Monday, January 20, 2014

Lack of snow, lack of water

We spent the weekend at my in-laws in Mount Shasta in far northern California. The town is nestled against the base of the eponymous mountain which, at 14,179 ft. (4,322 m) is the fifth highest peak in California—just 326 ft. lower than California’s tallest, Mount Whitney (14,505 ft.).

In the winter, Mount Shasta is normally covered with snow, a blinding white beacon that can be seen for hundreds of miles. However, this year things are very different. This is what Mount Shasta looked like on Saturday:

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Mount Shasta from town

Aside from a light dusting near the top, there is no snow. Here are two close-ups to show you how little there is:

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Mount Shasta (right) and Shastina (left)

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Mount Shasta summit close-up

In comparison take a look at what Mount Shasta looks like normally at this time of year:

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Mount Shasta in December 2007, seen from the north

To get a little closer, I decided to drive up Everett Memorial Highway. This is the only road the climbs up the mountain. It dead ends at 8,000 ft. where there had once been a ski area (dismantled in 1978 because of recurring avalanche damage). In the winter, the road is closed beyond the Bunny Flat trailhead at 6,950 ft. so that’s as far I was able to go.

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Mount Shasta from Everett Memorial Highway

No snow in sight on the way up. I wonder how long the trees and shrubs can go before they show signs of drought? The manzanita in the next photo already looked more yellow to me than normal.

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Manzanita

While rabbitbrush dies back every winter, drought or not, seeing hillsides dotted with it seemed like a poignant reminder of the dire straits California is in.

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Dead tree trunk and rabbitbrush

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Rabbit brush

At Bunny Flat I finally saw snow—pathetically little though.

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Road closed at Bunny Flat

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Very little snow on the road beyond Bunny Flat

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Rabbitbrush and snow

This is what Bunny Flat looks like in a normal winter:

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Mount Shasta from Bunny Flat

After walking around at Bunny Flat for a little while, I headed back down the mountain. Looking west, you have stunning views of Black Butte, a 6,334 ft. cinder cone located right off Interstate 5, and Mount Eddy, at 9,037 ft. the highest peak in the Trinity Mountains. While it’s not uncommon to see Black Butte bare in the winter, the summit of Mount Eddy is usually always white.

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Black Butte and Mount Eddy

The final stop on my little outing was at Mount Shasta City Park. This is where you’ll find the headwaters of the Sacramento River. I was curious to see what the flow was, considering the Sacramento River itself is quite low.

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It was bit of a relief to see there’s still water coming out of the spring. Even though there are signs warning against drinking untreated water, I saw several locals filling up large containers.

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Headwaters of the Sacramento River

Mount Shasta is not only the primary water source for the the town, much of the snowmelt from the mountain finds its way into Shasta Lake via the Sacramento River and the Pit River. Located at an elevation of 1,067 ft. fifty miles south of Mount Shasta and ten miles north of Redding, Shasta Lake is California’s largest man-made reservoir and its third largest body of water, after Lake Tahoe and the Salton Sea. With 365 miles of shoreline it’s also a major tourist destination in the North State, especially for houseboating.

Driving home on Sunday, I decided to stop at Bridge Bay Resort to take some photos of Shasta Lake. At the end of December 2013, its water level was 937 ft. (vs. 1,021 ft. on December 30, 2012). This means that the lake is currently at only 37% of capacity. While the exposed shoreline is quite attractive in a Lake Powell sort of way, it’s not the way Shasta Lake is supposed to look. When it’s full, the water level goes to the tree line and you see very little exposed shoreline. In light of that, the current state is a bleak sight indeed.

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As an aside, Shasta Lake is controlled by Shasta Dam, the second largest concrete dam in the U.S. At some point, I’ll dig out some photos of Shasta Dam—a pretty darn impressive sight—but in the meantime you can check it out in all its glory on Google Images. If you’re interested in dams (a lot of people are), here is a virtual tour. And if you love controversy, check this out.

