San Joaquin Valley

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The eight-county San Joaquin Valley is the part of the Central Valley of California that lies south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in Stockton. Much of it is rural, but it does contain the cities of Fresno, Bakersfield, Stockton, Modesto, and Visalia.



The San Joaquin Valley extends from the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta in the north to the Tehachapi Mountains in the south , and from the various California coastal ranges (from the Diablo in the north to the Santa Ynez in the south) in the west to the Sierra Nevada in the east. Unlike the Sacramento Valley, the river system for which the San Joaquin Valley is named does not extend very far along the valley. Most of the valley south of Fresno instead drains into Tulare Lake, which no longer exists on a regular basis due to diversion of its sources. Major rivers include the San Joaquin, Kings, and Kern river, all of which have been largely diverted for agricultural uses and are mostly dry in their lower reaches.

Prior to the 1920s, most of the valley was bone-dry desert akin to the Mojave. Areas not receiving irrigation water from the Central Valley Project and other irrigation projects look much the same as when Spanish explorers passed through in the late 18th century, with the exception of the oil derricks and pumps that can be found in varying densities throughout the valley. The areas west of Interstate 5 are particularly desolate.

Unlike most other agricultural areas in the United States, the San Joaquin Valley was settled at a time when the automobile had become the primary means of transportation. Moreover, landholdings are considerably larger than those in the Midwest and South, usually on the order of thousands of acres. Since one town could thus serve a vastly larger area than was possible in the 19th century, the density of settlements is considerably less than that of areas settled in the day of roads and rail. Because of this, there are very few incorporated settlements in the region compared to other rural areas.


Hemmed in by mountains and lacking any prevailing winds to disperse smog, the San Joaquin Valley has long suffered from some of the United States' worst air pollution. This pollution mainly comes from heavy usage of high-sulfur agricultural diesel fuel and from petrochemical industries. Population growth since 2000 has caused the San Joaquin Valley to pass Los Angeles and Houston in most measures of air pollution. Only the Inland Empire region east of Los Angeles has worse overall air quality, and the San Joaquin Valley led the nation in 2004 in the number of days with quantities of ozone considered unhealthy by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Water pollution is another significant problem in the valley. Soil salination in heavily irrigated areas has significantly reduced the viability of some of the most valley's most fertile tracts, especially those in the Tulare lake bed. Contamination of groundwater by leakage from manure pits at dairy farms and cattle feedlots has led to significant outcry.


The San Joaquin Valley is one of the least affluent areas of California: per-capita income is well below the national average, and poverty, in both urban and rural areas, is a significant problem. Most of the valley's===Agriculture=== Historian Kevin Starr has referred to the San Joaquin Valley as "the most productive unnatural environment on Earth." By some estimates, fully 25% of the United States' agricultural production (as measured by dollar value) comes from California, and the vast majority of that is in the San Joaquin Valley. Grapes--table, raisin, and to a lesser extent wine--are perhaps the valley's highest-profile product, but equally (if not more) important are cotton, nuts (especially almonds and pistachios), citrus, and vegetables. The Boswell farm in Kings County is the largest single cotton farm in the world, occupying over 40,000 acres (162 km²). Certain places are identified quite strongly with a given crop: Stockton produces the majority of the asparagus consumed in the United States, and Fresno is credited as the birthplace of the raisin. pumps and derricks. [[Royal Dutch Shell|SheNaodW29-math2bb25f8a365ef46800000001 ll]] operates a major refinery in Bakersfield; it is currently (summer 2005) in the process of being sold to Flying J, a Salt Lake-based firm that operates truck stops and refineries. The oil and gas fields in Kern County are considered to be in decline, and no major discoveries have been made in the region for quite some time.

Other major industries and employers

The isolation and vastness of the San Joaquin Valley, as well as its poverty and need for jobs, have led the state to build numerous prisons in the area. The most notable of these is at Corcoran, where a special celebrity unit holds Charles Manson and other notorious inmates who would likely be murdered if placed into a prison's general population. Other correctional facilities in the valley are at Avenal, Chowchilla, Tracy, Delano, Coalinga, and Wasco.

The only significant military base in the region is Naval Air Station Lemoore, a vast airbase near Hanford. Unlike many of California's other military installations, NAS Lemoore's operational importance has increased in the 1990s and 2000s.



