Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What California's San Joaquin Valley Once Was!

Yesterday I wrote about a recent scientific study which appears to have found a link between the vast agricultural infrastructure of the state's Central Valley (San Joaquin & Sacramento Valleys combined), it's voracious appetite for water which feeds the  irrigation needs of it's big business interests and what seemed to be the wonderful climate side effect of Industrial Ag's presence there. In some ways it almost seemed to celebrate and excuse any past abuses by what the land has now become. But on the other hand it also was really  pointing out the effects a source of water evaporation influencing weather hundreds of miles away. What ever the motive behind the article, it never the less was interesting from a mechanisms point of view on how the natural world works and I wrote about it  HERE

The article went on to explain it's effect of increased rainfall patterns in summertime around the Four Corners region of the southwest. In some ways this was odd because this is one of the driest regions in the west, but in other ways it reminded my of what science has revealed about it's wetter climate and vegetation history. Such regions are super-sensitive to recovery as a result of their drier climate and don't heal as quickly as other areas on Earth with abundant seasonal rainfall. Humans in their past ignorance never gave any consideration to this sensitivity and what once was, is now gone and almost impossible under the present system to ever bring it back the way it was originally. That article of course triggered thoughts I've pondered about the influence of the massive ancient Lake Cahuilla, which is now vastly reduced to a puddle called the Salton Sea when you m