While Mount Shasta and Shasta Lake have no relevance for our water supply here in Davis, seeing them both looking so sad brought it home to me how critical the water situation in Northern California really is. This year there is no snowmelt to save us because there is virtually no snow. I have no idea what will happen six months down the road. While farmers are obviously most affected by the lack of water, us gardeners will feel the pinch as well—especially if mandatory water rationing goes into effect.

I bet more and more homeowners will start to seriously reconsider their landscaping. Removing the lawn—at least the front lawn—will be near the top of things to do. If you’re thinking of replacing your lawn with a more sustainable planting scheme, check out this book.

UPDATE:

According to an article in the January 20, 2014 edition of the Sacramento Bee, long-range weather forecasts indicate “that dry weather is likely to persist in California through April.” That’s terrible news, considering our annual dry period begins in May and typically lasts through October.

In addition, virtually all regional water agencies have adopted water conservation orders ranging from voluntary to mandatory reductions in water use. If you live in the Sacramento metro area, you can use this handy map to find out what restrictions are in effect in your neighborhood.

For more jaw-dropping drought stats, check out this blog post on Wunderground.com.

16 comments:

  1. Dramatic images, although beautiful also highlights what are missing from them at this time of the year that has potential longer term impact. Has this happened before, in more recent times when Mount Shasta had very little snow in a period when it should have loads of it? We hope rains come your way guys, ample helping of it to relieve the drought.

    Drought or not, changing planting schemes to adapt to this current condition, also a more sustainable way is not such a bad idea actually.

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    1. I don't really know when Mount Shasta had so little snow in the winter. I certainly can't recall ever seeing it so bare at this time of year, and I've been going to Mount Shasta regularly since 1991.

      No significant rain in sight until the end of February, possibly longer. This drought will be one for the record books.

      I think we'll see a paradigm shift in residential landscaping as a result of this drought.

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  2. This is sad. The hills near Vacavillle are so brown and dried up. No wildflowers means no seed for the birds and small mammals. Wildlife will start to move into cities for water and food. And Davis will again probably hire hunters to kill coyotes. Maybe if the city council would let a few coyotes live, we wouldn't have such a wild turkey issue.

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    1. Every year I look forward to the hills turning green in January. That's something we're not likely to see this year. I'm surprised the City of Davis hasn't called for mandatory water use restrictions yet.

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    2. Me too, but I bet it's coming soon, probably at the next city council meeting, sigh. Sue

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    3. I wonder if the city has cut back on watering parks and public landscaping...

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  3. Scary sad. Here in the Mojave, we've had (practically) no water since before last winter. Its going to be a rough summer. Our mountains are lacking snow too. Hopefully there will be more water in 2014 soon...

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    1. Don't forget to do your rain dance. It's about all we can do :-).

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  4. How very sad. We are no strangers to drought here either, but I don't think anyone takes our decreasing rainfall seriously enough. Instead we build desalination plants and treat wastewater (not that that one is a bad idea) rather than think about how much we use. If restrictions were enforced it would be different, but they're not, and no one does it off their own bat. Why aren't rainwater tanks and greywater systems for the garden mandatory for all new buildings (at least)?

    On a positive note, what absolutely magnificent scenery (albeit drier than it should be).

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    1. I agree with you 100% on rainwater tanks and graywater systems. In the western U.S. they should be mandatory along with photovoltaic systems on the roof to generate electricity. Houses could be so much more self-sufficient if city planners had more vision.

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  5. Those photos tell a sad story indeed.

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    1. Wouldn't it be ironic if plants that survived the artic blast in early December died this coming summer because of a lack of water?

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  6. Sobering. Nothing tells the story of drought more dramatically than half-dry lakes.

    Beautiful photos though.

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    1. It's that sere beauty that makes the whole situation even harder to bear.

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  7. Your photos tell the story that is for sure. I'm going to head to Lake Folsom and take some pics. I hear it is pretty scary. Praying for rain!

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