Archive for Chair Emeritus POV

THE HIGH SIERRA TEAM GOES TO WORK

In the past two columns I’ve introduced the story of a group of influential men who gathered in Visalia in July 1915 and spent almost two weeks exploring the remote backcountry that now forms the wilderness heart of Sequoia National Park.

 

Just to remind us, the group included the federal congressman who chaired the House Appropriations Committee, the director of the National Geographic Society, the president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the chief geographer of the United States Geological Survey, and the state engineer of California.  

 

Leading the party was Stephen Mather, a Californian who had volunteered to spend a year helping the federal government organize its fledgling system of national parks.

 

Mather’s assignment for that year, given to him by the Secretary of the Interior, was to organize and lead a political campaign to create a federal agency to oversee the national park system. At that time, such a bureau did not exist. Each park reported directly to the secretary and had its own unique regulations and policies.

 

Mather had carefully selected the members of his High Sierra group with the hope that they would bond together and form a core team to support the park bureau campaign.

 

In this, he succeeded brilliantly. Once out of the backcountry, and after a quick visit to Yosemite to dedicate the recently purchased (from a mining company) Tioga Pass Road, the members of the “Mather Mountain Party” scattered and set to work.

 

Locally, Ben Maddox, publisher of the Visalia Daily Times (the “Times” in the modern Times-Delta), wrote a series of glowing articles about the trip.  Here, in the style of journalism of those days, are the front-page headlines from the edition of July 30th 1915:

 

“Noted Men and World Travelers of Mather Party Extol Sierra”

“Mountain Scenery of Tulare County is Not Surpassed”

“Wonderful Sequoias of Giant Forest and Grandeur of Kern and Mt. Whitney Sections Impress Visitors”

“LET THIS BE SACRED HERITAGE”

 

Other members of the team went to work as well. Congressman Frederick Gillette used his seniority and leadership role in the congress to move a park bureau bill forward.

 

Gilbert Grosvenor, with the goal of building public support for the parks, dedicated an entire issue of National Geographic Magazine to the beauty of America’s landscapes and the need to protect them. The highlight of the issue was a foldout, full-length photo of Sequoia National Park’s General Sherman Tree.

 

Henry F. Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History rallied support for the campaign within the scientific community.

 

E. O. McCormick of the Southern Pacific Railroad worked to insure that the corporate world of Wall Street understood the benefits of better managing the national parks.

 

Several writers who had taken part, including Emerson Hough, generated a continuing flood of stories for the popular magazines of the day including especially the Saturday Evening Post.

 

And it worked. The following summer a bill successfully made its way through congress authorizing the creation of an agency to be called the National Park Service. President Woodrow Wilson signed it on August 25, 1916.

 

The following day, the good news was transmitted to Stephen Mather via telegram. He was staying, once again, in the Palace Hotel in Visalia.  The telegram said it all:  “Park Bill signed at nine o’clock last night… have pen used by President in signing for you.”

 

Years later, Mather’s personal assistant during this time, a young Californian named Horace Albright, would sum it all up when he remarked that the 1915 pack trip was the “final catalyst” that led to the passage of the act that created the National Park Service.

 

Few wilderness trips have accomplished more.

 

© Wm. Tweed

ON THE TRAIL – 1915

In my last column I introduced a group of influential men that came together in Visalia on the evening of July 14th, 1915. The following morning they motored up to the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park and camped there for the next two nights.

 

Among the group were the federal congressman who chaired the House Appropriations Committee, the director of the National Geographic Society, the president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, the chief geographer of the United States Geological Survey, and the state engineer of California.  

 

Leading the party and serving as host as they prepared to ride into the backcountry on horses and mules was Stephen Mather, a Californian who had volunteered to spend a year helping the federal government organize its fledgling system of national parks.

 

Mather wanted the group to see the best and the worst of the High Sierra, and to consider what ought to be done next.

 

Finding the best was easy. Beginning in the Giant Forest, the group rode east on rough trails into some of the grandest scenery in the United States. Let’s join them.

 

From the Giant Forest they rode out the Alta Trail and then dropped down into the huge canyon of the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River. They spent their first night on the trail camped among the giant sequoias at Redwood Meadow. Immediately above their camp, the 12,000-foot-high peaks of the Great Western Divide seemed to scrape the sky.

