Monday, January 26, 2015

Not working out again in 2014-2015

From the top down: Snowfall has been truly dreadful in the Sierra Nevada. The slide at the top is from NOAA in Reno.

The center photo is downtown Fresno last Thursday. We expect this stuff here in January. We just don't expect zero rainfall, which is basically what January has shown us this year so far. Let's hope we see rain on Jan. 27.

The bottom photo is fantasy land. It's the view from Panoramic Trail in Kings Canyon National Park. That's Hume Lake in the distance. And that's a whole lot of snow from many years ago. It does not look like this now.

This is the four bad winter a row, so far. My snowshoes are drying up and blowing away in the garage.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Water for great coffee, though no moose

Water from a glacial tarn above the tree line tastes like it just came out of a tap in northern Maine. At least, that's what I think.

I never thought I would taste water as cold and pure as the water we drank when we spent eight days in Maine a few years ago. We rented a place about a mile from the gate at Acadia National Park. The only thing missing as a moose.

I have had plenty of water from high Sierra tarns, but never really paid much attention until after that trip to Maine. Now I notice.

The little body of water in the photograph is in magnificent Dusy Basin, which was an easy hike from South Lake west of Bishop. The pass is about 12,000 feet, but you really don't have to work very hard for very big reward on the other side in Kings Canyon National Park.

In the photo above, I was getting water for coffee one morning. Starbucks instant never tasted so good. It was Italian roast. All I needed was a bistro table, a few chairs and an indolent morning. There are no moose up in Kings Canyon, but I didn't miss it this time.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Lousy winter, wimpy snowpack, but not really a record dry season

Most major California news outlets reported last week that January, February and March were the driest on record. Were they right?

Yes, if they said they were talking about the Northern Sierra. Otherwise, no. Most of the ones I read did not qualify it. My colleague at the Sacramento Bee, Matt Weiser, said it correctly. But I didn't read any others who did.

And, even if it was a record for the Northern Sierra, it hardly makes this a desperately dry year, as some outlets portrayed it. Take a look at the eight-station index on the state web. It's tracking close to last year.

In other words, there was a lot of precipitation in November and December. The snowpack is nothing to write home about -- about half the average. The photo above was taken by photographer Mark Crosse from a helicopter last week above the Kings River watershed. He was photographing a disappointing snow survey.

This is California's wet season. Sporadic. Tempestuous. Capricious. It's the land where average happens once every decade or so.

If the reservoirs were less than average right now (and they are not), it would be time to worry. Now, if we see a wimpy winter in 2013-14, it will be time to worry.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A lawsuit to get Hetch Hetchy back?

Sitting in a Fresno coffee shop just after the Nov. 6 election, I heard a conversation that was just too delicious to ignore. I'm paid to be nosy anyway. And it was a pubic place.

OK, so I felt like I was peeping.

But this was just too good. Two guys -- I'm sure they were lawyers -- talked about San Francisco voters rejecting a study to restore Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park.

To me, it was no surprise -- the vote, not the conversation. SF has used water from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in the national park for nearly a century now. Why should they vote to give it back and pay higher rates for water from a lower reservoir.

Who volunteers for something like that?

It's a volatile subject and far more complex than I just stated it, but you get the picture. The only upside for SF would be a claim to be top greenies in the country. Well, that didn't happen. 

You need to know Hetch Hetchy bitterness runs very deep among some environmentalists. This is a gorgeous glacial valley filled with Tuolumne River water. San Francisco gets some of the purest big-city water in the country. It's a stinging environmental loss that has festered a long, long time.

You need to put that emotion in context every time you talk about Hetch Hetchy. Now, I'll play back the conversation from memory.

Says one lawyer: “Well, I’m not surprised San Francisco turned it down. Do you think people living here would vote to even consider restoring the San Joaquin River?”

Answers the other: “No, but …”

“Do you think Los Angeles would vote to restore the Owens Valley?”

“No, but there are big differences between those examples and San Francisco," says the second guy. "The San Joaquin is a mess downstream. It needs fresh water. It needs to be restored.

"And LA stole the Owens Valley water. People in the Owens Valley were put out of business over it. There’s no comparison to Hetch Hetchy.”

“You don’t think Hetch Hetchy damaged anything?” asks the first guy.

“Not legally. Show me the damaged party, and we can suggest they file suit. The San Joaquin River and the Owens Valley were both settled by lawsuits. I don’t see a lawsuit here.”

First guy: “But don’t you think people have a right to see Hetch Hetchy Valley? It’s a national park, for crying out loud. People are fighting mad about it.”

