By Chris Clarke, Beacon, May 28, 2015
The hundreds of miles of soil that surround the lives of Valley dwellers should not be confused with land. What was once land has become dirt, overworked dirt, overirrigated dirt, injected with deadly doses of chemicals and violated by every manner of ground- and back-breaking machinery. The people that worked the dirt do not call what was once the land their enemy. They remember what land used to be and await its second coming. — Cherrie Moraga, Heroes and Saints
It is two hundred fifty miles between Grant Line Road in Tracy and Beale Road in Arvin. It is also two hundred fifty miles back the other way. I have made each drive perhaps a hundred times. Perhaps more. Southbound Interstate 5 flirts with the San Joaquin Valley until Coalinga, sticks to the base of the Coast Ranges as if hesitant to commit itself fully to the Valley’s preternatural flatness.
Just south of Coalinga, after the low grasslands of the Kettleman Hills, those mountains recede to the west, a bay drawn down before the tsunami of the Grapevine. The road has no choice but to plunge across the flat from Kettleman City to Wheeler Ridge, where it can climb at long last into the Tehachapis, heading toward the sky and Los Angeles .
Travelers who do not intend to stay — in whose number I usually count myself, but not always — curse the flat. The speed limit is posted as 70 but traffic generally moves at 15 or 20 miles above the limit, as if pursued by demons. Perhaps it is. In more than thirty years of traversing the Valley I have at times fallen prey to that haste, the desire to exit the Valley as soon as possible after entering it.
At length, though, the Valley itself beguiled me, local two-lanes heading eastward toward one small town or another, miles of arrow-straight pavement punctuated every so often by a block or two of shade trees and vacant storefronts. At first I was traveling through, passing along the streets of Escalon or Wasco on my way to Yosemite or Los Angeles or, increasingly, Tehachapi, the fastest route into the Mojave Desert from my former Bay Area home. Then I stopped traveling through and just started traveling.
California’s Central Valley is actually three distinct valleys, or four, depending on who’s counting. In the north, the Sacramento Valley cradles its namesake river for about 150 miles. The Sacramento River is the West Coast’s second largest in terms of volume after the Columbia, and its valley is consequently better watered than much of the rest of the state. Immediately south is the Delta, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin conjoin to flow out into San Francisco Bay. About 50 miles north to south, the Delta has some of the richest soil in California. South of the Delta the San Joaquin Valley stretches southward for about 250 miles, becoming more arid, more desert-like with each mile.
The fourth Valley is contained within the third: The Tulare Basin, occupying the southern third or so of the San Joaquin Valley, separated from the rest of the valley by a low rise around Visalia.
It was a wilderness once, and a garden. Some of each. A chain of seasonal wetlands ran up and down the spine of the 450-mile Central Valley. Sometimes those wet seasons lasted longer than others. A record wet winter in 1861-2 filled the valley with a lake 300 miles long and about 20 wide.
Like his later admirers, John Muir visited the Valley on his way somewhere else; it was an obstacle, especially to the traveler on foot, especially in the foot-slogging wet parts. But he paid it admiring attention, seeming hardly to mind the miles of wet socks between him and the foothills of his beloved Sierra Nevada, in a passage about an 1868 journey now more famous for what came after he looked upward from the Valley floor:
”Looking eastward from the summit of Pacheco Pass one shining morning, a landscape was displayed that after all my wanderings still appears as the most beautiful I have ever beheld. At my feet lay the Great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine … And from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flower-bed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city…. Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light. ” — from The Yosemite (1912)
The pre-development Central Valley wasn’t just covered by the little yellow daisies — goldfields — and California poppies that provoked Muir’s comparison of the Valley’s floor to the face of the sun. Much of the Valley’s 22,500 square miles was taken up by what ecologists call “Central Valley grassland,” a mix of prairie and savanna that was actually a mix of bunchgrasses and annual and perennial flowering herbs. Muir tarried for two weeks to do some botanizing, as he wrote 14 years later about his descent from Pacheco Pass:
“Descending the eastern slopes of the coast range, through beds of gilias and lupines, and around many a breezy hillock and bush-crowned headland, I at length waded out into the midst of the glorious field of gold. All the ground was covered, not with grass and green leaves, but with radiant corollas, about ankle-deep next to the foothills, knee-deep or more five or six miles out. Here were bahia, madia, madaria, burrielia, chrysopsis, corethrogyne, grindelia, etc., growing in close social congregations of various shades of yellow, blending finely with the purples of clarkia, orthocarpus, and oenothera, whose delicate petals were drinking the vital sunbeams without giving back any sparkling glow. Because so long a period of extreme drought succeeds the rainy season, most of the vegetation is composed of annuals, which spring up simultaneously, and bloom together at about the same height above the ground, the general surface being but slightly ruffled by the taller phacelias, penstemons, and groups of Salvia carduacea, the king of the annuals.” — The Bee-Pastures of California, 1882
In low-lying spots where the soil became waterlogged in winter, specialized ecosystems called vernal pools held unique populations of endemic plants and animals, including fairy shrimp. Hundreds of miles of forest flanked the Valley’s rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin and their tributaries, with impenetrable tangles of elder and grapevine, box elder and willow and mulefat, sycamore and cottonwood. Inexpressibly fertile soil made from decayed leaf litter sprouted morels and amanitas.