 

In following days, they crossed Timber Gap, made a quick visit to Mineral King, then rode east over Franklin Pass and descended into the Yosemite-like Kern Canyon, where they spent a day fishing and recuperating in the 104° waters at Kern Hot Spring.

 

On the trail again, the group rode north up the floor of the great Kern Canyon past Junction Meadow, then climbed a steep, rugged trail that took them onto the alpine high country along the canyon’s eastern rim. By the evening of the 22nd, they had arrived at Crabtree Meadow at the western base of Mt. Whitney.

 

The following day had been set aside for climbing the peak – the highest in the forty-eight states. The well graded trail that today leads to the summit would not be constructed until 1930, and in those days, visitors climbing the peak from the west scrambled up a crudely constructed trail over loose talus and boulders – no little challenge for these urban men.

 

Twelve men nevertheless made it to the top of the peak that day, only to be chased from the 14,500-foot summit by a thunderstorm that pelted them with hail and snow and drenched them to the skin.

 

Returning to camp that evening, they were welcomed again by their support party. We’ve been discussing the group as if it consisted only of its guests, but the trip was succeeding because of the tireless efforts of a sizeable support party.

 

Leading the effort was Chinese chef Ty Sing, on loan from the U.S. Geological Survey, where he was known as one of the best backcountry cooks in the West. Supporting him in the camp kitchen was Eugene, another Chinese cook employed by the USGS.  Every night, regardless of how far the group had traveled, these two presented freshly cooked dinners served on white linen tablecloths.

 

Keeping everyone and everything moving was a corps of muleskinners supplied by Sequoia National Park. Park packer Frank Ewing managed the effort, and park superintendent Walter Fry was along as a guide for at least the first part of the trip.

 

On July 27th, after eleven days of backcountry travel, the by-now both exhilarated and exhausted group rode down out of the high country into the desert lands of the Owens Valley. They had crossed the highest part of the Sierra and summited the range’s highest peak.

 

As promised, they had seen both the best and the worst. As a bonded group, they had marveled at the scenery and been equally impressed by miserable trails and meadows stripped bare by grazing cattle.

 

But what had they really learned? What would come of all this?

 

(To be continued)

 

© Wm. Tweed

A SUMMER EVENING IN VISALIA – 1915

A weakness of our modern society is to think of political decisions as things determined by other people in far-away places. This is not the way it works, of course. In reality, it is those who take the time to get involved who really make things happen.

 

To illustrate the point, allow me tell you a largely forgotten Tulare County story. It begins, in Visalia, almost exactly one hundred years ago. On the hot afternoon of July 14th, 1915, a small party of men hoping to make a change in the world began arriving in Visalia.

 

In those days, long-distance travelers headed to Visalia arrived by rail, so this story begins at the Southern Pacific depot on Oak Street. This was a year before the building that now houses the Depot Restaurant was erected, so we have to imagine the 1893 two-story wooden depot that occupied the site then.

 

Visalia in 1915 was a compact place, and it was only a short stroll around the shady perimeter of the square containing the county courthouse to the city’s premiere hotel – the Palace at the corner of Main and Court streets.  It was there that the group collected in anticipation of a banquet that would bring them all together for the first time.

 

That evening, under the ceiling fans that moved the hot summer air in the Palace’s restaurant, the bonding and politicking began.  These men would be together for the next two weeks, so getting to know each other made sense.

 

Who were they? Even a century later, the mixture speaks of influence and power.

 

The group of seventeen sitting down to dinner that evening in Visalia included the following men: the federal congressman who chaired the House Appropriations Committee; the director of the National Geographic Society; the president of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City; the chief geographer of the United States Geological Survey; and the state engineer of California.  

 

Also present were several nationally known writers and a cameraman.

 

Two additional men at the table that evening represented Tulare County. Ben Maddox had a dual local role – publisher of the Visalia DailyTimes newspaper and general manager of the Mt. Whitney Power Company, the county’s primary electrical utility.   

 

Visalia attorney George W. Stewart also had strong local connections. He had edited the Visalia Weekly Delta and helped manage for many years the Visalia District Office of the federal government’s General Land Office. He also had organized and led the campaign in 1890 to create Sequoia National Park.

