OK, here's another little experiment. I spent part of the last 10 days or so taking a little bit of a crash course in California groundwater for a radio feature. The feature's done, but I still need to do a web post for program I did the story for ("America Abroad," distributed by Public Radio International). I've had a hard time sitting down and writing again after crashing for the radio deadline, so I decided to just record some of the stuff I've packed into my brain on this topic. The result is what might pass for a podcast, though I'm not betting that the world is waiting for 30 minutes of talk on a resource that's mostly invisible.
Desultory Twitter browsing led me to the following obituary from Lake County. The county is home to Clear Lake, California's largest wholly contained freshwater lake -- Lake Tahoe is much bigger, but is split with Nevada-- and is oddly isolated. Its seat, Lakeport, is less than 100 miles as the crow flies north of downtown San Francisco and about 40 miles from the northern end of the tourist-overrun Napa Valley. But the county occupies rough, highland country bypassed by the main north-south routes to the west and east, so it's a little bit of a job to get there. Despite the lake, tourism hasn't taken off; one recent report says it ranks among the lowest of California's 58 counties for visitor-generated tax receipts. And according to the Census Bureau, it's significantly poorer and whiter than the surrounding clutch of agricultural counties and the state as a whole.
Anyway, the obit, from the Lake County News, for one Bessie Wilds, who has passed at the age of 85. She was born on a ranch and grew up in Lakeport. The notice picks up the story there, and I would never have thought twice about it except for the mention of the police scanner:
During her high school years she helped her father operate a Shell Oil Gas Station located at 11th and Main streets in Lakeport.
She was devoted to her mother, who did not drive and had difficulty walking.
Bessie graduated high school in 1948 and married Junior C. Wilds. They made their home outside of Kelseyville and raised their son and daughter on a walnut ranch.
Bessie was a member of the Kelseyville Women's Club and also active in the local Lions Club.
During the 1970s and 1980s she was a waitress at Anne Card's Coffee Shop in Kelseyville.
In 1986 Bessie and Junior sold their walnut ranch to Beringer Winery and downsized to a small parcel near the vineyard. They watched the transformation from trees to vines.
After the loss of Junior in 2002, Bessie became a solitary person, preferring to live a quiet life.
She loved to sit at her kitchen table listening to KNBR or KGO and the police scanner, and watch the traffic. Her cats and the hummingbirds gave her great pleasure.
The further adventures of a California reservoir. A year and a week ago -- late March 2013 -- Kate and I camped in the very nice Loafer Creek campground at Lake Oroville State Recreation Area. The lake, the main reservoir for the State Water Project and the second largest California reservoir after Lake Shasta, was about 85 percent full at the time. If you were following the vagaries of the state's water season, you might have been a little troubled by the fact the 2012-13 rains had virtually disappeared after the turn of the new year. What wasn't apparent during the first visit up there was that the rains wouldn't return in the fall, either, and that the lake would fall to just one-third full by January -- low in any season, but especially alarming in that the reservoir levels here and virtually everywhere else across the state continued to decline at a time when they'd usually be filling up with runoff from winter storms.
I drove up to Lake Oroville on January 18, which happened to mark the lake's low point during the current water year (July 1, 2013-June 30, 2014). The difference in the lake's appearance was dramatic -- see the slideshow below. But when seasonal rains finally returned in early February, the lake began to rise. One way of measuring lake level is the height of the lake surface above sea level. When full, Lake Oroville's surface is 900 feet above sea level. When Kate and I visited in March 2013, the surface level was 860 feet; when I went back in January, it stood at 701 feet according to the numbers from the state Department of Water Resources. The same source shows the lake at 759 feet now and rising.
Yesterday, Thom and I drove up to Oroville to take a look and take a new set of pictures to show the change since January (they're incorporated into the slideshow). My impressions:
I suppose this is a "glass half-full/half-empty" exercise on a grand scale, especially since the lake is at almost exactly 50 percent of its total capacity right now. On one hand the lake is up almost 60 feet from the last time I saw it and has added about 40 percent to its storage -- it's added about 500,000 acre-feet since January, enough water for about 1 million California households. More water is coming, too: Even though the forecast for the next couple of weeks and beyond looks pretty dry, and even though we're nearing the tail end of the rainy season, the snowpack will start too melt and run down the branches of the Feather River that flow into the lake.