Image by Ron Vanderhoff

But today, a couple of other News items triggered my thoughts about  California's Central Valley and what could be said to have been possibly an even much greater influence of weather and climate on many regions far away, than mere irrigation runoff from Farms. The California Native Plant Society of Orange County shared a link to an article from the Orange County Register which told of one last holdout of a last lone California Valley Oak (Quercus lobata) which was first discovered I believe in 1983 in Crystal Cover State Park in El Moro Canyon. This location is a coastal area of southern Orange County and it's truly a miracle that this single lone oak has survived given the human caused fires which occur with some frequency.  Here is the article link: Rediscovering a 'long lost friend' – Orange County's only valley oak  But it got me thinking about the reason it is called Valley Oak in the first place. The Central Valley was once home to thousands upon thousands of these majestic giants, of which there are now only a few remnants left from their once former glory. But again, it made me ponder about the once great bio-diverse richness of what this Valley once was. 
Photo by Phill Stoffer (USGS)
And yet another piece of News today in Yahoo which  was the topic of conversation when Chaparral Biologist Richard Halsey first drew attention to it and that was the creation of a new Pinnacles National Park. Incredibly while he was sharing this information and explaining the habitat's health being put into jeopardy by control burns, when suddenly in the discussion there were some who insisted it was necessary for Condors needing places to land which chaparral scrub didn't provide and also grassland introduction to encourage Condor food like Deer. Of course Condors don't hunt and kill so much as they scavenge already dead carcasses. The heated debate was odd because if people had actually thought about it for a moment, they would have realized that back in history, while Condors may have nested in the Pinnacles' cliffs, they would have scavenged in the Central Valley to the east. Of course things have vastly changed now, but still, just saying . . .  Anyway, without going down the controversy road again, here is the article today.  It's official: The new Pinnacles National Park is America's 59th national park . But that debate about the California Condors Kitchen facilities & their Pantry also reminded me of something else about California's Central Valley and another of the mammal holdouts who are now restricted to a consolation prize patch of land around the Buena Vista Lake area of southwestern San Joaquin Valley which no one wants to live or Farm called Yule Elk State Natural Reserve. There are actually some kool historical statistics & other important information on this animal and the range they once occupied. The Wikipedia has some good info and while Wiki is often manipulated with as far as accurate content devoid of ideology & bias quite often times when dealing with specific emotionally driven subject matter, this page on Tule Elk seems to agree with other facts written elsewhere:
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tule_elk
"When the Europeans first arrived, an estimated 500,000 tule elk roamed these regions, but by 1870 they were thought to be extirpated. However, in 1874-1875 a single breeding pair was discovered in the tule marshes of Buena Vista Lake in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Conservation measures were taken to protect the species in the 1970s. Today, the wild population exceeds 4,000.
The arrival of the Spanish in the late 18th century caused the release of cattle and horses on the grasslands of the Central Valley. In the 1830s, Americans attracted by the abundance of Spanish cattle sent ships to California to land men who went ashore to kill the cattle for the hide and tallow trade. In a short time, this trade removed many of the cattle from California, so when the first emigrants arrived from the United States, they hunted the abundant elk and other species in the absence of a livestock industry. 
The gold rush of 1849 brought in musket hunters, trappers and cattle barons. Twenty-four years later, in 1873, the once great herds were reduced to a single tiny band. By the time elk hunting was banned by the State Legislature in 1873, the tule elk was believed to be extinct.
 California cattle baron Henry Miller protected tule elk after a pair were discovered on his ranch in the tule marshes near Buena Vista Lake by game warden A. C. Tibbett in 1874. Miller ordered his men to protect the elk and is credited for the survival of the species. After his death, the huge Miller-Lux ranch was subdivided and the hunting of the elk resumed. The population was reduced to 72 head. By 1895, habitat loss and poaching had reduced the elk population to only 28."
Unbelievable, an estimated 500,000 Tule Elk existing throughout a healthy pristine heavily vegetated California Central Valley prior to European arrival and decimated down to 28 individuals be 1895 and all done with weaponry which would be considered primitive by today's sophisticated technological killing standards. Of course it was during this same period that millions of Bison were butchered with the same mentality and weaponry. Never the less, it is the ecology of the native vegetation landscape throughout that Valley from south to north that interests me and the far greater amount of water which once existed throughout the valley. If you drive around today throughout the southern and west end of the valley, it is obvious that there is very little if any water available on the surface. Water there comes from Canals from the eastern part or pumped from deep commercial wells which at present are depleting what vast aquifer reserves there once were. There is simply now not enough moisture any longer falling as rain and filling up the higher elevation reservoirs. One of the keys to the valley's far greater water presence was the link to an area called Buena Vista Lake in Kern County where Bakersfield is the county seat. Here are some stats about this now dried up massive lake bed.
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buena_Vista_Lake
"Buena Vista Lake, is a former fresh-water lake now a dry lake in Kern County, California in the Tulare Lake Basin in the southern San Joaquin Valley, California.
Buena Vista Lake was the second largest of several similar lakes in the Tulare Lake basin, and was fed by the waters of the Kern River. The Kern River's flow went into Buena Vista Lake southwest through the site Bakersfield via its maindistributary channels or south through the Kern River Slough distributary into Kern Lake and then into Buena Vista Lake via Connecting Slough. 
In times when Buena Vista Lake overflowed it first backed up into Kern Lake making one large lake. When this larger lake overflowed it flowed out through the Buena Vista Slough and Kern River channel northwest of Buena Vista Lake through tule marshland and Goose Lake, into Tulare Lake.
In the mid 20th century, Buena Vista Lake dried up after its tributary river waters were impounded in Isabella Dam and for agricultural irrigation and municipal water uses."
I have actually been to this area. If you drive from Bakersfield along the old abandoned railroad right-of-way which ends up in the oil fields city of Taft CA, it will take you past what is now a vast dried up lake bed. The only way I can described this area to southern Californians is if you've ever seen the large flat flood plain and lake bed called "Mystic Lake". During high rainfall seasons and when the San Jacinto river floods, this lake will actually fill up again, but most often it looks like dry alkali salt flats. Now if for size comparison, Buena Vista Lake bed is as big as the entire San Jacinto/Hemet valleys and may extend a further distance towards Sun City and Moreno Valley. It's huge and as referenced in the above info, was at one time loaded with water from the Kern River. Marshlands and Tule areas extending on and off all the way down stream to the Sacramento Delta. As I mentioned in my post yesterday, there was enough water in the San Joaquin & Kern Rivers to run Steamboat ferries with freight and people at one time all the way to Bakersfield. Cottonwoods, Sycamores, Willows and more would have had extensive forests and great Valley Oak Savannas would have been on higher more elevated locations on the fringes and foothill margins surrounding the valley. Tule Elk and other animals like Pronghorn antelope would have and indeed did maintain such a healthy environment. Given what we know today about the ability of Oaks, Maples and other deciduous trees giving off massive amounts of natural aerosols or VOCs like isoprenes which help create cloud formation (even miles and miles away), we can imagine an even greater influence on all other states climates eastward. With all the vast populations of Tule Elk throughout this wild untouched valley, you can now imagine the vast regular food supply for which the California Condor's soared over from their nesting grounds in the mountains lining both sides of the valley. Sadly, I have the feeling that through the present system, Human intervention will always be needed to provide dead carcasses for these large majestic birds in out of the way isolated protected habitats. There is no real historical precedent from many of these areas that suggest they will ever be truly independent again. Too many negative human stain variables.