 

Hosting the group was a native-born Californian – an 1887 University of California grad named Stephen Mather, who had made a fortune in Chicago marketing industrial chemicals.

 

Over a Mexican dinner featuring “chile rellonos” and  “enchallados” the men chatted with animation about what was to come next. The next morning, they would start their adventure by motoring in open touring cars up the long, winding road to the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park.

 

The following day found the men exploring the grove and its many Big Trees. They climbed Moro Rock and visited the General Sherman Tree.  That evening, around the campfire, they were briefed on what would come next.

 

As they listened, several members of the party were more than a little anxious, for this was to be no restful retreat. Tomorrow, the men would head off on horses and mules into some of the most rugged and remote backcountry in the United States.

 

They were there to consider the region’s future, as well as the outlook for similar special places across the American West. This would be no ordinary pack trip.

 

(To be continued)

 

© Wm. Tweed

SO NOW WHAT?

We’ve been seeing lots of speculation about what’s coming next in terms of California’s always confusing weather patterns. Newspapers and other media outlets have been full of stories. 

The headline right now is that many signs point to the possibility of a powerful El Niño weather pattern this coming winter. And this is leading to speculation about the end of our four-year-long drought.

Long-term weather forecasting is a tricky business. Before we get too excited, we should remember that at the beginning of last summer, forecasters were also seeing signs of the development of an El Niño. That did not occur, and its failure is a useful reminder not to count too much on weather patterns before they actually occur.

And the confusion goes beyond that. Contrary to general public expectations, El Niño winters in California are far from uniformly wet. Some of our driest recorded “wet seasons” came during El Niño winters.

What really counts is how strong an El Niño we have. This is usually measured in terms of the divergence from average of surface sea temperature in critical portions of the far western Pacific Ocean. This year, so far, the degree of divergence is large, and that is a good sign.

So if an El Niño continues to develop, and if the resulting situation turns into a “strong” El Niño, will this be the end of our drought?

The answer depends on how you measure such things.  For this coming winter to completely erase the water deficit now plaguing California, we’d have to have a roughly 200% of average winter over the entire state. (Remember that in recent years, we have been averaging about 20-40% of average.) 

Stop and think about that for a minute. It sounds good, but be careful what you ask for. Such a winter would see large-scale flooding and destruction.  Under such circumstances, we might find the end of drought to be even more expensive and disruptive in the short run than the drought itself. 

All of this forecasting, of course, is based on a big assumption – that the weather in the future will continue to follow the same rules as in the past century or so. For many reasons, that is not necessarily true. Weather systems are driven by atmospheric heat, and now that we have warmed the planet, there is no guarantee that things will work exactly as they used to.

A good example of this is the continuing pool of relatively warm ocean water along the Pacific Coast from California north to Washington State and beyond. – a large scale, game-changing phenomenon that we have not seen in modern times.

There has been much speculation that this ocean warmth may have been one of the causes of the dryness the past few winters, but such thoughts are just that – informed speculation.

How might this coastal warmth interact with an El Niño weather pattern?  No one really knows.

What we do know about this warmth, however, is that this past winter it raised snowlines in the mountains of California all winter and thus very significantly reduced our snowpack and resulting spring runoff.  

Might the same thing happen in an El Niño winter?  The possibility is very real.

So, even more than usual, our ability to anticipate what comes next for California’s climate is quite limited.  We’re headed off into uncharted territory, with nothing more than past experience and computer models to tell us what to expect.

Should be interesting.

(c) Wm. Tweed

TIME TO HIT THE TRAIL?

Now that summer is almost here, I can feel the seasonal pull of the High Sierra. Usually, by this time of the year, I am busy laying out my summer trips into the wilderness backcountry of our local national parks.  

 

This year, however, I find myself facing confusion on all sides. Even hiking is getting more complicated these days.

 

It used to be so simple. All one had to do was wait for the snow to melt and then hit the trail to one’s favorite places. To figure out when the hiking season started, I simply kept an eye on Alta Peak, the 11,200-foot-high mountain visible from my house in Three Rivers. When the snow was gone from the southwestern side of the mountain, most of the trails were ready to be enjoyed.