The conventional wisdom is that half of the state's stored water is captured in the Sierra snows that wind up in streams, rivers and reservoirs. One slice of Lake Oroville history shows how dramatic an impact the snowpack can have:
A drier-than-normal water year in 2008-09 reduced the reservoir's storage to a shade more than 1 million acre-feet, less than 30 percent of capacity, and lowered the surface to 665 feet above sea level by early January 2009; that's about 20 percent less water and about 45 feet lower than the level we saw this past January. Then storms began arriving and began building the northern Sierra snowpack. The water content of the snow in the Feather River drainage reached about 130 percent of normal by early April 2010, and the lake had come up to virtually the same level as it is this weekend. The reservoir, which had reached its lowest point on January 11, kept rising through June 29, when it reached its high point of about 2.7 million acre-feet and elevation of 843 feet above sea level. That's a rise of 178 feet in less than six months.
So that's the glass half-full. It's normal for our reservoirs to rise and fall, often dramatically (and no, I'm not addressing here the impact of how the reservoirs are operated -- how much water is released, when, and why).
Here's the empty half of the glass for Lake Oroville: This year, the Department of Water Resources estimates that the water content in the thin layer of snow in the Feather River watershed's high country is just 13 percent of average for this time of year. Thirteen percent. So, we're not going to see any late season rise in the lake. More likely, we'll see a scenario more like the one that unfolded in 2007-08, when two drier-than-normal years left the lake at close to the same level we see today -- 753 feet. The watershed's snowpack was lower than normal, and although runoff gave the lake a boost, it topped out at just 760 feet and 50 percent capacity in late May. That dry rain year was followed by another, and in February 2009, the state declared a drought emergency.
None of this is meant to make a single reservoir, even a big one like Lake Oroville, seem more important than it really is. But reservoirs are important to making it possible for 38 million people to live, and for a rich agricultural industry to thrive,in a place where it typically doesn't rain much for six months of the year. And Lake Oroville's water storage happens to mirror what's happening with the state's water supply picture as a whole at the moment: The Department of Water Resources' daily summary of 44 key reservoirs shows them collectively at 64.4 percent of average for today's date. Lake Oroville is at 65 percent.
Well, by way of the California-Nevada River Forecast Center, go-to source of data on winter storms during winters when we have those, here's the latest attention-getting drought note:
TODAY MARKS THE 44TH CONSECUTIVE DRY DAY OVER SACRAMENTO...WHICH TIES THE ALL TIME RECORD FOR DRY SPELLS OVER THE WET SEASON. WITH NO PRECIP IN THE FORECAST FOR AT LEAST THE NEXT 6 DAYS...IT APPEARS THIS RECORD WILL BE FAR SURPASSED. THE RECORD IS LIKELY TO STRETCH TO WELL OVER 50 DAYS.
There may be a change on the horizon: Forecasters say models are showing a change in the weather pattern at the beginning of February, and we may see rain then. This late in the season, anything short of the deluge the state saw in the winter of 1861-62, when San Francisco got 24.36 inches of rain in January alone, will fall short of being a drought buster. Longer-term analyses say that the odds are good the next three months will be drier than normal here. But at this point, any kind of rain would be refreshing to see.
Thanks to the miracles of software and the Internet, I put together a short slideshow comparing scenes at Lake Oroville as I shot them late last March and yesterday. If I'd known back then to what extent the lake would empty out, I would have taken pictures all along the shoreline. As it was, the pictures I did take of the lake were an afterthought, something to do before we started to head home.
The big surprise in the "after" pictures, the ones I took yesterday, is the landscape revealed by the receding waters. There's no hint looking at the surface in March what the underwater topography looks like. And it's amazing looking at the exposed landscape now (it was drowned in 1969, when the new reservoir was first filled) and how completely it's been scoured of anything that might suggest that before Oroville Dam was built, these were canyons choked with oak, pine and brush.