Second guy: “I’m with San Francisco on this one.”

"So the public's right to see that valley doesn't matter? We need a lawsuit to restore something important to us?”


"Even something as big as a glacial valley that the whole world would see?"

"Yeah. And, yeah. You need a lawsuit."

Yeah. Pretty much.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Darwin Canyon, a mysterious, jagged, glacial countryside

This is Darwin Canyon, just below Mendel Glacier in the Southern Sierra. We came through here on our way to look for ice mummies on Mendel, which is several hundred feet -- maybe 1,000 feet -- above this canyon.

It's in my top five Sierra destinations because you can't here without a lot of work. Stark, wind-blown, jagged. We camped next to a glacial tarn near these others. They are ice-cold, beautiful and pure. It's a granite paradise on the trail less traveled. And that's because there is no trail to this spot.

You have to love this for the sheer size and primitive surroundings. We moved up and down canyon head walls that were more up and down than anything else. The Southern Sierra is breathtaking. We slept at about 11,500 feet -- an elevation where us flatlanders have trouble breathing the first night. We scrambled past house-sized boulders strewn all around as glaciers retreated 12,000 years ago.

 I pitched my small tent on a little ledge above the tarn. Turns out, I was on someone's turf -- a pika who let me know about it for hours. Whistling and carrying on. These little mouse-like critters with big ears are slowly running out of high country to live as the climate warms up.

Among the people who work on California water issues, I wonder how many have come up to these places. Climate change will take its toll up. Up here in the subalpine, the little glaciers will melt. There will be less snow. But it will remain the last stronghold for the snowpack, which provides more than two-thirds of California's summer stash of water.

By the way, we climbed up the rocky moraine, picking our way through Class 3 bouldering to get onto Mendel Glacier, one of the spookiest places I've ever hiked. We didn't find ice mummies from that ill-fated 1942 crash. But was saw engine parts, a wing and plenty of debris that was surfacing from the melting glacier above. We scrambled the next day over the Sierra crest in a hail storm and went back to our lives. But we will not soon forget this place.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Huntington Lake in February

You need snowshoes to get here, but it's really one of the nicest hikes I've ever had.

I did it regularly over the last decade. I used to drop my son off at Sierra Summit so he could snowboard with his friends all day. Then I'd walk across Highway 168 and start down the snowy access road to Huntington Lake.

 In late December, January and most of February, the snow is fluffy and fresh. It doesn't turn firm -- Sierra cement, as it's called -- until March and April.

 The snowshoes help you just float over the road and down to what would be the water's edge in summer. But the lake is drastically lower in winter.

 This is a hydroelectric lake, part of Southern California Edison Co.'s chain of lakes up here. You can see the stumps of red fir and lodgepole pine in the lake bottom. This is not a natural lake, but it's certainly part of California's water picture. Hydro power is an important part of the state's energy portfolio.

 Sitting on a snowy edge of a rock, listening to Big Creek flow into the lake, I once drifted to sleep early one afternoon and a snow shower woke me. There's nothing like waking up in the middle of silence by the sound of little popcorn snow balls pelting you. As the squall line moved in above the western ridge, I strapped the snowshoes back on and made my way to Sierra Summit.

It's a short walk. The elevation is about 7,000 feet. It's perfect for me what I'm feeling like I need to get out of the city for a day.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Thousand Island Lake, at 10,000 feet

My top five Sierra destinations are going to be published here over the next few weeks. They all have something to do with water. Really, there is very little in the Sierra that does not have anything to do with water.

 The picks are in no particular order. The first one is a sentimental favorite. It's in the photo above: Thousand Island Lake.

 It's sentimental for me because it is the headwaters of the San Joaquin River main stem. From here, the river flows more than 350 miles to the Bay-Delta and Pacific Ocean.

 The headwaters was so compelling for me when I wrote a 14-page section about the San Joaquin's revival. The section came out in 1999. The restoration agreement was signed in 2006. I was a tad premature, but the story was correct.

 This place is so gorgeous. About 10,000 feet, it is one of the best hikes I've ever experienced in the Sierra. We saw it during a backpacking trip that started at Red's Meadow and ended at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park.

It's not far from Rainbow Fall, another wonderful Sierra landmark associated with the San Joaquin River. While the restoration gets most of the media attention, the water comes from up here. Without this part of the equation, there is no multibillion-dollar farming industry and no downstream debate about what has happened since Friant Dam was built in the 1940s.
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