 

But these days, the game has changed. In winters like the last few, when there is only a minimal snowpack, the trails may appear to be open well before it is wise to head into the high country.

 

The last few weeks provide a perfect example. Two months ago, with the snow already mostly gone from Alta Peak, I laid plans to hit the trail this past week with an early season trip to Silliman Pass and Ranger Lakes.

 

Circumstances intervened, of course. Unlike February and March, this May has proved to be unsettled and damp in our local mountains. We’ve had several high country snowstorms, in fact, which must have challenged those who did decide to make an early-season hiking trip.

 

Having no particular urge to camp while it snowed, I have put off my planned trip until June, but that brings up another set of new questions.

 

Not so many years ago, the last thing one usually worried about while hiking in the Sierra was finding water. Early in the summer, most streams surged with snowmelt, and the challenge was not finding water to drink but rather getting across all the streams safely.

 

But once again, the pattern has been different these past few summers. Even right now, in May, most high country streams are flowing at the low levels we used to think of as typical of late July.

 

Mid-summer hikers this year are likely to see even major high country streams reduced to bare trickles. Those who do not plan ahead may find themselves in for some long, thirsty stretches of waterless trail.

 

By now you can see my problem.  Picking a time to go hiking used to be so simple – we just waited until the winter snowpack was gone. Now, the trails open much earlier than they used to, but late spring storms can still trap you into uncomfortable conditions if you’re not careful. Wait too long, however, and finding water may well be a problem in many areas.

 

Summer thunderstorms can add another complication. In recent years, many high country observers have noted what seems to be an increase in thunderstorm activity over the highest peaks. In some recent summers, these storms have dropped enough water to even restart dry streams and green up desiccated alpine meadows.

 

Should I wait this summer for such storms? Whether they will actually arrive in significant numbers this summer to make a difference is anyone’s guess.

 

Are you confused yet? I am. Right now, I’m waiting for the current unsettled pattern to work itself out and the mountain sunshine to return. With luck I’ll be up on Silliman Pass in mid-June, but who knows. We live in a confusing world these days.

 

© Wm. Tweed

WATER FOR NATURE

I’ve been writing about water and climate in my last few columns, and I’m going to address these issues one more time before we move on to some other subjects in coming weeks. Today, I want to answer an excellent question that has come my way.

 

Now that it’s clear to almost everyone that there is not enough water in California to meet all our demands, everyone is looking for someone or something to blame. The basic argument here is that: “if only ____ didn’t use so much water, then there would be plenty for the rest of us.”

 

I’ve seen this phrase completed many different ways, but here in Central California, where the political thought tends to lean heavily toward the conservative side, the most common target has been “the environment.” More than a few local residents argue that “if it weren’t for all the water that goes to the environment, we’d all be just fine.”

 

I’ve even seen this one in print in the form of the argument that the environment receives more water in California than either our cities or our farms. Is this true?

 

Mark Twain, in one of his famous quotes long ago, remarked that lies often take the form of “lies, dammed lies, and statistics.” The “fact” that the environment receives more water than farms falls into this last category.  It is true, but only in a very distorted way.

 

According to the California Department of Water Resources (all the numbers I quote in this column come from this source), if one looks at the entire state of California, then net average water use by the environment does exceed that going to agriculture. The figures for the period 1998 through 2005 are 31 million acre feet each year to the environment and only 27 million acre feet to agriculture.

 

But, and this is a very significant but, almost all of this water “going to the environment” falls as rain in the remote watersheds of the northern Coast Ranges that flow directly into the Pacific Ocean. In fact, 87% of the water in California categorized as “going to the environment,” flows within this one region.

 

The reasons for this are simple. It usually rains more along the North Coast than anywhere else in California, and capturing and moving water away from the many rivers of this mountainous region have always been seen as physically difficult and prohibitively expensive.

 

So what about our region? In the San Joaquin Valley, how much water is consumed for environmental purposes?

 

The Department of Water Resources divides the San Joaquin Valley into two hydrological regions. In the south, we find the Tulare Lake Basin, the region that includes the watersheds of the Kings, Kaweah, Tulare and Kern rivers. To the north, we have the area drained by the San Joaquin River and its major tributaries including the Merced, Stanislaus, and Tuolumne rivers. The two regions work quite differently.

