Friday Night Ferry

My significant spouse couldn’t make it to the ferry last night for our usual Friday night ride, so I went it alone. Left the office exactly an hour before the 8:25 p.m. sailing time of the day’s last boat, usually plenty of time to make the three-mile hike from the western slope of Potrero Hill to the Ferry Building. But in the interest of trying new routes, I wandered through the UC-San Francisco Mission Bay campus and then along the outside of the right-field stands at Phone Company Park and added about two-thirds of a mile extra to the trip, stopped to take a picture or two, and wound up having to run (or power-shuffle, as a casual observer might have called it) up the Embarcadero to the ferry slip. I made the boat with five minutes to spare.

The usual routine is to buy a glass (plastic, actually) of white wine for my shipmate and a beer for myself and sit under the heaters on the second deck. But the boat bar is cash only, so I climbed to the top deck, stood in the lee of the pilothouse, and watched the trip go by sans beverage. The light was striking, as always, with the low evening cloud cover moving in off the ocean and a much higher layer of clouds catching the last of the sun; the tide was ebbing in the Oakland estuary, moving so fast that it looked like a river current, though not as extreme as the flow you see in New York’s East River.


When you read California’s daily water-storage reports and pore over the columns of data–for instance, from Lake Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir–you happen across this one: EVAP. It’s a record of how much water escapes the lake by changing state from liquid to gas. We’re schooled very early on in our science education about the hydrologic cycle. You know, the process by which water evaporates from oceans, lakes, rivers, and your scotch on the rocks, is transported into the atmosphere to fall as rain or snow, and then is evaporated and carried into the sky once more. Still, it’s one thing to know that a theoretical process is operating out there in the world somewhere and another to see its monumental workings in a statistical read-out.

Go back to Lake Shasta. I’ve been to the dam that holds it back, and I’ve driven past it dozens of times. It sprawls in an endless series of bays and inlets — old river courses — among the mountains that wall off the northern end of the Central Valley. The lake is usually ringed by a collar of brilliant orange-red soil, the upper margin of which marks the reservoir’s high-water mark. That ring is a sort of drought gauge: the more of it you see, the lower the lake is and, generally, the drier the state is.

One thing I don’t think when I drive past Shasta is that I’m watching a massive machine pumping millions of gallons of water into the sky. But that’s what it is. According to the summary from the Department of Water Resources California Data Exchange Center, yesterday the lake lost about 316 cubic feet of water per second through evaporation. Here’s what that is in household terms:

–A cubic foot of water is 7.48 gallons, so the lake was leaking 2,363.68 gallons into the atmosphere every second; three seconds’ worth at that rate would be more water than we’ve ever used in our Berkeley household in an entire month.

–Every minute, 141,820.8 gallons evaporated. In rough terms, the evaporation rate was 1 acre-foot every two minutes and 15 seconds. That’s a generous annual supply of water for two water-guzzling U.S. household.

–Every hour, 8,509,248 gallons of water — about 26.1 acre-feet — departed the lake. That’s enough to submerge a football field to a depth of 20 feet.

–For the day (and the evaporation rate is a 24-hour average), the lake lost 204,221,952 gallons, or 627 acre-feet. That’s a minor part of the reservoir’s net change for the day–the overall level fell by 7,271 acre-feet, mainly through water released for power generation–and it’s a tiny fraction of the lake’s current storage, about 3.15 million acre-feet.

Last stat for now: the process of evaporation is highly dependent on local weather, just like the grade-school lesson on the water cycle would suggest. When it’s warm, more water evaporates as the surface layer of lake water heats up. When it’s cool, the process slows. For the past month, the highest daily evaporation rate was 362 cubic feet per second, in the midst of a spike of very hot weather. The low point was 14 CFS, during a stretch of cool, rainy weather.

Wrecks, by Numbers

Apropos of nearly nothing, a brief from the June 22, 1908, edition of The New York Times:

Umpire Assaulted and His Leg Broken

Two nines, one composed of Americans, the other of Italians, engaged in a game of baseball yesterday at Colden and Brunswick Streets, Jersey City. The umpire was Pasquale Carlo, 19 years old, of 173 Fifth Street. He gave a decision that did not suit the American players and several of them attacked him. He was knocked down and his left leg was broken. The police were summoned, but by the time they arrived the ball players had dispersed. Carlo was taken to the City Hospital.

