The  Central  Valley

(...and the Great Valley...)

Growing up, my grandparents lived in a small town named Reedley, which is located in the San Joaquin Valley just south of Fresno, California. We visited them twice a year - once in the summer before heading up to Sequoia National Park and once in the winter. To this day, one of my more vivid memories is driving around a maze of orchards and farms fields on Christmas Eve with my grandma. This was probably some 30 years ago. We were delivering Christmas bread, I think. But what I remember is the day was cold - really cold - with a thick smoky fog. I remember driving down dirt roads to different farmhouses. I remember going inside the houses and meeting families who were bundled up with thick jackets and wool beanies. Some families were huddled around a wood burning stove. Outside, I remember how quiet the world seemed and how large it felt as I peered down endless rows of orchard trees.

Something of that day has forever been etched in memory. It’s more a feeling than anything else, a feeling I ultimately think has given me a respect and sense of beauty for the valley.

Years ago, on the way back from an outing in Sequoia National Park, I stopped in Reedley to see if I could find my grandparents' old house (they later moved back to Colorado). I did find it, but long gone were the farm fields and orchards that once surrounded it. And long gone was the cheap charm Reedley once had. I'm definite that my adult eyes were seeing the world differently, but I do think it’s also safe to say the Central Valley today has all but lost itself. I think it began long before I experienced it some 30 years ago.

Today, the Central Valley is mostly the crumbs of its former self, both in its ecology and in what remains of any family farms. I try to imagine its former self, with still braided streams and family farms that didn’t look like an Amazon distribution center. It's a hard thing to imagine, although not entirely impossible. Thanks to some wildlife refuges, there are still enough crumbs left to kind of experience a resemblance of what the valley's landscape may have looked like. 

Colusa National Wildlife Refuge - Sacramento Valley

The Central Valley is filled with a number wildlife refuges that resemble what the Central Valley's landscape may have looked like prior to extensive agriculture and development. These refuges are important areas for wintering waterfowl and sensitive habitats such as tule marshes, wetlands, or riparian oak woodlands. But despite being protected, these wildlife refuges have still been subjected to substantial change and alteration over the last 150 years. They are surrounded by extensive development and agriculture where things like pesticide drift or the presence of invasive plants take toll. The refuges are also disconnected from each other, which has substantially fragmented the ecology and hindered their resilience on a whole.  

Colusa National Wildlife Refuge - Sacramento Valley

Like many of the wildlife refuges throughout the Central Valley, the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge is heavily managed. The Colusa National Wildlife Refuge is managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. It's one of six refuges within the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex. 

California wild rose (Rosa californica) 

Box Elder (Acer negundo)  

California wild rose (Rosa californica )

Before there was the Central Valley, there was the Great Valley. The Great Valley was the valley the Native Americans knew [and maybe still know in some ways]. The Great Valley was an ecosystem endowed with the flow of water. As Elna Bakker noted in An Island Called California, it was a land of slough, bank, and riverway

Long ago, the Great Valley would seasonally flood. Snow melt from the Sierra Navada would make its way to the valley floor through a series of rivers that in turn fed a series of lakes, marshes, and deltas. Layered throughout this network were also layers upon layers of riparian vegetation where cottonwoods, willows, buttonbush, wild grape and the like grew vigorously. This Great Valley landscape, steeped in seasonal flooding and lush riparian corridors, was a botanical anomaly within California. In a land where summer drought shaped so much, the Great Valley was an ecosystem and landscape shaped by an abundance of water. That abundance also coincided with a hot summer sun. 

More from Elna Bakker:

No place is less typical of California. One can almost expect to see the fireflies of a midwestern summer evening when the hot wind of the great valley rattles the leaves of the cottonwoods and catches back the drapery of wild vines falling from richly embossed canopy overhead. California's familiar evergreen natives - madrono, bay, [foothill] pine and the like - are missing on the bottomlands, and the observant visitor can make the acquaintance of a new assemblage of trees, all of them winter deciduous. This alone is unique behavior for much of the vegetation of the state, but there are even more unusual features. Not only do the same or kindred species occur widely throughout the West, but all are related to well-established broadleaf species to the East. 

California Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)   

California Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)   

Cephalanthus occidentalis is one of those plants that is native to California but is also native to the eastern United States and parts of the wider Southwest. Presumably, it made its way to California during a time when California was much wetter than it is today. It has retained its presence here by growing where moist conditions remain, such as along rivers and creeks where summer drought conditions can be avoided. One reason California has such an extensive and diverse flora is due in part to plants like Cephalanthus occidentalis occurring alongside a more contemporary suite of plants that are adapted to summer drought.      

California Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)   

In so many ways, the Great Valley was a land of water. But not anymore. 

During the 19th and 20th centuries, water was once deemed problematic to the insatiable demand for arable land. The seasonal flooding that would occur in the Great Valley became a problem to farming interests of the Central Valley. So, as ingenuity would eventually have it, the landscape was drained for farming.  A once rich ecology was sacrificed for what is now one of the richest and most productive agricultural regions worldwide. Therein, the Great Valley was eventually forged into the Central Valley.

