’re hoping to have that done next week, early the following week,” Langpap said. “If we do have some sort of biblical event in May or June, the material on site would be safe at that point.”

There are some areas of the property that have been flooded intentionally, but this was to keep the flooding down in other areas. They voluntarily took water and flood portions of their facility in a controlled way. This voluntary flooding helps keep the amount of water in the river down, and then in turn protects homes in the county from worsening flooding.

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