Prepping the Trails for Rain

Since rain was predicted for today (and it came!) I headed out earlier in the week with a mattock to clear trail drainage channels, which had become clogged with rocks, leaves and miscellaneous debris since spring. Water must be guided off our trails immediately or else it will erode the trail and harm it, especially over time. Plus we don’t want the soil that gets eroded to end up in our waterways.

I also cut new ones where I thought they may be needed. Some of this work is obvious, but I know that additional work will be needed once we actually have flowing water on the trails and can see the trouble spots, where water is pooling or running down the trail.

This is just one task that the volunteer stewards group does throughout the year to keep our trails safe and well-maintained.

 

The March/April Miracle

Perhaps we could be forgiven, those of us here in Northern California, for believing that we were heading right back into drought. The amount of rain we had received through February (typically some of our heaviest precipitation months) was truly sad. But then March came, and brought more rain, and even more important, snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

And then came April, which has brought a Pineapple Express storm, with reportedly more to come. Today on the trail we saw a phenomenon we only see when the runoff is truly epic — popup springs (see picture). This happens when water completely saturates the soil and finds underground channels. These channels then surface in random spots in the hillsides, spilling out to run down the hill before finding a creek to add its volume to, potentially leading to flooding downstream.

Logically, I know that this can lead to tragic consequences. But upstream, where these popup springs happen, it simply seems exciting. This is one of the reasons why I love to hike in the rain. I never let the weather stop me from hiking the trail. I put on my rain pants, parka, and waterproof shoes, and go for it. It can be an astonishing time. One day I saw a flock of turkeys running through a downpour. Several other times the creek on the Overlook was running so high I had to hike upstream to find a place to cross it. But it never fails to be exciting, at least to me.

Come enjoy the miracle, as I do. In the glorious wet. It’s only water, after all, and what you stand to gain is a lot more impactful than that.

The Joy of Hiking in the Rain

Ever since I can remember I’ve enjoyed being out in nature when it is raining. There are likely many reasons for this. As a photographer, I like how it makes colors more vibrant. As an introvert, I like that fewer people brave the rain. As a naturalist, I like that there are animals who are not deterred by the wet. When it has been raining hard for some time, I enjoy the drama of the runoff. Places that are normally dry become waterfalls. Dry creeks become raging watercourses. There is much to like.

And these days, with great outdoor gear available, there isn’t any reason why we can’t venture out into the rain. My personal set of gear is as simple as this: a rain parka, rain pants I slip on over my jeans, and waterproof hiking shoes. I sometimes add a baseball cap to help shield my glasses. However, it should be noted that I always come back wet to some degree, but whether that is from rain or sweat is not entirely clear to me. In any case, stripping off the wet clothes and taking a nice hot shower banishes any lingering chill.

It’s also an adventure. Sure, it’s an adventure of quite limited proportions, but when others spurn hitting the trail in the wet we could be forgiven if we think we are being more adventurous by venturing out when others are put off. And although there have been days when I haven’t seen anyone else on my hike, there have been days when I have. So you are out there, you adventurous people, I know you are. Time to represent, as we have entered an extended period of rain (finally!).

 

 

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.