Inbox: Salmon Extinction Alert

A (slightly edited) email that just landed in my work inbox from John McManus, the president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association:

Dear Reporter:


If you’re covering the news from the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife documenting the lethal effects of the drought on federally protected winter-run salmon, consider this from CDFW’s updated winter-run data file (which you can download from:  https://www.calfish.org/ProgramsData/ConservationandManagement/CentralValleyMonitoring/CDFWUpperSacRiverBasinSalmonidMonitoring.aspx

7-6-21: Continued hot weather above 100 degrees for periods in late May, early June  and past two weeks continuously will lead to depletion of cold water pool in Shasta Lake sooner than modeled earlier in season.  This hot weather is leading to more demand downstream for water (flows from Keswick Dam from 8,500 to 9,250 cubic feet per second on July 4th).  Previously modeled season long cold water availability scenarios used steady flows in the 7500 cfs range  from Keswick.  Those earlier scenarios had very high expected juvenile mortality due to warm water later in August-October that would be lethal to incubating eggs and alevins in the gravel.  This persistent heat dome over the West Coast will likely result in earlier loss of ability to provide cool water and subsequently it is possible that nearly all in-river juveniles will not survive this season.  Counts of carcasses continue to indicate a large run of winter-run this year. Unspawned fresh females for the season are 71 with an overall percentage of 12.3% of all fresh females this season were unspawned.

If you are looking for a quote for a story, consider this one from me:

“Californians should be alerted that the extinction of a native salmon run is underway right now as a result of government inaction to stop it.  State and federal water managers have apparently decided it’s politically inconvenient to reroute short water supplies to prevent extinction if it means a few less acres of crops.  We’re losing winter run salmon right now and the fall run salmon that supply the sport and commercial fisheries will be decimated too.  Californians who care about the environment need to hold government officials accountable for allowing the loss of the state’s natural resources on their watch.”

What Your Rain Gauge Says About You

The measuring tube from an official CoCoRAHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network) rain gauge. There’s nothing in it.

To answer the question implicit in the title: I really have no idea.

But your rain gauge, be it an expensive electronic home weather station variety for which you’ve shelled out many hundreds of dollars or a humble plastic tube that you read manually, will tell you one thing for sure this winter in California: It’s been much drier than normal throughout our rainy season, and it’s dry now.

So far, our backyard gauge has caught 6.83 inches of rain since last July 1 (which is the “rainfall year” that used to be the standard for the National Weather Service in California; a few years ago, the agency switched to the “water year,” which runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30. For what it’s worth, I recorded exactly one one-hundredth of an inch (.01 inch) from last July 1 through Sept. 30; the Berkeley normal for that three months totals .31 inch).

Where was I? Right — 6.83 inches of rain since last July 1. The Berkeley “normal” for July 1 through March 8, as calculated for the “official” Berkeley station on the University of California campus, is 21.49 inches. One way to look at that: We’re about 15 inches short of our “normal” wet season rainfall. Another way: We’ve gotten just 31.8 percent of that “normal” precipitation.

I’d love to be able to compare my numbers with that station on campus, which has been keeping records since 1893. But I can’t right now. The Department of Geography employee in charge of the weather station and sending data to the public National Centers for Environmental Information database retired sometime in the last few months, and the most recent available numbers from that station are from last September. I’m told that the later data will be forthcoming … soon.

Since the UC Berkeley info isn’t available, I’ve checked to see what other nearby CoCoRAHS (Community Cooperative Rain, Hail and Snow Network) rain watchers have recorded and compared those to the official Downtown San Francisco record for the season.

One gauge, 1.4 miles to the northwest in Albany, has recorded 6.99 inches since July 1 (.16 inch more than my gauge); another, 1.6 miles to the southwest in South Berkeley, has measured 6.39 inches (.44 less than mine). And San Francisco’s Downtown station, which has the longest continuous rainfall record on the West Coast — going back to the summer of 1849 — has picked up all of 7.41 inches since last July 1, or 39 percent of normal.

A look at the California-Nevada River Forecast Center makes it clear that our local percentages of normal — figures in the 30 to 40 percent range — are pretty typical across our slice of Northern California:

Percentage of “normal” seasonal rainfall recorded from Oct. 1, 2020, through March 8, 2021, by way of the California-Nevada River Forecast Center.

