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:
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:
Mount Shasta (right) and Shastina (left)
Mount Shasta summit close-up
In comparison take a look at what Mount Shasta looks like normally at this time of year:
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.
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.
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.
Dead tree trunk and rabbitbrush
At Bunny Flat I finally saw snow—pathetically little though.
Road closed at Bunny Flat
Very little snow on the road beyond Bunny Flat
Rabbitbrush and snow
This is what Bunny Flat looks like in a normal winter:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.