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The Fall and Rise of the Wetlands of California's Great Central Valley

The Fall and Rise of the Wetlands of California's Great Central Valley

Philip Garone
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 448
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  • Book Info
    The Fall and Rise of the Wetlands of California's Great Central Valley
    Book Description:

    This is the first comprehensive environmental history of California’s Great Central Valley, where extensive freshwater and tidal wetlands once provided critical habitat for tens of millions of migratory waterfowl. Weaving together ecology, grassroots politics, and public policy, Philip Garone tells how California’s wetlands were nearly obliterated by vast irrigation and reclamation projects, but have been brought back from the brink of total destruction by the organized efforts of duck hunters, whistle-blowing scientists, and a broad coalition of conservationists. Garone examines the many demands that have been made on the Valley’s natural resources, especially by large-scale agriculture, and traces the unforeseen ecological consequences of our unrestrained manipulation of nature. He also investigates changing public and scientific attitudes that are now ushering in an era of unprecedented protection for wildlife and wetlands in California and the nation.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94849-5
    Subjects: Environmental Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    Every autumn and early winter, millions of aquatic birds—ducks, geese, swans, and shorebirds—descend upon the Great Central Valley of California. Dozens of species of long-distance travelers return to their ancestral wintering grounds to feed and rest in the freshwater marshes, shallow lakes, and river systems of California’s heartland. Breeding, for the most part, in the northern wetlands of Alaska and western Canada, these birds have sought seasonal refuge for at least the past ten thousand centuries in the relative warmth of the Central Valley wetlands—California’s most important contribution to the Pacific Flyway, the westernmost of four North...


    • 1 The Nature of the Great Central Valley and the Pacific Flyway
      (pp. 19-44)

      Before the arrival of Europe an Americans, wetlands were present across the length and breadth of the Central Valley. Waterfowl and other waterbirds swam on the surface or stood in the shallows of permanent and seasonal freshwater marshes, which were renewed annually by the spring flooding of the valley’s rivers.

      Thundering honks and quacks of enormous flocks of geese and ducks, descending from the sky or taking flight en masse from the water, revealed from afar the locations of these marshes, clustered in the low-lying and poorly drained basins (or troughs) of the valley. Ephemeral vernal pools and larger playa...


    • 2 From Native American Lands of Plenty to “Waste” Lands
      (pp. 47-64)

      The nineteenth century witnessed a remarkable transformation of California’s Great Central Valley. As the century opened, Native American peoples inhabited the valley at density levels that were among the highest in North America north of central Mexico, supported by the plant and animal resources of its rich wetlands, grasslands, and riparian forests. Spanish settlements, in the form of missions, presidios (forts), pueblos, and ranchos, had been multiplying along the Pacific Coast from San Diego to San Francisco since 1769. Except for a few exploratory expeditions—notably those of Pedro Fages and Friar Francisco Garcés into the San Joaquin Valley in...

    • 3 The San Joaquin Valley: A Tale of Two Basins
      (pp. 65-85)

      In the decades immediately following the dissolution of the Swamp Land Commission and the failure of the state’s first attempt at coordinated reclamation, private reclamation efforts began significantly to reduce the extent of the Great Central Valley’s wetlands. In the San Joaquin Valley, the conversion of wetlands for agriculture, by small farmers and land barons alike, proceeded in both the San Joaquin and the Tulare basins, but nowhere were the ecological effects of this conversion of the landscape as profound, and as visually apparent, as in the Tulare Basin, the southernmost part of the Central Valley.¹

      When California entered the...

    • 4 Reclamation and Conservation in the Sacramento Valley
      (pp. 86-109)

      When the Bidwell- Bartleson party, the fi rst wagon train of American settlers bound for California, arrived in the Sacramento Valley in 1841, the valley contained approximately 1.5 million acres of wetlands, composed predominantly of riparian forests and the semipermanently flooded tule marshes that occupied the valley’s five great overflow basins (see map 9).¹ Of the five basins that compose the Sacramento Valley–Butte, Sutter, American, Colusa, and Yolo only the Yolo Basin witnessed any mea sur able progress toward reclamation under the auspices of the Swamp Land Commission during the first half of the 1860s. Because...