One other observation for now, by way of Jan Null, a former National Weather Service forecast who works as a consulting meteorologist. As he noted last week, California is in its second very dry winter in a row and we have a recent historical parallel, from 2013, that we can use to measure advancing drought effects across the state:

Journal of Avian Reproductive Technique and Behavior, Mourning Dove Edition

A mourning dove, with freshly laid egg. On a fence. In the open.

There’s lots of evidence that mourning doves know what they’re doing when they try to reproduce. The Cornell Ornithology Lab says the worldwide breeding population is 120 million. Most those birds, about 100 million, spend at least part of the year in the United States (where a vast number, perhaps 20 million, are shot by hunters each year). A smaller number — we’ve seen as many as eight at a time — spend at least part of the year in our backyard.

That having been said, as a non-expert, I’ve seen mourning doves do some things as part of their apparent nesting behavior that makes it look like this species doesn’t really have its own future in mind. For instance, we’ve seen a pair of doves that looked like they were determined to build a nest on a telephone wire; at least that’s how I interpreted them trying to get twigs and strands of grass to stay in place on the line.

And then there’s the example above. There has been some obviously amorous dove-on-dove activity in the backyard for the last week or so. This morning, Kate saw a pair nestled together on the side fence in the backyard. One of them, we’ll guess it’s a female, started to waggle her tail back and forth. And a few minutes later, we spotted the above: an egg laid right out in the open. The bird shown in the picture is the one we were guessing was a male; the female had sidled off down the fence a ways. They just kind of left it sitting there in the open, and then flew off when I was in the yard.

I figured it was only a matter of time before a) they came back to incubate the egg on the very exposed non-nest or b) a crow, jay or squirrel realized that a delicacy awaited and grabbed the egg. I went out to get more of a close-up before nature took its course.

A mourning dove’s egg. It’s just a little smaller than a pingpong ball.

A while later, a breeze came up and blew the egg along the top of the fence for a couple of feet. Then the crow showed up. One seemed to peck at it, then leave it alone, which made me wonder if the egg had already been hollowed out. It was still intact. Immediately after my inspection, the crow came back, speared the egg with its beak, and carried it over to a neighbor’s roof, where it ate the egg whole.

Lake Abert, 1990

Lake Abert, Oregon. October 1990.

Lake Abert, above, is along U.S. 395 in southern Oregon, about 80 miles east of Klamath Falls and 75 miles north of Alturas, California. I passed by during a trip with my dad in October 1990. I remember it was a Friday evening, and we’d had a full day of traveling south from Lewiston, Idaho, with one significant misadventure along the way. We’d locked the keys in our rental car when we were about 50 miles from the nearest town. It was cold and starting to snow a little. My solution, which I’m not too sure I’d improve upon now, was to break one of the rear windows to get back in. One discovery that led to was that our Ford Taurus got about half the normal gas mileage when you drove at highway speeds with a broken-out window. The effects of increased drag, I guess. We stopped at a town along the way — John Day, maybe — and got a piece of cardboard that we taped in the window opening. That was enough of a closure that the mileage went back almost to normal for the rest of the trip.

We stopped at Lake Abert, which for a long time I believed was Lake Albert, around sunset. We had a ways to go, since the next motel was in Alturas. The light was beautiful, of course, and the way I remember the scene, it was completely still and silent. I took eight shots for a panorama with whatever little film camera I was carrying. The developed prints have been shuffled from one drawer to the next for 30 years. But in a fit of archival exploration, I grabbed them, scanned them (30 years of dust and grunge included) and panaroma-ized them in an application called Hugin (neither Lightroom nor Photoshop recognized all eight shots as part of the same scene for whatever reason).

I didn’t see until just now, as I looked for information on the lake, that the moment we captured was in a sense a fortuitous one. In the early ’90s, Lake Abert went into a decline attributed to agricultural water diversions and climate change. Water levels have dropped; salinity levels — Lake Abert is Oregon’s only “hypersaline” saltwater lake — have risen. That’s a combination that caused a sharp drop in brine shrimp and other organisms in the lake’s waters; that in turn triggered a decline in the number of water birds visiting and nesting at the lake.