Culturally, the San Joaquin Valley is quite different from much of the rest of California. Among well-populated areas, the San Joaquin Valley is perhaps the most conservative in California. For example, signs can be seen around Pixley and Hanford supporting leaving the United Nations and opposing abortion. Many commentators have noted the irony of the San Joaquin Valley's prevailing "small government" philosophy, given that its farm economy is the product of more than a century of expensive federal and state government projects and that cotton, one of its most important agricultural products, is heavily subsidized. While the importance of agriculture in the area can curb environmentalism, air pollution is a serious and acknowledged problem in the area (which see). Resentment of perceived condescension by Southern Californians and San Francisco Bay Area residents is a recurring theme in the valley's politics, occasionally manifesting itself in laws such as Kern County's 2005 ban on the importation of sewage sludge from urban counties.

Several prominent California politicians have come from the San Joaquin Valley. California state senator and unsuccessful 2002 gubernatorial and 2004 senatorial candidate Bill Simon hails from the Fresno area. As of 2005 Republican U.S. representative Bill Thomas, who represents the valley's southern portions as well as much of the Mojave Desert, is head of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Ethnic and cultural groups


While the barrios of East Los Angeles are California's most famous areas dominated by persons of Mexican ancestry, both first-generation Mexican immigrants and well-established Chicanos are enormously important populations in the San Joaquin Valley. Since the onset of the bracero program during World War II, virtually all of the agricultural workers in the region have been of Mexican ancestry. Ethnic and economic friction between Mexican-Americans and the valley's predominantly white farming elite manifested itself most notably during the 1960s and 1970s, when the United Farm Workers, led by César Chávez, went on numerous strikes and called for boycotts of table grapes. The UFW generated enormous sympathy throughout the United States, even managing to terminate several agricultural mechanization projects at the United States Department of Agriculture. However, from the 1970s onward, farmers have mostly hired illegal immigrants, preferred for their willingness to work longer hours for lower pay. Today, Chicanos are somewhat better integrated into the valley's economic framework.

European and Asian groups

The San Joaquin Valley has--by California standards--an unusually large number of European, Middle Eastern, and South Asian ethnicities in the heritage of its citizens. These communities are often quite large and, relative to Americans immigration patterns, quite eclectic: for example, there are more Azoreans in the San Joaquin Valley than in the Azores! Many groups are found in majorities in specific cities, and hardly anywhere else in the region. For example, Dutch are concentrated in Ripon, Sikhs in Stockton and Livingston, and Yugoslavs in Delano. Kingsburg is famous for its distinctly Swedish air, having been founded by immigrants from that country. Ethnic groups found in a broader area are Portuguese, Armenians, and the "Okies" who migrated to California from the Midwest and South. In recent years, large numbers of Pakistanis have settled in Modesto and Lodi.

These cultures are often the result of established ethnic communities and groups of immigrants coming to the United States at once. This is in part due to the founding of religious communes in the San Joaquin Valley: for example, the first permanent Sikh Gurdwara was made in Stockton in 1915.

Okies and Arkies

The Depression-era migrants to the San Joaquin Valley from the South and Midwest are one of the more well-known groups in the Central Valley, in large part due to the popularity of the novel The Grapes of Wrath and the Henry Fonda movie made from it. By 1910, agriculture in the southern Great Plains had become nearly unviable due to soil erosion and poor rainfall. Much of the rural population of states such as Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas left at this time, selling their land and moving to Chicago, Kansas City, Detroit, and fast-growing Los Angeles. Those who remained experienced continuing deterioration of conditions, which reached their nadir during the drought that began in the late 1920s and created the infamous Dust Bowl. (Small cotton farmers in states such as Mississippi and Alabama suffered similar problems from the first major infestation of the boll weevil.) When the onset of the Great Depression created a national banking crisis, family farmers--usually heavily in debt--often had their mortgages foreclosed by banks desperate to shore up their balance sheets. In response, many farmers loaded their families and portable possessions into their automobiles and drove west.

Taking Route 66 to Barstow or Los Angeles and crossing the Tehachapi or Tejon passes, they began new lives as fruit and vegetable pickers on truck farms in the San Joaquin Valley. Having gone from the relative independence of homesteading to a condition that was essentially peasantry, many of them lived in squalid agricultural camps and were deeply unhappy with their economic plight; domestic disputes, crime, and suicide were rampant, and occasional riots broke out. New Deal measures alleviated some of these problems, albeit belatedly: by the time that The Grapes of Wrath drew public attention to the Okies' plight, many of them had already left the valley.