 Hopefully I'll be able to photograph and explain what happened to Anza Valley and Santa Rosa Mountains climate change when I get my photographs taken this spring. I wish more of the Non-Profits (eco groups involved in saving whatever around the globe) would or could focus more on natural world mechanisms and practical applications and teach others the same. Looking at nature through the lens of Biomimetics would go further than much of the present stirring up of anger. Nothing wrong with being upset at some injustice and believe me, I know the world is defined by injustice. But I recently read something by controversial author Salman Rushie and I actually saw a CNN News interview of him on Sunday where he said this and it made sense. 
"People today are encourage and have begun to identify themselves by things they hate rather than those things they love and cherish. Should such people be encouraged ? Should such generations-to-come believe that their hatred towards an entity is more important than someone else's opinion of the same ?"
It actually made perfect sense. I follow some of the environmental movements out around the globe along with countless other News Reports on various social movements and there appears no unity or agreement on anything sometimes. The hatred also takes it's toll on otherwise good people who exhaust themselves emotionally when the situation doesn't change for the better or even gets worse. Maybe a different strategy is needed. But unfortunately from my many years of observation and experience, I have seen many a leader or Guru of a group often keeping people stirred up and on edge even if and when there may even be an improvement. This is clear with many of the present social and political movements. If people actually become content and circumstances settle down, the guys like these loose power and they just seem fade away into the background. I find this with many extreme religious leaders with politicians not far behind. I imagine it could also be true of some eco-movements as well.  Anyway, for the moment, to change direction here, I found some pictures and artist's conceptions of what the Central Valley was once like. Maybe for a change, we can view some pleasant pics of Tule Elk in natural habitat followed by some artists conceptions of what wildlife and vegetated habitats may have looked like a long time ago. Look upon the paintings as a positive goal rather than focusing hatred on those responsible for the destruction of these areas.

photo by wikipedia
Tule Elk herd at Lake Pillsbury near Hull Mountain, Mendocino National Forest in Lake County, California. Living in the fringes of Foothill Pine , Oak and chaparral, no doubt for cover when not feeding on natives grasslands.

photos at  San Luis Wildlife Refuge, Los Banos CA

Notice the natural haze in the pictures ? This haze is created by isoprenes given off by trees in combination with the common temperature inversion layer of trapped cold air of winter and springtime. It can become worse when mixed with man made pollution. Ever hear of Tule Fog ? The Central Valley is notorious for it, sometimes from all the way from Bakersfield to Red Bluff. Perhaps you've read about the many car pile ups on the local roads and freeways. It was in this type of habitat that the Tule Elk love to live out their lives.
Now the artists pictures of a Valley way of life long gone.

Picture by Goldtrout

Artwork by Laura Cunninghamd 2010

This scene has both Tule Elk and Pronghorn Antelope grazing together. Pronghorn's are now extinct in most places of California, but there have been some reintroduction projects.
Wow, all of this has got me nostalgic for something else that use to ring through my memory when I use to travel the Valley. Can you guess what this is ?

You probably don't remember there was an original early version of the theme song ? 
Further Reading on California's Tule Elk and Pronghorn Antelope programs:
USGS: "Tracking Pronghorn Antelope in California’s Central Valley"
Further Reading on Valley Oak


  1. I had no idea about that elk, though I did know about the former vegetation. The valley of central NM is completely gone, with many restoration efforts based on what the "experts" see around Taos, not here! Though a friend works at one, and it is getting more species in it that were once known in the valley.

    Valley Oak - 15-20 years ago, I was taken around Abq by an oak person, and there were a number of them planted in town. They really do well here...they look like taller Q. gambelii.

    1. Yes they do have a similar leaf shape about them, though they don't have multiple trunks like Gambel Oaks. The California irrigation and evaporation was what blew me away. I always suspected large areas of water could have such a climate effect, but not as far away as the Four Corners, which I suspect would also include your area.

  2. It's still a rich place in certain spots -- I wish I could get up there a little more often, especially in the spring and summer. The Fresno foothills are amazingly beautiful...


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