 

Let’s look first at the Tulare Lake Basin. This is where we live. How much water is consumed here by the environment versus the share given over to agriculture?

 

The answer is about what you would expect. In average times, in the Tulare Lake Basin, 95% of net water use is by farmers, about 4% by cities, and less than 1% goes to the environment.

 

In the region drained by the San Joaquin River, the net numbers are 81% to farming, 5% to cities, and about 13% to the environment.  The environmental number is higher here because this is the water that flows downstream to the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta and keeps that region from being invaded by salt water from San Francisco Bay.

 

Desperate for more water, local residents often forget that if we divert too much of the water that flows into the Delta before it gets there, then the Central Valley Project and the California Aqueduct will be pumping salt water in the canals upon which we base our valley economy.

 

So, how much total water is going to the environment in the two halves of the San Joaquin Valley combined? According to the best numbers I can find, the actual net amount is about 7%. At the same time, agriculture is consuming 88% of the water while our cities take the balance.

 

As I said earlier, all this is for the period 1998-2005 when our climate was providing more water than recently, but still you get the idea. Like it or not, Central California is not investing huge amounts of water in the environment or “wasting” it either,  if that is the way you refer see it.

 

If you don’t believe me, take a drive on State Route 152 toward Los Banos and see how much water is flowing down the San Joaquin River toward the Delta and San Francisco Bay. What you’ll find, of course, is that the river is bone dry, just as it has been consistently for most of the last forty years.

 

Whatever your politics, we’re not going to solve our water shortage just by focusing on getting water back from environmental uses, or from any other single user for that matter. We’re all in this together.

 

© Wm. Tweed

STUDYING NATURE IN DRY TIMES

This is the third in a series of columns about our climate in Central California and the ongoing cycle of dry years that we have no choice but to endure. In previous columns I have written about the amazing warmth that shadowed this past winter and its having such a drastic effect upon our Sierra snowpack and also about whether we should continue to think of ourselves as being in a “drought,” by which I mean a temporary spell of dry weather that should end sometime soon.

 

This time, I’d like to explore in another direction. Let’s take a look at the natural systems of California and see what they can tell us about survival options in times of prolonged aridity.

 

We begin with an obvious point. Since California has a long record of suffering periods of intense dryness, the native plants of the state long ago found ways to deal with that aridity. To put it another way, plants that cannot adapt to prolonged dry spells no longer grow in our part of California.

 

Living as I do in Three Rivers, where native vegetation dominates the landscape, I can simply walk out the door and observe what is going on. I’ve been doing that frequently this winter and spring, and there is much to learn.

 

I have been paying special attention to the native woody plants that grow wild in my neighborhood. Three  in particular — whiteleaf manzanita and blue oak and interior live oak – have caught my attention. All three grow on dry sites and are long-lived. How they have fared during our current four-year-long dry spell is thus of considerable interest.

 

Let’s start with the blue oak. This deciduous tree has displayed both enormous flexibility in its response to very dry conditions and a high survival rate.  I haven’t counted trees precisely but I would estimate that the survival rate this past year for blue oaks, even in this time of very high stress, has been in the upper 90% range in the area where I live.

 

I have seen a few blue oaks that have died, including one in my immediate yard, but most were trees that had seen their roots disturbed in years past by things like house-site grading or road construction. Deeply rooted trees in undisturbed soils have done amazingly well.

 

In addition to their deep roots, the blue oaks have a secret weapon – they are deciduous. Traditionally, this meant that the trees dropped their leaves in autumn in anticipation of winter.

 

Last year, however, many blue oaks shed most of their leaves at the beginning of the summer and began growing new ones once the rains returned this past November. In fact, the blue oaks near my house were opening new leaves by early January – a startlingly different life cycle when compared to behavior in more favorable times.

 

The relative success of the blue oaks stands in stark contrast to the troubled performance of whiteleaf manzanita and interior live oak during the same period. The great majority of the manzanitas in my neighborhood – including very large specimens easily a century or two in age – have died. These are tough plants, and it pains me to watch them fail. In many cases only dead skeletons now remain.

 

The interior live oaks have done better than manzanitas, but not nearly as well as blue oaks. Locally, more than a third of these trees have died altogether, or have died back so significantly that they are now mere shadows of their former selves.