On the rivers’ higher banks, close enough to be well watered but not so close as to drown their roots too often, were parklike savannas of valley oak, Quercus lobata. The largest oak species in North America, valley oaks are big. The tallest known valley oak now living is in excess of 150 feet in height; one that grew in Chico, California until 1977, when it fell over, had a trunk 29 feet in circumference eight feet about the ground.
A description of the Santa Clara Valley by 18th Century explorer George Vancouver could stand in for a description of the Central Valley’s oak savanna:
“For about twenty miles it could only be compared to a park which had originally been closely planted with the true old English oak; the underwood, that had probably attended its early growth, had the appearance of having been cleared away and left the stately lords of the forest in complete possession of the soil which was covered with luxuriant foliage.”
In the low foothills ringing the valley on the east and west, valley oaks grew in even greater profusion.
And then there was the jewel of the Valley.
Abundant runoff from the Sierra Nevada’s snow pack ran down the range’s west side rivers, finding low spots in the Tulare Basin. In the driest years, the Tulare Basin’s uplands nearly qualified as desert, as did the adjacent Carrizo Plain: alkali flats and arid grasslands dotted with Atriplex (saltbush). But the floor of the Basin was verdant, with marshes of tule and cattail surrounding three freshwater lakes: Kern, Buena Vista, and the greatest of them all, Tulare.
Up to 750 square miles in extent in wet seasons, about two thirds that in drier years, Tulare Lake was in the 18th and 19th centuries the largest freshwater lake east of the Great Lakes. (Lake Cahuilla had previously held the title, but it dried up some time in the early 1700s.) Fed by four wild rivers draining the highest and snowiest parts of the Sierra Nevada, Tulare Lake was so productive that about 70,000 members of the Yokuts tribe lived near its shores, one of the highest densities of population anywhere in California before European settlers arrived.
I drove across the bed of Tulare Lake in early May, cursing the thick, wind-whipped dust blowing off its furrowed fields. Its feeder rivers diverted into irrigation ditches, the lake died in the early 20th Century.
California’s Central Valley has been called the world’s most intensively altered landscape. Compared to, say, Manhattan Island, that may seem a bit of hyperbole: the last time I visited Times Square, for instance, there was very little in the way of red maple bog to be seen in the vicinity. But the sheer extent of the alteration counts for something. You could fit 666 Manhattans into the Central Valley and have enough room left over for a spare Roosevelt Island. The Valley is an almost wholly reengineered landscape larger than Croatia, nearly the size of Norway, and though fragments of the original landscape remain here and there, about 99 percent of the original valley has been lost. It has been diked, drained, plowed under and paved, usually for private profit, often at public expense.
We took the rivers that fed the Valley’s riparian forests, that roared in spring flood and slackened in summer, and we cut off their heads. The Central Valley’s chinook salmon runs were once the largest in the world. Now, like the agricultural corporations using much of their water, the Valley’s chinook would go extinct without assistance from the government, their numbers boosted in hatcheries and their fry trucked around dry sections of river on their way to the ocean.
The vernal pools that once dotted the Valley have been plowed up, the riparian forests cut down, the valley oaks preserved and revered in a few old urban parks but otherwise replaced with cotton, and then tomatoes, and then alfalfa and almonds. Square mile after square mile of wild habitat for wild things was replaced by fields whose stewards smoothed them out with laser levels, the better to channel that diverted Sierra snowmelt to their row crops.
Even in the heart of the Valley, the Delta where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers conjoin and flow into San Francisco Bay, even in that wettest and least tractable part of the 450-mile vale running nearly the length of California, we could not resist tampering. Giant pumps reverse the flow of Delta rivers, pull salt water deep into the heart of the land. Irrigators have even tapped rivers outside the Valley, the Trinity and Klamath.
And now, in the face of the worst drought to hit California since we started measuring droughts, the irrigators are turning up the speed on their groundwater pumps, tapping hydrological wealth laid down millennia ago. Few experts think the San Joaquin Valley will have any groundwater left by the end of this century, unless something changes.
In 1999, I walked across a patch of Moraga’s “dirt” near the Stanislaus County town of Hills Ferry, not sure whether I was trespassing. My destination was a copse of box elder draped with wild grape a hundred yards or so across the barrens. I walked past plastic bags and motor oil bottles, unidentifiable bits of plastic spindrift and old barbed wire spools. The woods, when I reached them, were not much relief: a vegetative understory of discarded alternators and buckshot televisions, mattresses decomposed as far as they ever would, and a bit of Russian thistle interspersed between the jetsam.
At the bottom of a sharp slope, the Merced River flowed in lazy meanders to my left. To my right, it flowed into the sluggish, viscid San Joaquin. I stood at the confluence of two rivers that rose in the high Sierra Nevada, the Merced on the back slopes of Half Dome and the San Joaquin off the melting snows on the Minarets, their headwaters within a few miles of each other in the back country of Yosemite National Park, then diverging in a wide arc surrounding a huge chunk of the state, and, I thought, look where they end up. Flowing out of the sublime and into the profane, out of Ansel Adams’ photos and into Dorothea Lange’s. The rivers deserved a better confluence than this, I thought.