Why One Family Moved to the Valley and is Moving Again

by | May 22, 2024

Photo: SMART

Bernadette Kennedy. Downtown Tracy in background, Photo: Matt Gush, I-Stock

California’s Central Valley can be a place of climate extremes, with scorching heat and precipitation that fluctuates wildly from drought to deluge. Despite this challenging environment, the Valley continues to be one of the fastest-growing areas in the state. Many Bay Area residents have contributed to this growth by migrating to the Valley to find more affordable housing.

Bernadette Kennedy is one of those residents. After living in San Francisco for almost two decades, she moved in 2018 to find more space for her growing family. Kennedy now lives with her husband, three children, and elderly mother in Tracy, a small city in San Joaquin County.

KneeDeep’s community editor, Isabella Eclipse, who is also Kennedy’s niece, interviewed her about life in Tracy: how she’s adjusted to the heat and dust after living in the Bay Area, why her community’s attitude towards climate change is shifting, and what she thinks is the first step towards climate resilience. 

Q: How is living in the San Joaquin Valley different from other parts of California?

I lived in San Francisco, so I was used to the billion different microclimates there. But it’s very dry here. And environmentally, it is extremely dusty. So when I moved here, I got to know my inhaler on an intimate level. I spent two to three years just getting accustomed to the amount of dirt that flies through the air because of the wind. It’s always breezy.

There’s also a ton of pesticides. So there’s always little airplanes that are going over, spraying pesticides. And that’s one of the things that you kind of live with. But you really wonder what exactly is happening to your body because you’re being constantly bombarded with that stuff.

Photo: SMART

 New housing development in Tracy. Photo: Marutzzella Castro

Q: Does it feel like the environment or climate outside your home has changed since you have lived there? 

Since I moved here five years ago, it’s gotten hotter, drier, and windier. I can tell the difference because it is harder and more expensive to maintain the lawn, and the wind irritates my kids’ allergies and asthma.

There are benefits to the heat because you get nice warm nights, but there are also bugs that come with that. We’re seeing an explosion of ticks, which we didn’t see when we first got here, and even scorpions.

The worst fires were about three years ago, and then we had a couple of really wet years and this winter’s El Niño. That made a massive difference. But we don’t know what this year is going to look like. We’ve seen extreme heat, and they’re saying this year will be even hotter.

Photo: SMART

San Joaquin River Delta after the rains in 2022. Photo: Bernadette Kennedy

Here in Tracy we are not as worried about flooding, because we’re not right by the Delta. But a while ago the San Joaquin River overflowed and people lost properties in Vernalis and Manteca. Parts of the 132 freeway and the 33 had to be closed. The intensity of rain has been more severe — that was definitely climate change. 

Another thing that’s pretty crazy is that we started having tornadoes. We had one last year that took off the roof of an industrial building. 

Q: What climate impacts have been the most concerning for you and your family?

Honestly, we’re talking about moving because of water issues. Utilities in Tracy are already very expensive because we have to run the air conditioning all day to deal with the heat, and water rates increase almost every year. We’ve stopped watering our backyard lawn to save money.

Photo: SMART

Water-starved backyard. Photo: Bernadette Kennedy

Water is going to be the commodity people are fighting over, and we want to have rights to our own water. It’s our biggest concern. That’s why we have a property up in Shasta County, and we plan on moving up there permanently. There we have well water for irrigation, for drinking, for washing, for cleaning. We even have water rights to a spring that came with the property. We do have PG&E and use it to pump water from the well, but we’re switching to completely off grid this year because power costs are insane.

Q: What do your neighbors think about these environmental changes?

When we lived in San Francisco, there was constant discussion and awareness of environmental issues. Because of the politics in Tracy, [though], the people we live around would joke about climate change. There was this sarcasm: “Oh yes, climate change, whatever… The world gets hot, the world gets cold.”

But even in the time that I have been here, I’ve seen a dramatic shift. We’ve had so many years of extreme heat. The first year we were here, it hit 118 degrees in some places. That’s kind of absurd. And then people couldn’t joke about it anymore. Now you hear people say “it’s too late or it’s not my problem, I’ll be dead by the time we all melt.” There’s a much different feeling in San Francisco. [There] everybody has this belief that they can make an impact if we can just get enough people to change. Whereas here, it’s somebody else’s problem.

Q: How is your community coping with this changing environment?

So in Tracy, on the hottest hottest days, they start putting information out there about cooling centers, but it’s a “you’re lucky if you know it” kind of thing. Most of the information I’ve found is on community pages on Facebook.

Tracy is mostly middle-class, but there is a small area that’s impoverished, where many of the farmworkers and other immigrants live. You can tell where they don’t have good air conditioning, I can see people sitting outside on their porches, fanning themselves. I don’t know how they handle the heat. I’ve seen trucks bringing water to the farmworkers in the fields.

Tracy is still a couple years behind the Bay Area in terms of sustainability. I’ve been seeing more signs on commercial lawns talking about recycled water, which is something at least.

Photo: SMART

Bee on garden clover. Photo: Perboge, Unsplash

Another hot topic here is bees. The bees are dying because of pesticides, colony collapse disorder, not having enough water and having to travel too far to find wildflowers. Some farmers here are renting bees from beekeepers because they need pollinators. But it’s better to plant wildflowers and have bees from the beginning because bees get stressed out when they’re moved around.

Q: How can your community work towards climate resilience?

First, I would say that change starts with education. I see my kids’ charter school curriculum starting to shift to talk more about climate change. Kids themselves are pushing for more awareness. 

I see the next generation of farmers going to schools like Cal-State Stanislaus and UC Merced to learn about sustainable agriculture, how to use water responsibly, and how to incorporate bees into the design of their farm.

I also believe that people need to talk more about the emergency resources available in a crisis.

There are lots of changes happening in Tracy, including a new carbon capture facility. Hopefully a greater environmental awareness will come as well.

Tornado near Tracy: Video: Bernadette Kennedy