 

Significantly, both manzanita and live oak are evergreen plants – trees that maintain their green leaves year-round.  The problem with this is that in these stressful times, year-round leaves are simply too expensive for the trees to sustain in terms of the water and nutrients needed to keep them functioning.

 

Will manzanita and live oak disappear from my hills? The answer is no – the plants will simply reduce their numbers, abandon most of their previous range, and retreat into a few favorable locales where they will wait for better times.

 

Are there lessons in this for our human endeavors?  Absolutely.

 

Blue oaks have wired into their genes hidden flexibilities that allow them to react in surprising ways when conditions change. Whiteleaf manzanita and interior live oak possess much less flexibility and suffer accordingly.

 

Can we apply this lesson to our own society and how we live in Central California?  I believe the answer is clear.

 

If we humans and the society we have built are to survive in stressful times, we are going to need to be highly flexible, seeking ways to live under conditions that continue to change. In short, we need to approach aridity like blue oaks.

 

The alternative, of course, is that we can be like manzanitas and live oaks, which means that we, too, will have to drastically reduce our numbers and retreat in defeat from many of the locales we currently inhabit.

 

And that’s what a naturalist sees in these dry times when he walks out his front door and compares nature and human society.

 

© Wm. Tweed

A DRIER FUTURE FOR CALIFORNIA?

In my last column I wrote about the significance of our very warm winter and what it means to the natural water regime upon which we so profoundly rely. This time I want to explore several issues related to precipitation. Be forewarned – this is another “tough love” column. I want to introduce some difficult facts we are going to have to face.
 

By most accounts, we are now in the fourth year of a “drought.” By this, we mean an exceptional period when our average precipitation fails and we are left unnaturally short of water. Everyone is waiting for the drought to “break” and for conditions to return to “normal.”
 

But what if this isn’t true? Is there any evidence that suggests that what we think is exceptional may instead be a new long-term pattern?  Sadly, the answer is yes.
 

I regularly read that our current series of dry years (I’m going to step away from the word “drought” for a few paragraphs) is “unprecedented.”  I frequently see two arguments for this assertion.
 

The first is that we have not had four successive years this dry since we started keeping modern weather records in California in the second half of the nineteenth century. The second argument is that tree rings and other data collected from nature suggest that California has not been this dry for a millennia or so.  
 

The problem with these arguments is that the periods involved – even the thousand-year term – are not long enough to capture the full unpredictability of California’s highly variable climate.
 

Sadly, there is substantial precedent for our current situation. To find it, all one has to do is take a look at the huge amount of data scientists have collected in recent decades about the climate history of California. Such information can be found in the growth rings of trees, silt layers in natural lakes and bays, and even pollen samples taken from the lower levels of mountain meadows.
 

All this information adds up to tell us some fascinating – and truly scary – things.
 

The first fact is that the past century – the time we tend to look back on as “normal,” was one of the wettest periods in California in the last seven thousand years.
 

Another fact is that there was an astounding prolonged dry spell in and around the ninth and tenth centuries (850-1090) and another half a century later (1140-1320). Note that these two events persisted (respectively) for 240 and 180 years.  In addition, over the past thousand years, there have been repeated dry spells of 10-20 years duration.  
 

Ponder these two “droughts.”  Those who lived through them – the native people of California were already long established then – surely didn’t see them as temporary dry spells. These long periods of dryness were simply the way things were.
 

And there’s more. Going back further into time. Between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago, the Sierra Nevada was so much drier than now that areas that currently support dense forest had only scattered pine and sagebrush growing on them. That was also, we should note, a period that saw temperatures like those we are moving toward very rapidly as the climate warms.
 

All this, by the way, has been written up repeatedly by climate scientists and paleoecologists and also generally ignored by both our elected officials and the voting public.
 

And here’s another troubling fact. The region that adjoins California to the east – the Southwest – has been in a “drought” now for sixteen years. The big reservoirs on the Colorado River – Lake Powell and Lake Mead – are both so low that their managers do not see them filling again in the foreseeable future.  Many folks there have stopped talking about “drought;” instead, they’re looking at their difficult situation as a new reality.
 

Could the same things happen here? Perhaps they already are. And are we ready to talk about “new realities?” Perhaps it’s time.
 