The decline has led to proposals for new environmental protections, including declaring Lake Abert “a wild and scenic river.” A quick search turned up a couple of other decent background pieces on the lake from recent years: Salinity and Water Levels Changing the Face of Lake Abert Wildlife (2018) and Oregon’s Only Saltwater Lake Is Disappearing, and Scientists Don’t Know Why (2014).

‘It Was the Greatest Place on Earth’

The Bird, by Daniel Gies via Flickr.

When Kate and I got married, a rainy December evening in a past century, we ended the day by dropping into a bar that had been part of our courtship: The Albatross. The bartender, Bob Johnson, broke out a bottle of Cook’s to celebrate the occasion.

At one point in my early Berkeley wanderings, when I had a dozen addresses in half a dozen years, I lived about three blocks from the bar. I became a little bit of a regular, playing darts there and joining a softball team the bar sponsored. Later, a group of friends and I persuaded Bob, who along with his brother Val owned the place, to let us in an hour early on Friday nights so we could sit around a table in back and read “Ulysses” aloud. After Molly Bloom had breathed her final “Yes,” the group continued for awhile, going down to the bar to read poetry.

One Friday, the theme was baseball poems. Kate and I had just started going out, and she came with me. I only remember two poems from that night. Our friend Bill Joyce read “Ty Cobb Poem,” by William Packard (“…there is one question that usually never gets to be asked: who was the greatest major league baseball player of all time the first man who was voted into the Hall of Fame whose mother took a shotgun and killed his father during the first week of this player’s major league career?”)

The other poem from that evening that’s stuck in my brain is “Casey at the Bat,” because Kate, my date, performed it from memory. Wow! There may have been no joy in Mudville, but there was at our table. She won the hearts of all within earshot.

There were many other evenings at The Albatross. Kate and I would usually sit at the bar and talk to Bob or Val — I don’t remember them ever working together — and partake of The Bird’s proto-pub-bites gastronomical specialty, “muffies.” I guess they were a sort of pig in a blanket, a sausage of some kind swaddled in dough, precooked and heated to perfection in a secret room just behind the bar. Bob and Val also countenanced outside food, so sometimes we’d bring in plates from Everett and Jones, just down the street on San Pablo Avenue. And there was as much freshly popped popcorn as you wanted, for free.

Then the Johnsons sold the place in the late ’90s. We ran into Val once or twice afterward, but we saw Bob at his next stop, Berkeley Espresso, in a new building that had been put up at the corner of Hearst and Shattuck, fairly often. Kate and I asked about him at the cafe last year, and one of the long-time employees there told us he passed away a few years ago.

Now The Albatross itself is about to be history. The place has been closed since mid-March because of the plague. Its current owners announced earlier this week that they need to be off the premises by Nov. 30 because of “money running thin, no foreseeable re-opening date due to the ongoing pandemic, and new rent demands from our landlord.”

We hadn’t been down there much in recent years. After the Johnsons sold it — a full generation ago, for goodness’ sake — it got spruced up, expanded its hours (it had always opened at 8 p.m.), got a license for hard liquor and drew bigger and bigger crowds. Our infrequent drop-ins weren’t bad experiences, except for the one really awful Irish coffee I was served when Brennan’s was on its last legs and I was looking for alternatives. I think the last time I went in was for a Sunday night pub quiz with my son Thom and a few of his friends several years ago, and it was a blast to see how big and enthusiastic the crowd was (plus, we came in second and won some still-unredeemed drink tokens).

As I said long ago in writing about Brennan’s decline, a bar’s closing is a small loss in the big scheme. But it’s still a loss — of community, of a place that may have put a little bit of an imprint on you. (A friend, King Kaufman, said in remembering The Albatross that “it’s where I saw the only graffito that ever made me laugh out loud. I saw it on the Saturday night of Easter weekend, and it said ‘Easter’s cancelled: They found the body'”).

My own nostalgic feeling reminded me of “Bilbao Song,” a Brecht-Weill number we got to know as kids on a record by Will Holt. Play us out, Will. …

Bill's Dance Hall in Bilbao, Bilbao, Bilbao
Was the greatest dancehall in the world I'm sure.
There you could for just a dollar whoop and holler, whoop and holler, whoop and holler,
And do a lot of things I wouldn't call so pure.
All the same, I'm not so sure that if you'd gone there you'd have liked it - 'twas a special kind of place.
Brandy laughter hit you at the door.
Blades of grass grew right up through the floor.
The moon shone green through a roof of glass,
And the music that they played there had such class!

