Nowhere To Go But the Sea

Yesterday morning I was hiking in the rain and I was surprised to see how much water was already running off the trail  (see picture). This is because we had had several days of dry weather and the rain wasn’t all that heavy. But I soon realized it was because the ground is already super-saturated. We’ve had so much rain this season that the ground simply can’t hold any more. Everything that falls runs off.

Even our reservoirs are near full, or even over full — Lake Sonoma, our largest local water supply, is at 101% of its water supply pool. Meanwhile, other reservoirs that are expected to receive the runoff from a record snowpack are near full (e.g., Shasta, Oroville, Don Pedro). Reservoirs have long been viewed as our way to build ourselves out of a drought, but by now clearly that has been proven to be a lie. Any stream worth noting in California has been damned at least once, with many of them sporting several dams. Dams will not solve our water issues. The Colorado River has a number of dams in its watershed, and only in the most amazing rainfall years can it come close to filling them. There has even been a call recently to fill Lake Mead first to cut down on the inevitable water loss from evaporation by trying to keep two reservoirs partly full. And there was even a time when not just one, but two additional dams were planned to be built in Grand Canyon National Park. The Grand Canyon. I mean, seriously. We need other solutions. Specifically, more intelligent use of the water we have.

Meanwhile, we have destroyed more amazing river canyons that I can even adequately describe. Glen Canyon, the cathedral in the desert. Hetch Hetchy,  the second Yosemite Valley. The Stanislaus River Canyon, the single best whitewater river run in California. All tragedies individually, but when seen together it is beyond justification or even comprehension. We have become morally bankrupt in terms of water in the West.

We need to stop growing water-hungry crops in a desert. The southern part of the Central Valley of California is clearly a desert. The Northern part of the Central Valley is only slightly off the desert designation. The crops that use the most water are (in order from most to least): alfalfa, almonds and pistachios, pasture, and rice. Two of the top five water-hungry crops are for cattle — alfalfa and pasture.

Although we are exhorted to save water, the vast majority of California’s water is used by agriculture, which means the real gains in conservation are likely to be realized there. But it’s unclear that our farms are making the changes that are needed. Part of this is clearly seated in our arcane water rights system, which basically means that those with early water rights can do whatever they want. This is a recipe for disaster, but it’s considered the “third rail” in California politics. It’s completely untouchable. And so we must find another way.

One way is completely in our hands.We can adjust our diets. This means cutting back on both dairy and beef. Doing this could go a long way to both reducing our water use as well as improving our health. We can advocate for change at the state level about how water is allocated and used. We probably already conserve, if you are like me, but perhaps there is more we can do.

Water has been important in my life. I became a commercial whitewater river guide on my 21st birthday. Not long thereafter I became the boyfriend to my eventual wife on a Green River trip. I proposed to her on a Grand Canyon river trip. We couldn’t get married on a river because, well…family. But you get the drift. A river runs through it.

So you could say that I have an affinity for water. After learning to river guide, I couldn’t look at the smallest riffle without figuring out how I would run it in the tiniest of river rafts. Those days are mostly past, but occasionally I slip back into that mindset.

As a river guide, I know the singular and imperative nature of water — to always and forever seek level. Usually this means to flow downwards toward the place where there is nowhere left to go. For most streams, this ends up being the sea.

As the water that falls today, or tomorrow, or the next day, flows inexorably to the sea, we need to figure this out better than we have in the past. We can’t dam our way out of our predicament. We need to to think more carefully about our options and the consequences of what we truly and forever give up in pursuit of aims that only benefit a few.

In the end, water can only run to the sea. Here in the West we need to find a way where water only runs to justice. May we do this, and soon.

Water Water Everywhere

Seasonal rogue runoff crossing the Rattlesnake Cutoff trail.

Whether it is related to global warming or not, California seems to go from one extreme to another. Years of punishing drought have given way to one of the wettest winters we’ve seen in a long time. The drought is officially over for northern California, but in so doing it is making amphibians of us all. The average annual rainfall for Sonoma is 31.49 inches. As of today we are at 37.71 inches with more on the way.

The trails take a beating from this much wet. Water often courses down sections of trail, eroding soil needed to make a smooth trail. Puddles create mud that hikers walk through which can also tear up the trail. This year on the Rattlesnake Cutoff trail on the Montini Preserve a new seasonal runoff channel has cut directly across the trail with pools beside it (see picture). Clearly we will need to address this next summer.

Having said all that, we needed to have a year that well and truly broke our multi-year drought, and we certainly got it. It would just be nice if it didn’t also mean mudslides, road closures, and un-hikable sections of trail.

Rain, Rain, Come and Stay

Ripening Toyon berries in the rain.

