Jeff Jardine

Sorry, Boston, you’ll get no sympathy from parched Californians

The wimpy Sierra winters over the past three years have taken their toll not only on the water supplies for the Valley but also on the High Sierra. This view, from the very top of Big Sam on the Pacific Crest Trail, shows Lost Lake in September. Even in September, there are usually snow banks dotting the landscape at the 10,000-foot plus elevations. Not in 2014 or 2013, either.
The wimpy Sierra winters over the past three years have taken their toll not only on the water supplies for the Valley but also on the High Sierra. This view, from the very top of Big Sam on the Pacific Crest Trail, shows Lost Lake in September. Even in September, there are usually snow banks dotting the landscape at the 10,000-foot plus elevations. Not in 2014 or 2013, either. jjardine@modbee.com

By now, you must be sick of hearing about how the people in Boston are sick of snow.

The Massachusetts city, about 20 feet above sea level, set a seasonal record last week when it got its 108.6 inches of the white stuff, with at least four more days of it in the extended forecast.

By comparison, there’s Dodge Ridge and Bear Valley, two Central Sierra ski resorts with mountains that rise to beyond 8,000 feet and rely on snow to stay in business.

You could argue that when the Sierra ski resorts flourish, so does the region’s water supply. This year, Dodge received only 77.5 inches and Bear 88. Dodge is closed due to – and you don’t have to be Bill Nye the Science Guy to figure out this one – lack of snow. Bear is still open, in no small part because it manufactures snow.

In normal years, Bear and Dodge would be winding down their seasons with good spring conditions and hopes of staying open through Easter. Likewise, Tahoe basin resorts that normally get 500 inches of snow a year received a third to a quarter of average this season.

The problem is that abnormal is becoming our new normal, to the point at which NASA scientists recently claimed the state has only enough water – surface, underground, you name it – to last us another year. The region’s irrigation storage reservoirs – New Melones, Don Pedro and McClure – all are lower now than they were at this time last year with the irrigation season about to begin. And some experts predict this drought might just be getting started.

But for the sake of wishful thinking, let’s assume the rainfall year of 2015-16 will be just the opposite. Snow will be 20 feet deep in the Sierra, and we’ll see three times the rainfall here in the Valley. Would that be enough to solve our dilemma?

Hardly. It would take at least three to four very strong snowfall years to restore the Sierra watershed, according to Robert Rice, a UC Merced professor whose specialties include snow science.

Why? Because the Sierra has been so parched over the past three years that it will need to soak up some of the runoff to meet its own needs before enough of the snowmelt will make its way into the foothills reservoirs and down into the Valley’s aquifers to ease our predicament.

“Even if we get lots of snow, the streams might not be responsive,” he said. “The groundwater (up there) has to get recharged before you see water in the streams.”

In normal or strong snowfall years, Rice said, the ground and vegetation get first dibs on the water when the snow melts. Once those needs are met, the stream flows increase. In fact, the streams also are fed by groundwater, creating a more consistent seasonal flow. Sure, there will be water in the streams and, eventually, the reservoirs and aquifers. But not as much, he said, as there would be in, say, the third strong snowfall year after the drought.

If you’ve spent any amount of time in the High Sierra over the past three years, you’ve seen the impacts of this drought.

I’ve packed into the Emigrant Wilderness nearly every summer for four-plus decades, missing perhaps only a couple of summers here and there. Most years, we try to schedule our trips for the first week of August because patches of snow linger for the margaritas by the campfire, the springs still are running clear and cold, and the mosquitoes generally begin to die off around that time.

On July 22, 2013, we went into Spring Meadow expecting the worst when it came to the mosquitoes. Instead, we encountered water conditions we’d normally see in mid- to late September: No snow patches anywhere, no running springs or streams and no mosquitoes. I don’t remember even needing repellent. The day after we arrived, though, ponds at the west end of the meadow suddenly turned black with algae blooms. The brook trout quit biting.

So we moved up to Upper Relief Valley, where I’ve found lingering snow patches in September. The conditions were the same: bone dry, except for the pond and small lake. We saw no snow anywhere – not even on the northern faces of the highest peaks – and zero mosquitoes.

Last year, the mountains again were dry in July. And on a September trip on the Pacific Crest Trail to High Emigrant, a spring I’ve never seen go dry as late as October was little more than a rock pathway and had been for some time.

So to assume one good winter is a fix-all is a mistaken notion. It must start at the top and then work its way down the mountain over a period of several years, and the Sierra has some serious catching up to do.

Consequently, the folks in Boston and in other bastions of blizzard can gripe all they want about the winter they’ve experienced. They’ll get no sympathy from Californians.

We have a three-year-long case of snow-shovel envy.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

  Comments