(Chorus)Ah that Bilbao moon, when love was worth your while,
Ah that Bilbao moon, when people lived in style,
Ah that Bilbao moon, where did the time all go?
Ah that Bilbao moon, I guess we'll never know.
I'm not so sure you would have liked it, ah but then,
It was the greatest, it was the greatest,
It was the greatest place on earth.

Bill's Dance Hall in Bilbao, Bilbao, Bilbao,
Has re-opened under different management.
Lots of palm trees, lots of ice cream, very flashy, very flashy,
But you know, it's not the same establishment.
Now I'll bet if you walked in you'd feel at home,
That is, if potted palms are just your style.
No grass is growing on that modern dancefloor,
The moon shining through the roof is just a moon,
And the music that they play there is the kind you'd never ask for.
Ah, Joe, play me that old time tune!

That Corrosive Effect

Monterey Avenue, Berkeley.

It’s the day we have an apparent victor in the presidential race. As a journalist working for a middle-of-the-road outlet that doesn’t hold with political activism — not something I’m arguing with for the purposes of this post — I’m not given to broadcasting opinions on the record. This preserves an appearance of fairness in the way I approach my work. Not to say that the appearance is an illusion, because being open to new people, facts, ideas and opinions, to listen, to try to understand them, weigh them, judge them and convey them fairly is central to the work.

But having developing a habit of thought like that also makes me constantly check myself and my own conclusions and to approach many — most?— claims I encounter in the world with at least a little skepticism. So on a day like this, when so many people around me — friends, family, community — are celebrating, I’m not inclined to join in the party.

As I wrote a friend earlier, my pessimism is not to be easily tamped down, and I think the celebrations are a little premature given the reality that our defeated incumbent seems determined to put up a fight before acceding to the will of the voters. Foremost in my mind are fears about what the next chapter of the election battle — the recounts and the court fights — will look like and how much damage the disappointed loser can still do to the government and our democracy while he still controls the levers of power.

The net effect is a little corrosive to any sense of joy I might have. Yeah, the celebrations are ongoing, and it’s good to see the people around me relieved and happy. I just can’t stop myself from thinking, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” As my friend said in regard to the current occupant of the Executive Mansion, “Two and a half months is a very long time for a wounded sociopath of his magnitude to occupy the presidency.”

Speaking Approximately, This Is Historical Titillating

This is an old blog that has mostly outlived its relevance, if any, though I know in the back of my mind it’s out there and every once in a while I’ll read back on something and think, “Not bad” or, “How the heck did I miss that typo?” I still write the occasional post, though only a handful ever get any readership to speak of.

The site still gets lots of comments, though — spam comments, by the dozen every week, most promoting some sort of fly-by-night Viagra site or athletic shoe site or transparently dumb money-making scheme. I’m sure all of them are the product of bots of some kind that spit out nearly random words and hit enter, then move on their relentlessly mindless way to the next rarely visited site. Because there’s a spam filter on the comments, they don’t get published. It’s a small pain to go through and delete them all from the filter queue; that’s not something I need to do, really, it’s just sort of a rote, mechanical chore, and I only read enough to make sure there’s not an actual comment hidden amid the garbage.

Taking a look at the spam queue last night, I realized that perhaps I’m being too harsh in my judgment of comment quality. After all, it’s usually quite complimentary of the high and very helpful nature of everything I’ve ever published. So, as I delete the latest mini-volley of spam comments, here are some of the choicer ones:

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A Moment Amid the Turmoil

I came across the photograph below in the excellent slideshow the Los Angeles Times posted summarizing two days of protests and associated unrest in the city. (The slideshow is part of the Times’ running story on the George Floyd protests. The large version of the image is here.)

To my eye — and I’ve got one good one — this is a thrillingly beautiful image. The combination of the deserted freeway (with the completely jammed adjacent lanes visible), the skateboarder in perfect focus, the police vehicles out of focus down the slope, the spectators on the overpass in the background recording the scene: such subtly balanced elements.