The chipping away of the Great Valley has many chapters to it. The story of Tulare Lake is a chapter of particular irony.  

Tulare Lake was a large freshwater lake in the southwest corner of the San Joaquin Valley. It was a Pleistocene era lake that formed as result of extensive snow and glacier melt coming out of the southern Sierra Nevada. Snowmelt would feed into the Kings, Tule, and Kaweah Rivers and would eventually feed into Tulare Lake. During notably wet pluvial periods of the Pleistocene, Tulare Lake would also receive overflow from two smaller lakes to its south: Kern Lake and Buena Vista Lake, which both received water from the Kern River.  

Tulare Lake was underlain by a layer of clay soil that existed 10' to 150' below the surface of the southwest corner of the San Joaquin Valley. Water would become trapped beneath that clay layer and eventually build up over time. During spring, when river flows were at their peak, a heavily saturated layer of clay caused a broad and shallow lake to form. Additionally, sediment deposits from the Kings River formed an alluvial fan that helped to keep back the flood water along the lakebed's northern edge. This allowed the floodwaters to persist in place throughout the season. During particularly saturated times, Tulare Lake would overtop that alluvial fan and flow into the San Joaquin River, which flowed northward to the Pacific Ocean. During dry summer months, the lake would shrink and sometimes disappear altogether.

Today, Tulare Lake remains dry. In the late 19th century, settlers began damming the headwaters and rivers that fed into Tulare Lake. Then followed the draining of sloughs and marshes. Reservoirs and water conveyance projects deprived the lake of its springtime flows as a warming and drier climate regime continued to set in. Today, much of the lakebed has been converted to agriculture. And, ironically, much of that agriculture now hangs on by a thread as drought, depleted groundwater and an accumulation of soluble salts make farming the land a definite challenge.     

Tulare Lake Basin near Corcoran, California

The story of Tulare Lake is extensive and fascinating, especially within the contrast of today's changing climate and conversations around water within California. The story deserves a much deeper dive than what I provide here. Much has been written about Tulare Lake and several sources go to great lengths to tell its history and current predicament. Their stories and accounting are better than anything I could write, so here are some suggested sources for a dive deep elsewhere:

Tulare Basin Watershed Partnership - Home  

I don't know how I feel about the Central Valley of today. I miss it as I once knew it and I am certain those who knew it before me would say the valley was lost long before my time. And who am I to say anything about loss when once prosperous cultures where forcibly removed from their homeland, when golden beaver were once hunted into near extirpation, or when native hibiscus nearly perished from every slough, bank, and riverway. All have been tragically lost or diminished over the years and the loss of family farms seems insignificant in that context. But it's also part of the loss I know. 

It's an unsettled feeling to know that what I am coming to miss is just a contorted product at the expense of what I imagine to be an ever more beautiful and impressive landscape. If time travel existed, I would jump at a chance to travel back a mere 500 years in time and experience a verdant and lush Great Valley set amidst the backdrop of a snowy Sierra Nevada. When I was a kid, I could at least peer down the orchard rows and make out the Sierra Nevada in the distance. Today, that same view is shrouded in a pesticide laden haze. 

While the Central Valley remains one of the most robust agricultural regions in the nation, it definitely has it challenges. Subsequent years of sustained drought has led to a radically depleted reserve of groundwater. A hotter and drier landscape has also led to a heavily irrigated landscape. Abundant irrigation has thus put a salty crust over the valley's southern region. Also, many agriculture plots along the western edge and southwestern corner of the San Joaquin Valley have been left fallow. Farming these plots has become more resource intensive and in turn less economically viable. Where an abundance of water was the so-called problem, it's now the absence of water that is extracting its toll. And the debate over where to go from here is fierce.  

But who knows, maybe the water will return after all, albeit not in the way we had hoped. A recent report by Xingying Huang and Daniel Swain in Science Advances predicted the Central Valley could experience a climate change driven megaflood on par with the 1862 flood. I guess that damn water could come back after all.   

•    •    •


In later half of December of 2022 and first part of January 2023, California experienced a series of atmospheric rivers that brought record level rainfall and snow. In a span of 4 weeks, Central California received the equivalent of its annual precipitation levels. Widespread flooding took place throughout the coastal counties from the Bay Area down through Los Angeles County.

Map noting the Snow Depth as of January 19th, 2023. 

This map is a screenshot from the Current Snow Depth webpage produced by U.S. Forest Service. 

Despite the significant rainfall totals brought by the storms, the magnitude of rainfall was not unprecedented. In the time since California's rainfall totals have been kept, California has experienced other such sizeable storms and precipitation levels. Several of those were larger than what Winter 22-23 brought.

This is significant to note because a recent paper suggests that California may be in for a much larger storm or series of storms than what passed in December '22 and January '23 with predications of a megaflood suggested in the last line of the above paragrapgh. ARkStorm 2.0, the name of that unprecedented storm scenario, is predicted to surpass any record rainfall total to then some.

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