Here's the slideshow which includes a few bonus shots at the end):
Kate and I went up to Lake Oroville for a couple days last spring. We found a great campground on the south side of the lake, which is the main water storage facility for the State Water Project and at 3.5 million acre feet, California's second biggest reservoir (Lake Shasta, at 4.5 million, is No. 1). Our real purpose was to go further up into the foothills for a hike out to a falls we had read about. But before we headed back home, I took a few pictures down around the boat ramp nearest our campground, in an area called Loafer Creek.
Before I drove back up there today, I checked the Department of Water Resources data for the reservoir level both on March 27 last year, when the top picture was taken, and today. The numbers show that despite the dry second half of last winter, the lake was about 85 percent full on the day I was taking pictures. The elevation of the lake surface above sea level was reported at 860.37 feet, and, with the help of a couple of small storms that blew through in April, the lake level kept rising for the next several weeks, with the surface topping out at 871.75 feet above sea level.
In the current water year, which for the Department of Water Resources runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, Lake Oroville has seen 2.44 inches of rain. Just a guess: that's about 10 percent of average for this date. Of that 2.44 inches, 1.96 fell on Nov 19th and 20th. The last rain was recorded Dec. 7, six weeks ago today. Not a drop has come down during the weeks that are typically the wettest of the year in this part of the world.
Which is why I went to take another look. The lake's surface elevation today -- drawn down by 10 months of water releases to generate power and send supplies down to the southern end of the Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley, and those big cities far to the south -- now stands at 701feet, 159 feet below where I saw it last time. That's roughly 35 percent full. I wondered how dramatically different it would look.
The truth is that if I didn't have the earlier set of pictures and some fixed landmarks, I would have hardly recognized it as the same place. Here's one example (and here's the full Flickr slideshow: Lake Oroville, January 2014):
With all sorts of bad news about California's long, long dry spell -- flows on the American River will be squeezed down to a relative trickle this week, suburban Sacramento is facing draconian water restrictions -- here's my favorite drought story. The Roman Catholic bishop of Sacramento, who leads the state's conference of bishops, has issued a call for "people of faith" to ask God to make it rain. (Here's the post I did on it for the KQED blog earlier today: "As Drought Deepens, Catholic Bishops Say 'Pray for Rain' ").
There are no atheists in foxholes, the saying goes, a simple way of communicating the notion that everyone gets religion when their mortal ass is on the line (or they think they're about to meet their maker). But there are plenty of atheists in droughts, like the person who said to me this evening they can't believe there's a god who messes around with the weather. Myself, I don't scoff at the notion of praying for rain and actually found something moving in some of the language in the bishops' suggested entreaties to "the Almighty."
Here's my favorite, not least because it's said to have originated in a 1950s volume called "The Rural Life Prayer Book" from the National Catholic Rural Life Conference:
Almighty God, we are in need of rain. We realize now, looking up into the clear, blue sky, what a marvel even the least drop of rain really is. To think that so much water can really fall out of the sky, which now is empty and clear! We place our trust in You. We are sure that You know our needs. But You want us to ask you anyway, to show You that we know we are dependent on you. Look to our dry hills and fields, dear God, and bless them with the living blessing of soft rain. Then the land will rejoice and rivers will sing Your praises, and the hearts of all will be made glad. Amen.
I admit I'm not crazy about the "you want us to ask anyway, to show You that we know we are dependent on you" part of that plea. Assuming we're not dealing with Zeus and his ilk, what kind of a scheming, manipulative jerk of a god is going to hold back the rain just to maneuver us into begging? (Yeah, I know, scripture is probably chock full of examples of god in his/her various guises acting the jerk.) But what I do like about that prayer is the sense of wonder at nature: "To think that so much water can really fall out of the sky, which is now empty and clear."
I'm of the mind that help is welcome from whatever quarter it arrives. We have fish runs struggling, pastures withering, farms going fallow, streams dwindling, and forests drying out. Native shamans, do your stuff. Bishops, priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, clerics and monks and religious practitioners of all sorts and stripes -- likewise. Let's clap in the presence of our local kami, Shinto style. Pray, if you're moved to. Ponder this dry place of ours and all that's beautiful in it. Then look west, or north, or east, or south -- that's where the rain will be coming from.
