From the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, the Sierra foothills offer a dramatic view of changing terrain – from lush to parched. From citrus groves and almond orchards, the landscape shifts from verdant to golden-brown along the Coast Range.
In Lemon Cove and Orange Cove, orchards of lemons and oranges and avocados creep into every fertile niche. Over gently rolling hillsides, patterns of mature orchards merge with new ones. Remnants of winter-harvested navel oranges lie discarded in one orchard. Across a canal, another promises Valencia oranges.
Farmers settled the east side of the San Joaquin Valley first, lured by abundant water from five major rivers and nutrient-rich soils. Reservoirs and dams, built to control and capture winter rains, protect against flooding and store water for summer use.
On the west side of the Valley, some land is fallowed, some saved for only the most valuable crops like grapes, almonds and other nuts. Rows of vines stretch endlessly in late afternoon sun. In contrast, fields and orchards near Tupman are barren, withered. Other towns look dusty, forlorn.
Land was cheaper on the west side. Until federal and state aqueducts brought water, farmers and communities depended on groundwater. With surface water deliveries reduced, wells had to penetrate deeper and deeper. More and more water was pumped from the ground, the soil collapsed, subsided.
Subsidence in the Valley can be measured in feet, with visible damage to aqueducts and bridges. Near the San Joaquin River, a closer look under a bridge displays evidence of the impact of subsidence on infrastructure. Many pilings no longer support the bridge. New pilings have been constructed to make the structure safe. At one site near Mendota, land subsided about 30 feet between 1925 and 1977.
In the Tulare Basin, some of the ground is white with evaporated salt. A wetland habitat was created to coax birds from building nests in more saline toxic areas. An avocet dances, darts, hoping to lure humans away from two spotted eggs camouflaged in dirt. Milelong ponds seem to disappear into the horizon.
Crisscrossing the Valley, from floor to foothills, from salty flats to rich soils, reveals a portrait of how water has shaped contemporary California.
Stephanie Taylor, a Sacramento artist, graduated from UCLA with a degree in history and a focus on political philosophy.