The fall and rise of the wetlands of California's Great Central Valley: A historical and ecological study of an endangered resource of the Pacific Flyway

Philip Frank Garone
Dept. of History, University of California, Davis
July, 2006


The "Fall and Rise" is an environmental history of the wetlands of California's Great Central Valley. It frames the Central Valley in terms of its seminal importance as the wintering area for approximately 60% of the migratory waterfowl of the Pacific Flyway, and contributes to the scholarship of environmental history by adopting an ecological perspective, with multiple scales of analysis, to highlight these non-human organisms that lie at the heart of the story. The destruction of over 90% of the Central Valley's original four million acres of wetlands, and the efforts over recent decades to restore a significant percentage of those wetlands, relate directly to issues of Western, environmental, and agricultural history---particularly irrigation, reclamation, flood control, and large-scale agriculture. The dissertation investigates themes of individual, regional, state, and federal efforts to reconfigure the landscape, as well as the role and influence of oppositional forces, especially the Central Valley's duck club owners. It offers a complex narrative of the creation of the valley's first public waterfowl refuges, in which the motives of preventing crop depredations and providing public hunting grounds loom as large as protecting the waterfowl. Beginning with the ways in which Native American perceptions of wetlands as lands of plenty gave way to the Anglo notion of wetlands as "wastelands," dangerous places that harbored malaria and posed an obstacle to settlement, this dissertation tells the distinct, but interrelated stories, of the fate of the wetlands in each of the four physiographic provinces of the 430-mile-long Central Valley: the Sacramento Valley, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the San Joaquin Basin, and the Tulare Basin, the last two of which comprise the San Joaquin Valley. These histories are rife with ironies and unintended ecological consequences of the manipulation of nature, the exposition of which marks an original contribution of this dissertation. Throughout, the dissertation incorporates the evolution of scientific and public attitudes toward a greater appreciation of the ecological value of wetlands, and concludes with an appraisal of the present condition of wetlands in each region of the Central Valley and of their future prospects in the face of continuing threats.