And it’s just a moment. It passed in the smallest fraction of a second. The skateboarder was in motion, no doubt, and everything else, including the photographer (the Times’ Wally Skalij), likely shifted slightly, too, before the next frame fired.

The skateboarder’s relaxed body language belies the urgency and strangeness of his situation. There’s more assessment than defiance in his stance. I have no idea what he was headed for, what he was thinking, whether he was looking for an escape route, or whether there was any way off the freeway without getting arrested. The whole scene kind of reminds me of Steve McQueen trying to outrun the Germans in the motorcycle sequence in “The Great Escape.”

Last, reality has been suspended here. A man engages a photographer in a space that neither would ever inhabit together except in the midst of a catastrophe. The tragedy that brought both of them to this spot is dimly visible here in the flashing emergency lights in the distance. But the pain and rage sweeping over the city and hanging over the world beyond, the police officer throttling the life out of a man on the pavement, the terrible indifference to the dying man’s pleas, have been pushed nearly out of sight. For just this moment.

Memorial Days

‘Group of soldiers sitting on truck with boy,’ African American Museum & Library at Oakland Photograph Collection.

There is something I love about this picture. Something about pride and camaraderie and self-awareness, maybe, in what must have been a hell of a difficult situation. And then there’s the kid posing with this group of GIs.

But before I get into that, where did this picture come from? Someone posted it on Facebook, in the Oakland history group, as a Memorial Day tribute, I think. The picture was captioned there “A 1945 picture of Soldiers in Oakland, CA.” As commenters quickly pointed out, the background in the shot suggests someplace in Europe — France, or Italy maybe — but not Oakland. And then there’s the kid posing with the group. Maybe these troops were among those who had just liberated his town from the Germans.

Is there some way of nailing down who and where these men are? I’d love to see whether anything is written on the back of the photo. It’s a holiday, though, and I have no idea whether the library that holds this photograph has been open at all during our lockdown the last couple of months. Maybe I’ll find that out tomorrow.

There is one potentially helpful detail in the picture: The numbers on the right side (left side in the picture) of the truck’s bumper: 3A-444Q.

My guess was that “3A” stands for “3rd Army,” the force that Gen. George Patton commanded and which is renowned for, among other things, its rapid push across France in the summer and early fall of 1944, after D-Day. Then maybe the 444Q stood for — what? A regimental unit?

I found a post — because you can find a post about just about anything when you go looking — that helped sort out the truck number. It includes a picture of vehicles attached to the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, originally part of the 3rd Army. The markings on those vehicles read “3A-442-I.” From there, I just looked for names of units numbered “444.” I came across a mention of a 444th Quartermaster Truck Company, described as a segregated, all-black unit.

Where were they deployed during the war? It appears they were attached to the 3rd Army’s 4th Armored Division in France and Germany in 1944 and ’45. They’re cited as having played a role in several major actions: Arracourt, the Battle of the Bulge and the final Allied offensive into Germany in March and April 1945. They were likely part of the legendary “Red Ball Express,” responsible for supplying the 3rd Army during its race toward Germany.

The Bulge Bugle, the official publication of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge Inc., mentioned the 444th in its May 2005 edition:

“… Many an unsung deed of heroism, endurance and devotion to duty were quietly chalked up by the Third’s QM truckers. They rolled on unceasingly through German strafing, bullets, artillery fire, ice and snow, fatigue, hunger, blackouts and every other imaginable obstacle.

Trucks of the 444th QM Truck Company moved the 4th Armored Division from the Saar to Belgium in 17 hours. In their usual fashion the 4th Armored Division fought their way through to relieve the heroic bastion of Bastogne and the tide began to turn in our favor. …”

I can’t find a lot more on the 444th. A couple of records concern company members who died during their service and are buried in cemeteries in France and England. One document concerns a soldier who was convicted of murdering a German civilian during the last month of the war. Somewhere out there, there’s an Army publication called “How the 444 Rolled,” but I can’t find any evidence of it online or in libraries.

Looking at that picture, though, makes me want to know about the men there: what they had come through to get to that street, wherever it was; what they went on to; what was waiting for them in the United States when they got back from a brutal tour of duty. On the off chance anyone who knows more about the 444th comes across this, I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, I’m going to see if I can track down the original of the picture to see if there’s anything on the back.