What I was really fishing for when I came across that was information about old train wrecks that have served as fodder for folk ballads; especially ballads with train or engine numbers in the title. “Engine 143,” for instance (a song I remember hearing Joan Baez sing on her second album, not too long after steam locomotives were retired). “The Wreck of the 1256,” which is reminiscent of “Engine 143.” “The Wreck of the No. 9” And especially, “The Wreck of Old 97,” which I heard again while I was looking recently for train songs. (If you’re interested in the history of these songs, there is a definitive history and guide: “Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong,” by Norm Cohen.)

You know “Old 97.” The most commonly sung lyrics:

They gave him his orders at Monroe, Virginia,
Saying, “Stevie, you’re way behind time.
This is not 38, but it’s Old 97,
You must put her into Spencer on time.”

He looked ’round and said to his black greasy fireman
“Just shovel in a little more coal,
And when I cross that old White Oak Mountain
You can just watch Old 97 roll.”

It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville,
And the lie was a three-mile grade,
It was on that grade that he lost his air brakes,
And you see what a jump that she made.

He was going down the grade making 90 miles an hour,
When his whistle began to scream,
He was found in that wreck with his hand on the throttle,
He was scalded to death by the steam.

What I didn’t realize was that “Old 97” is based on an actual 1903 wreck just outside Danville, Virginia. There’s a nice writeup on it, complete with contemporary news accounts, here: Blue Ridge Institute and Museum: The Wreck of the Old 97.” As the Wikipedia article on the song notes, a copyright dispute over the ballad’s authorship wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

And yes, you should see what a jump she, and/or he, made.



Yesterday’s top Berkeley bird: This great blue heron, which was hunting in the meadow near the off-leash dog area in Chavez Park near the Marina. The place is crawling with ground squirrels, and you see herons and egrets stalking them — or staking out their burrows, anyway — fairly frequently. Other people in the park have told me they’ve seen a heron catch a squirrel — spear it, then swallow it whole. That’s what this one did as we passed yesterday, though I didn’t actually see the spearing part. It tossed its catch into the air and caught it, then took several minutes to work it down. I don’t think it was keen on flying while it was trying to swallow such a big lump of protein, and I was able to approach to about 30 feet with my non-telephoto-equipped digital camera for this shot.



Yesterday’s top Berkeley bird: This great blue heron, which was hunting in the meadow near the off-leash dog area in Chavez Park near the Marina. The place is crawling with ground squirrels, and you see herons and egrets stalking them — or staking out their burrows, anyway — fairly frequently. Other people in the park have told me they’ve seen a heron catch a squirrel — spear it, then swallow it whole. That’s what this one did as we passed yesterday, though I didn’t actually see the spearing part. It tossed its catch into the air and caught it, then took several minutes to work it down. I don’t think it was keen on flying while it was trying to swallow such a big lump of protein, and I was able to approach to about 30 feet with my non-telephoto-equipped digital camera for this shot.



G Street and 86th Avenue, Oakland. A block away from the A&B towing yard.

Cars: A Life List, Part 2

Thom and I went out to the Oakland tow yard today, a place with which our Colorado-based insurance claims people deal so often that they didn't even have to look it up when they told us where we'd need to go. The place, on G Street and 87th Avenue, is a bit surreal. The property is surrounded by chain link and barbed wire. The main edifice looks like the former headquarters of an established manufacturing operation, combining some elegant deco details with a squat sturdiness. The building looks like it would stand up to a 2,000-pound bomb. The rest of the facility consisted of sprawling workshop buildings roofed with corrugated metal. One of them housed what looked like newer cars in decent conditions–maybe vehicles that had been towed for being illegally parked. Behind the buildings was an open concrete-paved lot littered with what I took to be stolen, abandoned, and wrecked cars. Our '93 Honda Civic fit right in. Whoever stole it left the body, engine and wheels intact, and except for tossing the interior contents around, didn't take any personal belongings. What they did take–the glove box unit, the stereo speakers, an electrical fuse panel, a door-latch assembly–seemed almost surgically removed. If we'd known they'd wanted the stuff, maybe we just would have turned it over and avoided the drama and incovenience of dealing with the police and the impound lot. An insurance adjuster is going to look at the car next week, and we'll decide whether we're going to fix it or let it be declared a total loss and–yeah, I feel a pang when I say it–just let it go. 