Notice that I’ve gotten this far without even mentioning climate change. In my last column, I wrote about how our warming climate is likely to drastically reduce snowpack runoff. That’s what happened this year. But what will happen to our precipitation?
 

The answer, quite honestly, is that no one knows for sure. What the climate models do say, however, is that we should expect continuing warming and more extreme weather events – both bigger storms and longer dry spells.  This is exactly what seems to be happening in California.
 

Where does all this leave us?  I believe that it’s time to move beyond our current model of seeing ourselves as suffering from an exceptional “drought” that is likely to end soon and return us to “normal.” We might well be at the beginning of a prolonged dry cycle – a new reality. Perhaps it will last 240 years – no one really knows.
 

It’s time to face the possibility that dry weather is our “new normal” and that our circumstances are not merely temporary.
Will we ever see a wet winter again? The answer almost certainly is yes, but how such a winter will work is highly uncertain. A pattern of increased drought with occasional intense floods might not be a bad starting point. 
California now has almost 40 million people living within its borders, but it still also has large and rich remnants of its natural ecosystems. Our civilization has yet to deal with how to live in California if it turns dry for decades or longer, but this is not true of nature.

 

The natural systems of California that are here today exist because they were able to survive the challenges of the past including prolonged periods of aridity. What can they tell us?

 

We’ll explore that question in my next column.

© Wm. Tweed

THE BIG NEWS THIS WINTER

Like the great majority of Californians, I’ve been watching our recent weather with both interest and concern. Now that spring has officially arrived and yet another California “rainy season” has ended in disappointment, it’s time to take a look at the larger situation in which we find ourselves. What lessons can we draw from the world of nature about our circumstances and our future?

The answers to questions this big are far from simple, so I’m going to dedicate several successive columns to exploring them. Let’s get started.

If you believe our elected leaders and most of the news media, you would believe that the big story during our recent winter was the lack of precipitation. Quite simply, in this view, everything would be OK if the “drought” would end and we could get back to “normal” rainfall in California. 

Allow me to disagree. The biggest story this past winter was our extraordinarily warm temperatures.

If you were paying any attention to what goes on outside, you noticed. Not only did we see almost no frost in the San Joaquin Valley during the traditional wintertime, but at the same time temperatures often ran 5-10 and sometime 15 degrees above the statistical averages for long periods.

Amazingly, this was true both during our long periods of fair weather and also during the very occasional windows of storm activity. And the intensity of the warmth should have shocked us all. Significant changes in long-term weather are often measured as a degree or two. This winter, the averages jumped off the charts.

Let’s look at the numbers. According to NOAA, the average California temperature for the months of December through February for the years 1901 through 2000 was 43.6 degrees Fahrenheit. This year the average reached almost 50 degrees!

The implications of this are enormous, but let’s focus on the result that affects us the most.

Here are some more numbers – facts, if you will. Measured precipitation this past winter in most areas ran about 40-50% of the statistical average. At my residence in Three Rivers, where I have kept careful weather records for more than 25 years, I have collected so far this year 46% of the annual average for this site. By the time the weather year ends on June 30th, I will likely have exceeded 50% of average.

Many other sites in the southern Sierra have recorded similar totals, at least in terms of percentage of average.  But if that is the case, why are the projected snowpack runoff figures so incredibly low?

You must have seen this data by now, too. It’s been big news. The official numbers for the Kaweah River watershed document roughly 50% of average precipitation but forecast only 26% of average runoff.  

Why the difference — why doesn’t our snowpack match our precipitation this year? 

The answer – if you’re still with me — is: temperature. The extraordinary warm temperatures this winter have meant two things for the snowpack.

First, the storms we did have were so warm that very little snow fell below about 9,000 feet. Many areas that usually have good winter snow packs – locations like Giant Forest and Grant Grove — saw bare ground much of this winter. 

The second factor was that between storms, the warm weather melted much of the snow that did accumulate even at high altitudes. When I look out the window here in Three Rivers, I see an Alta Peak that looks like June did a decade or two ago. Below 9,000 feet, I see mostly bare rock.

It’s time to wrap this up, so here’s the headline you need to know. Our warm temperatures this past winter cut our snow pack runoff by roughly half and turned a dry weather year into a catastrophic runoff year.

