The San Joaquin Valley was not “all a desert” before the arrival of the American farmers – most of it was a steppe of tall grasses, wildflowers and vernal pools, and criss-crossed by riparian forests and salmon-filled rivers, while a true desert of sagebrush, sand dunes and salt flats existed in parts of the middle and the west side, most of which was actually vast wetlands, marshes and lakes. It was a very pretty place with a diversity of environments and very conducive to settlement. Not that blossom trails are all that ugly, but it was not as boring a place as they tell you it was in school to get you to feel good about agribusiness and grow up to support agribusiness.
I hear those who grew up all the time declare their sympathy for the plight of farmers who have no water, based partly on the idea that before farming, this was nothing but a desert. Not only was this not a desert before farming, there was farming here before irrigation was developed with the network of dams and canals. Before irrigation, the valley was an area for growing winter wheat. Irrigation opened up the farms to more kinds of crops.
Early explorers observed elk herds, huge lakes, California Grizzly bears, tons of waterfowl, sand dunes, Indian villages (the locations of which would be nice to know for history’s sake), and a snowy Sierra crest overlooking. If this were a desert, would the first farmers had said, “why, by golly, I’m gonna grow me some wheat right here!” No. They would not have said that. They would have said, “let’s keep this here a wagon train a movin.'”