    • 5 The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Central Valley Project’s Origins
      (pp. 110-130)

      More than in any other region of the Central Valley—save perhaps the Tulare Basin—the wetlands of the Delta were rapidly and thoroughly engineered out of existence during the decades following California statehood. While the geography, climate, and soils of the Delta shaped the details of its reclamation in distinctive ways, the goal of that reclamation was, once again, conversion of its wetlands to agricultural use. As was the case in 1850, the contemporary Delta remains largely defined by its numerous watercourses, rivers and sloughs that flow around its jigsaw-puzzle-like configuration of islands and low-lying tracts. But the...


    • 6 Turning the Tide: Federal and State Responses to the Waterfowl Crisis
      (pp. 133-164)

      By the dawn of the twentieth century, the worsening plight of the country’s game birds, including waterfowl, had drawn national attention. California’s early attempts to pass more restrictive game laws would be aided by a new federal presence in wildlife protection that would culminate in the Migratory Bird Treaty with Canada in 1916. The discovery of the four migratory flyways during the first decades of the twentieth century, followed by the prolonged drought of the 1930s, would bring together private organizations and state and federal agencies in attempts to protect and restore the most important breeding and wintering grounds for...

    • 7 Battles for the Grasslands and the San Joaquin River
      (pp. 165-191)

      Henry Miller and Charles Lux, the most powerful landowners in the San Joaquin Basin during the late nineteenth century, had carefully cultivated the development and protection of their water rights along the San Joaquin River.¹ The fact that they did so would have tremendous repercussions for the basin’s wetlands long aft er the death of the partners. Beginning about 1925, duck clubs and cattle interests purchased 98,234 acres of the struggling company’s grassland properties in the San Joaquin Basin (see chapter 3). The two groups of new owners coexisted symbiotically; the cattlemen leased shooting privileges to the duck clubs,...

    • 8 Conflicting Agendas: New Refuges and Water Projects for the San Joaquin Valley
      (pp. 192-212)

      The efforts to protect the Grasslands during the 1940s and 1950s called attention to the paucity of wetland habitat remaining in the San Joaquin Valley as a whole. The distribution of those remaining wetlands was far from uniform, however; the San Joaquin Basin to the north had fared considerably better than the Tulare Basin to the south. In addition to the extensive, privately held Grasslands, the San Joaquin Basin in the mid-1950s contained the state-owned Los Banos and Mendota waterfowl management areas, as well as the federal Merced National Wildlife Refuge.¹ Th e Tulare Basin, in comparison, lacked both refuges...

    • 9 Tragedy at Kesterson Reservoir
      (pp. 213-236)

      The new Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge had much in common with the recently established San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, located just a few miles to the southeast. Th e land within the Kesterson refuge was native grassland that had never been used for agricultural purposes. Bisected by Mud Slough, a tributary of the San Joaquin River, the land had been utilized for cattle ranching and waterfowl hunting for many years, with private duck clubs leasing hunting privileges from the landowners. Nearly half of the fall and winter marsh acreage at Kesterson was seasonally flooded grassland. These seasonal wetlands provided an...

    • 10 Wetlands Resurgent: The Central Valley in the Twenty-First Century
      (pp. 237-262)

      When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service presented one of the first scientific definitions of wetlands in its 1956 Circular no. 39 publication,Wetlands of the United States,the document emphasized wetlands primarily as waterfowl habitat, and assigned values to each state’s wetlands according to their importance to waterfowl.¹ But change toward a broader appreciation of wetlands for protecting biodiversity, for providing ecological services, and for appealing to aesthetic sensibilities was on the horizon, in large part aided by significant advances in the discipline of wetland ecology, as well as by the efforts of ecologists to popularize knowledge about wetlands...

    • Epilogue: Global Climate Change and the Wetlands of the Great Central Valley
      (pp. 263-270)

      The Great Central Valley portion of the Pacific Flyway at the beginning of the twenty-first century is far different than it was at the time of California statehood. It has been profoundly changed from its natural state, and its wetlands are now intensively managed, from the delivery and drawdown of water to the types and amount of waterfowl food planted. Human intervention has become a permanent and necessary component of the maintenance and perpetuation of the premier wintering grounds of the Pacific Flyway.

      Despite the need for artificial regulation, the Central Valley’s contribution to the Pacific Flyway is stronger in...

  9. APPENDIX: Animals and Plants of the Central Valley Discussed in the Text
    (pp. 271-276)
  10. NOTES
    (pp. 277-362)
    (pp. 363-396)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 397-422)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 423-424)