So is this an anomaly? Will things return to “normal” soon? Don’t bet on it. Winter temperatures have been rising steadily in California for more than a century, and all the climate models suggest that our middle and long-term future will see sustained average temperatures very much like those we experienced this past winter. The winter of 2014-2015 may well be an introduction to the “new normal” that will define cool-season  temperatures in the twenty-first century.

What does this mean for snowpack runoff? The warmer our climate, the less water we will get from the mountains. This year shows us how it’s going to work. In the future it may well take 200% of average precipitation – something we almost never achieve – just to see what used to be “average” spring runoff.

I hope you are reading this as a “tough love” column, for that’s how it’s intended. Next time, we’ll continue this important conversation – focusing not on temperatures but instead on actual precipitation.

© Wm. Tweed

A BIRTHDAY FOR KINGS CANYON

Human cultures often have short memories, and once something has existed for a few generations we are likely to assume that it has been there forever. Such, I suspect, is our perception of Tulare County’s national parks, even if we should know better.

Last week – on March 4th – we passed the 75th anniversary of the establishment of Kings Canyon National Park. Today, only a dwindling handful of local residents remember the days before the park was created and the long and bitter campaign to bring it into existence.

The small Grant Grove Section of Kings Canyon National Park is older, of course, having been established back in 1890 as General Grant National Park. This was a part of the same federal legislation that created Yosemite National Park.

But that early park-creating work by our congress left unresolved the future of the spectacular headwaters country of the South and Middle forks of the Kings River – in many ways the scenic climax of the entire High Sierra.

In 1893, President Benjamin Harrison – responding to continuing lobbying by a group of Visalians that included Tipton Lindsey, Frank. J. Walker, John Tuohy, and George Stewart – withdrew the region from sale and designated it as the Sierra Forest Reserve. In 1908, under President Theodore Roosevelt, the Kings River high country became a part of the newly organized Sequoia and Sierra national forests under the management of the brand new United States Forest Service.

This left open, however, the question of how the region ought to be managed. Then as now two basic options existed: should the region be developed for human use with roads, logging, dams and the like, or left intact in celebration of its great beauty? This question would dominate debate for the next forty-plus years.

As early as 1915, Stephen Mather – founding director of the National Park Service – was in Visalia politicking for the inclusion of the region in an enlarged Sequoia National Park, but when Mather finally got a much-debated Sequoia Park enlargement bill through congress in 1926, it did not include the Kings River headwaters region.

The fight resumed in the middle 1930s with national as well as local battle lines clearly drawn. Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, strongly supported the creation of a Kings Canyon National Park, and nationally the proposal thus had the general support of the president and his party.

But before you assume that politics then were much like now when it comes to environmental affairs, it is worth noting that in the 1930s, issues like park creation were much more bipartisan than in our own time. Although he worked for a democratic president, Ickes was, in fact, a republican.

Locally, things were equally confused. Visalia’s democratic congressman, Alfred Elliot, took a position in adamant opposition to the creation of Kings Canyon National Park while Fresno republican Bud Gearhart became its leading advocate.

Elliot and Gearhart were not only from opposing parties but genuine political enemies, differing on most everything. In many ways, the battle over Kings Canyon was simply one more event in a continuing political war between these two men.

In the end, it was a close thing. Republican congressman Gearhart, working closely with the democratic administration in the White House, carried the issue over the objections of local democratic representative Elliot. Such were the politics of the late 1930s.

Now, seventy-five years later, Kings Canyon National Park has become an accepted part of the human landscape of California. Tourists and backcountry hikers come from all over the world to marvel at its beauties. It provides what most agree is the most scenic section of the famous Mexico-to-Canada Pacific Crest Trail. Its rivers still run clean and free, providing priceless irrigation water to the people of the San Joaquin Valley.

Nearly a quarter of Kings Canyon National Park falls within Tulare County; the remainder can be found within neighboring Fresno County. It is – like Sequoia National Park — very much our local national park. Local citizens played critical roles in the campaign to create it, and today we still migrate each summer in happy relief to its trails and campgrounds.

Happy birthday Kings Canyon National Park – we’re glad that you’re a part of our local world.

© Wm. Tweed