If you live in California, you've been hearing about how dry it is here. Our previous rainy season stopped abruptly just before New Year's Day 2013. The rains didn't return this fall, meaning many sites in the state had their lowest recorded precipitation ever. San Francisco, with records dating back to 1849, was one of those places; just 5.59 inches of rain fell during 2013. (The next-lowest total was 8.73 inches, recorded during the severe drought of 1976-77.) San Francisco's average seasonal rainfall -- dated from July 1 through June 30 to take account of the wet season -- is about 21 inches. The highest rain total ever: the epic winter of 1861-62, which almost drowned Sacramento: 49.27 inches.
About the wet and dry seasons: Supposing we ever have a "typical" year, storms start arriving from the Pacific in October and keep rolling in through April. Normally, we'll get breaks between waves of storms that bring lowland rains and huge amounts of snowfall to the Sierra Nevada. Since the state needs water year-round, since so much of it arrives in the form of snow that runs off from the mountains when the weather warms up, since there's no way of knowing from one year to the next how much rain and snow we'll get, we live on stored water. We have lots and lots of reservoirs.
And one reservoir that's getting lots of attention during the current drought is Folsom Lake, on the American River northeast of Sacramento. As California reservoirs go, it's not one of the biggest -- in fact I think it ranks as the tenth largest in storage capacity, with 977,000 acre feet (if you buy the definition that an acre foot can supply about two U.S. households for a year, that's enough water for roughly 5 million people for a year). The water in the lake is used to generate electricity, for drinking water, and for downstream farms. It's also supposed to provide flood protection and "recreational opportunities" -- swimming, boating, fishing, all those things you can do in a lake that's in the middle of the hot, dry Sierra foothills.
Right now, Folsom lake is down to about 180,000 acre feet, about 18 percent of capacity. That's just the sixth time since the reservoir was filled in 1955-56 that the level has fallen below 200,000 acre feet, and it appears to be the lowest the lake has ever been in January, right in the middle of what's supposed to be the rainy season. And when I say low, I mean low. At capacity, the lake's surface is 466 feet above sea level; yesterday, the lake level fell below 362 feet.
I drove up yesterday to take a look at the lake, the sand, the rocks, the mud, and the little bit of water that's still spread out in the lake's deeper channels. The weather was beautiful. People were out sight-seeing, riding bikes, meditating, even fishing, though one guy told me that when he cast his lures out into the water, they were hitting the bottom. It was pretty hard to imagine that all this was going on 104 feet below the surface of the full reservoir would be. We'll see how low it goes. Right now, there aren't any real storms on the horizon.
In just 10 hours or so, the A's and Tigers will be back on the field, this time in Detroit, to continue their playoff series. It hardly seems possible, because Saturday night's game in Oakland, the game the A's won 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth, barely seems over. The epic tension of the game, the pitching, the crazy enthusiasm of the crowd (yeah, the Coliseum looks great with those third-deck tarps taken off and all those seats filled with fans), and the A's finally breaking through to get a run home. Anyway, that's all I'm going to say on the matter for now. Here's Kate's scorecard for Game 2--Tigers up above, A's below (click the pages for bigger images).
I flew home from Chicago earlier this week and was glued to the window, taking pictures, as usual. I don't feel like I'm trying to capture anything particular in the pictures. I'm just observing the flow of the landscape as it slides by seven miles below. Still, you hope something will jump out at you that you didn't expect--a passing aircraft, maybe, or a glimpse of some remote locale you've visited before.
On this week's flight, the unexpected happened as we flew across western Nevada, just north of Tonopah. My eye had been drawn to light falling on some mountains and dunes, and I took a couple of frames. Taking the camera away and looking down again, I saw a big circular construction on the desert floor with some sort of pillar structure in the middle. I've read about massive earth art installations out there, and for a second I wondered whether this was one of those. Then I realized I was looking at a rather exotic solar energy facility: a circular field of mirrors focused on a collecting tower. (Later research showed this to be a facility called Crescent Dunes, a name referring to the dunes just west of the installation.)
Then, looking through pictures of the flight, I realized I had a collection of pictures of latter-day (non-fossil-fuel) power facilities: the nuclear plant in Oregon, Illinois; a hydroelectric facility outside Ogallala, Nebraska; windmills along the Colorado-Nebraska border southwest of the town of Sidney, Nebraska; and Crescent Dunes, just north of Tonopah. Here's the slideshow (and the map that goes with it).