Ripening Toyon berries in the rain.

Today was my first hike in the rain for the season and I was reminded what a joy it is. Hiking in the rain is a joy, you ask? Yes, it is to me, and for these reasons:

  • You tend to see fewer people and more wildlife.
  • Colors are more vibrant.
  • When runoff starts, it’s more exciting.

And if you have the right gear, you don’t get soaked. I have rain pants, waterproof hiking shoes, and a rain shell. But if it is raining only lightly I will often pull my rain shell through a caribiner and clip it to my belt, since if the storm is warm I can get more wet from sweat than a light rain. A ball cap helps keep rain off my glasses. So it’s really quite simple and even if you get a little wet, it’s just water. And the hiking is well worth it.

Given this, and the drought that we are still experiencing, I welcome the rain and wish for much more to come our way this winter. If you’re on the trail when it’s raining, look for me.

Season of the Fungi

mushroom2Our recent and ongoing rains have had their desired effect in at least one significant way — the mushrooms are out!  Wikipedia describes mushrooms as:

“…the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus, typically produced above ground on soil or on its food source.”

That clinical description belies the charm of these organisms that pop up from the forest floor when the right conditions (dampness being key) are present. The varieties are endless, and some are edible, but identifying them properly is a sticky business best left to experts. If you eat the wrong one, you can get sick or even die.

bracketfungiOf course mushrooms are but on type of fungus. Another type that is easily spotted on the trails is a bracket fungus (see picture). These grow on trees, like this one which is growing on a dead and downed tree alongside the trail on the Overlook side of Rattlesnake cutoff. Look for it in what I call “Fern Glen” which is where the seasonal creek is now running across the trail.

mushroomThis specimen I found near the 4th Street entrance to the Montini Preserve, and I love it’s delicate stem. I had to get quite close to get this shot of what is one of the smaller varieties. On the same day I found nearly the opposite, one with a six-inch cap that had only recently popped up above the dead leaves of the forest floor.

For help in identifying a particular variety, there are a number of strategies:

Whether you are trying to identify a particular variety or simply enjoying seeing them pop up in the season of the fungi, it’s yet another reason to get out on the trails and enjoy what they have to offer. See you on the trail!

Seasonal Creeks

12377639_10153144331341786_3674935992491065197_oSeasonal creeks are by definition creeks that only have water during the rainy season. In California, the rainy season can potentially stretch from early Fall into late Spring, although variations in weather patterns can of course add nuance to that schedule. However, for truly seasonal creeks it usually takes a fair bit of rain to form the runoff required to start them up.

So although we’ve had rain just about every week for the last month or so, it was only with the latest storm that we began to see the seasonal creeks on the Overlook Trail and the Montini Preserve begin to run. Specifically, the creek that runs through what I call “Fern Glen” and across the Overlook part of the Rattlesnake Cutoff trail, has begun to run (see pic).

This is good news, as it means that our storage reservoirs will also begin to fill. And having been in a multi-year drought, this is definitely good news. However, runoff by itself isn’t necessarily good. We should trap as much of that as we can into the aquifer, where those who draw from water wells can take advantage of it. To a large degree, this means slowing down the runoff and making it soak into the ground instead of running directly to the bay.

Personally, I think we have a ways to go before we can say that we are doing the best we can at water capture in this valley. Until we figure out how best to harness our seasonal creeks to maximize underground water storage, we perhaps deserve the droughts that we will likely increasingly get.

Rain, Rain, Don’t Go Away

rainpoolsWe’ve been lucky so far this Fall, with rain coming almost on a weekly basis. It has been enough to both finally end one of the worst fire seasons on record as well as foster the eager growth of new grass.

I love hiking the trails in the rain. There tends to be fewer people and more animals. One day in the pouring rain I saw a large flock of wild turkeys — the most I had ever seen.

Out on the trail today although I didn’t see many wild creatures I saw a few hardy people and water beginning to pool and start to run off the trail. After returning home, it poured even harder. If it keeps up we my have water running in the creeks by this evening.

We certainly need this moisture, but we need so much more to escape this period of drought that it’s hard to imagine getting enough in one rainy season. So let’s all hope that the rain doesn’t go away and that it soaks the ground, fills our reservoirs, and ends our latest drought.

Winter Is Coming

fernglenFor the first time on the trail today, I noticed that the ferns are coming back. At the place I call Fern Glen, on the trail that connects the Montini Preserve with the Sonoma Overlook Trail, they are shooting up fairly quickly, in response to the off-and-on light rains we have had recently (see pic).

This is very nice to see. It’s a sign that we are getting enough moisture to renew plants such as these which rely upon dampness. As is probably quite obvious, winter is coming. It’s just nice to see the weather signs that indeed it is.