Jeff Jardine: Sierra getting slammed by wild weather this summer

08/13/2014 8:16 PM

08/13/2014 9:01 PM

During Tuesday’s regular board meeting, a steady stream of speakers besieged Stanislaus County supervisors to cease issuing new commercial groundwater well permits because wells throughout the county and region are going dry as agricultural pumping increases.

Just a day earlier, the small town of Bridgeport in Mono County on the eastern slope of the Sierra got hammered three times within five hours by high winds, rain and hail. Not last winter. Not last spring. Monday.

Likewise, the Sierra high country has seen more harsh thunderstorms this summer than some folks up there can recall. In the Emigrant Wilderness, thunderstorms recently hit the mountains for seven days straight, and then again periodically over the past week. Cowboys “got in a flash flood (and) almost lost the cow dogs in it, but they managed to scramble out of it downstream somewhere,” Lynn Sanguinetti told me via Facebook. Her family has been grazing cattle in the Cooper range east of Pinecrest since 1912.

The storms washed out segments of the historically significant trail between Upper Relief and Lower Relief valleys in the Emigrant. Pioneers carved the trail as an extremely rough wagon road in the early 1850s. They followed the West Walker River west to Fremont Lake, digging ditches to lower the water level to get their wagons past the lake. They continued west up to Grizzly Peak, past Emigrant Meadow Lake, over Brown Bear Pass and down Summit Creek to Lower Relief Valley. Summit, Relief and Kennedy are among the creeks that form the Stanislaus River’s main fork.

This became one of the primary emigrant routes (hence, the name Emigrant Wilderness) until the Sonora Pass toll road opened in the mid-1850s. The original trail has been used by hikers, horsemen, packers and cattle-grazing permit holders ever since.

“The flash floods washed major gorges four to six feet all along the trail,” Sanguinetti wrote. “We had to go way high or low around them to check cattle in Lower Relief. It is seriously going to be extremely challenging to get them out of there (when the grazing season ends in October).”

No complaints, mind you. Last year, the Emigrant experienced in July the kind of water conditions more akin to those of September. Thunderstorms are common over the Sierra each summer. This year’s are simply packing an extra-strong punch. Attribute it to global warming, climate change, cyclical historic trends, or whatever scientific or political explanation you choose. The past few weeks in the Sierra have been pretty turbulent by any standard.

“It’s like it used to be in the old days,” said Cindy Fleischer, who, with husband Chuck, owns Dardanelle Resort along Highway 108. “You could almost set your clock by the little thunderstorms that would come.”

Except these aren’t little. The main fork of the Stanislaus River is maybe 100 or so yards away from the resort. The thunderstorms have turned the normally clear waters of the Stanislaus muddy. And while the river’s water level has been very low most of the season, the thunderstorms can change that in a matter of minutes.

“The river rises two, maybe three feet, and then it calms back down,” Fleischer said.

The outbursts, while violent, don’t last long, and the amount of water won’t be enough to significantly raise the reservoir levels. The storms are more likely to start lightning fires than ease the drought downstream. Still, they are memorable.

A week or so ago, the Fleischers drove over Sonora Pass to U.S. 395.

“We got caught in a downpour,” she said. “On 395, it was like a river running down the center of the road. And they had to close Sonora Pass for a little while to remove rocks and debris that came down across the road. This has been an unusual summer. I haven’t see anything like it in a while.”

Adam Reigle, who tends bar at the Sportsman Bar and Grill in Bridgeport, said it’s the most unusual summer he’s experienced there in 20 years.

“Last year was weird,” he said. “It snowed on July 3rd and was 90 degrees on the Fourth. But this year has been really strange. We had people who’d just come in from Mammoth Lakes and said they’d had baseball-size hail beating up their windshields. A couple of days later, we got the same thing. And what’s even weirder is that the ground has been so dry that it is soaking it all up. Our reservoir is a stream.”

Sportsman owner Gordon Courtney said four bolts of lightning hit near the town Sunday, causing a couple of small fires. A day later, three more storms struck about two hours apart. The second one, he said, dropped about three inches of marble-sized hail that turned U.S. 395, Bridgeport’s main drag, completely white until a heavy rain melted it away. He took video of the second storm, picking it up toward the end. When he posted it on Facebook, he got 60 hits within minutes.

“It’s sort of gone viral,” Reigle said.

Courtney and Reigle, like so many others who rely on the Sierra to fill the reservoirs, replenish groundwater wells or provide their incomes, hope this summer’s high-country weather is contagious.

“Maybe all this weird weather means were going to have a big winter,” he said. “Last winter was horrible up here. We need it.”

Don’t we all ...

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