Perhaps the majority of the Okies and Arkies left the San Joaquin Valley during World War II, most of them going to Los Angeles and San Diego to work in war industries. Many of those who stayed ended up in Bakersfield, which became an increasingly important center of oil production after major Southern California wells like Signal Hill began to dry up. Their influence remains strong: Bakersfield resembles a West Texas town such as Midland or Lubbock far more than it does anywhere else in California. Country music legends Buck Owens and Merle Haggard came out of Bakersfield's honky-tonk scene and created a hard-driving sound that is still deeply associated with the city.

Recent changes

The California real estate boom that began in the late 1990s has significantly changed the San Joaquin Valley. Once distinctly and fiercely independent of Los Angeles and San Francisco, the area has seen increasing exurban development as the cost of living forces young families and small businesses further and further away from the coastal urban cores. Stockton, Modesto, and Tracy are increasingly dominated by commuters to San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and the small farming towns to the south are finding themselves in the Bay Area's orbit as well. Bakersfield, traditionally a boom-bust oil town once described by urban scholar Joel Kotkin as an "American Abu Dhabi," has seen a massive influx of former Los Angeles business owners, to the extent that gated communities containing million-dollar homes are going up on the city's outskirts. Wal-Mart, IKEA, and various large shipping firms have built huge distribution centers at the far southern end of the valley, lured by the convenience of Route 58 and the region's low wages. Further integration with the rest of the state is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.


The San Joaquin Valley is home to some institutes of higher education, the most well-known probably being Fresno State and University of the Pacific. The University of California, Merced campus began classes in 2005. The California State University system also maintains campuses at Bakersfield (CSU Bakersfield) and Turlock (CSU Stanislaus). There are numerous community colleges, as well.



Interstate 5 (I-5) and California State Highway 99 (CA/SR-99, or just "99") each run along the entire length of the San Joaquin Valley. I-5 runs in the western valley, bypassing major population centers (including Fresno, currently the largest U.S. city without an Interstate highway), while 99 runs through them. State and federal representatives have long pushed to convert 99 to an Interstate, although this cannot occur until all of the portions of 99 between I-5 and the I-505 junction are upgraded to freeway standards.

California State Highway 58 (CA/SR-58), which is a freeway in Bakersfield and along most of its route until its terminus in Barstow, is an extremely important and very heavily traveled route for truckers from the valley and the Bay Area who want to cross the Sierra Nevada and leave California (by way of Interstate 15 or Interstate 40) without having to climb Donner Pass or brave the horrendous traffic congestion of Los Angeles. Proposals have also been made to designate this highway as a western extension of I-40 once the entirety of the route between Mojave and Barstow has been upgraded to a freeway. This would provide an Interstate connection for Bakersfield, currently the second-largest U.S. city without an Interstate.

Other important highways in the valley include California State Highway 46 (CA/SR-46) and California State Highway 41 (CA/SR-41), which respectively link the California Central Coast with Bakersfield and Fresno; California State Highway 33, which runs south to north along the valley's western rim and provides a connection to Ventura and Santa Barbara over the Santa Ynez Mountains; and California State Highway 152 (CA/SR-152), an important commuter route linking Silicon Valley with its fast-growing exurbs such as Los Banos.


Amtrak provides rail service through the San Joaquin Valley. There are also plans for a high-speed rail line that will link the valley with San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Diego. While many valley politicians and businesses are eager supporters of the line, eager to provide better connections to the larger and wealthier cities to the north and south, large and vocal factions in cities like Modesto and Stockton have opposed the line going through their towns on noise grounds. In any case, construction will not likely begin until 2010 or later.


A small port for oceangoing cargo ships is present in Stockton, which is connected to the San Francisco Bay by way of a deepwater channel along the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta. Congestion at the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach, which together account for the majority of container traffic in the United States, has led to calls for further development of the port.

Unlike the Sacramento River, the San Joaquin River has never been navigable much past Stockton. This was a significant factor in the San Joaquin Valley's slow 19th-century development.

Cities and counties

Cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants

Cities with 20,000 to 100,000 inhabitants

List of counties

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