That's next week. Now here's the rest of our Berkeley household automotive history. I came out here in 1976 and was really a resident in early 1977. The first few years out here, I didn't own a car and on the comparatively rare occasions when I drove anywhere, I borrowed friends' cars. I got a job driving a cab in Oakland in 1980 and spent a couple years tooling around in beaten-down Ford Granadas. In 1983 or so a friend gave me her horrible old 1977 Ford Falcon–this was the era when Detroit thought the answer to the influx of small Japanese cars was to take its few compacts and make them bigger. That car starred in a few moments of career and romantic drama but eventually got towed and I never missed it. Then in 1985, just a few months before we got married, Kate and I bought a car together. And thus the life list resumes:

1985 Ford Escort station wagon. It was sort of a sturdy car of a silver color, with a 5-speed manual transmission, and we got about 145,000 miles out of it despite two cracked head gaskets and a penchant for becoming disabled at critical moments. We eventually gave it to charity. 

1998 Dodge Grand Caravan. This is the teal-blue vehicle that's in the driveway right now. It's got miles galore on it and bears the scars of backing into a tree or two along the way. Given our less than sky-high expectations, it's held up well and made 20 or 25 round trips up to Eugene while Thom was up in college there.

1993 Honda Civic hatchback. The little red car stolen earlier this week in Oakland. We bought it about six years ago from our neighbor, who was moving up to a BMW station wagon. The car had 133,000 miles on it and showed signs of a botched repainting job. But mechanically it has been great and still gets 42 miles per gallon on the highway. Thom learned to drive in the car, essentially, and to drive a stick, too. It's a little low-slung given the last decade's penchant for giant military-assault-style backwoods-adventure boxes, and the '93 does not come with a passenger's side airbag, which always made me a little queasy. 

2003 Toyota Echo. My dad's car, really. He just gave up his driver's license, and my brother Chris and I just drove it out here from Chicago. We'll see where this one fits into the family.

Cars: A Life List

One of our cars–a red 1993 Honda Civic hatchback–was stolen earlier this week in Oakland. The police there called today to tell us it had been found and towed to an impound yard. The only word on its condition was the note that an officer read from the report: “damaged and stripped.” We’ll go see what’s left tomorrow. The incident made me think of the family cars I have known, from birth to today. Here goes (not listing my siblings’ vehicles; just ones that I remember having ridden in as a kid ones that I’ve owned):

Early ’50s Plymouth sedan. A big ugly gray thing. Mom and Dad owned this when we still lived in Hyde Park, and it came out to the south suburbs with us in 1956. In my dad’s life, it was preceded by a couple of earlier Plymouths, a Hudson, and a Studebaker. For whatever reason, he seemed to really detest this car.

1958 Ford station wagon. A two-toned red-and-white job. It had a three-speed manual transmission. I remember Dad taking Mom (and assorted toddlers and post-toddlers) out to a remote-seeming stretch of gravel road to try to teach her to drive it. I remember she let up on the clutch when Dad was walking in front of the car. Mom never learned to drive that car.

1963 Ford station wagon. A pale metallic green number that Dad bought used at Van Drunen in Homewood. It had an automatic, and this is the car Mom learned to drive and got her license in (November 1965 at the age of 36). Eventually the reverse gear failed and my parents managed for awhile without it–which required some planning when they were parking, etc.

1967 Chevy Impala wagon. It was gold and had a 327-cubic-inch V8 with dual carburetors. My dad still speaks fondly of this car, which sometime later wound up driven into a tree at the end of our driveway.

1970 (?) Chevy Kingswood Estate wagon. An unwieldy metallic blue beast with faux wood trim and a 450-cubic-inch gas-guzzling power plant. My brother John, newly licensed and driving in the snow for one of the first times, slid it into a light pole in Park Forest. Then a few months later he was at the wheel after school when another kid plowed into the rear end. The Kingswood was so heavy and sturdy that the other car took nearly all the damage. I think that accident marked its end as a family member, though.

1972 (?) Chrysler wagon. Metallic brown. All I remember about it was that it had very efficient air conditioning that my dad liked to keep on whenever the outside temperature was above about 62. Also, I got the car stuck in a bottomless mudhole on a local in the middle of the night and managed to ruin the transmission.

1966 Ford Custom 500 sedan. I’ll defer to my brothers about the exact model. This was a tan sedan with Ford’s small-block 289 V8. It was our first “second car” and the three of us drove it hard. Or maybe “into the ground” is more accurate. I totaled the car on Governor’s Highway in Homewood on a slushy day when I was cut off by a van with a “Hear the Reverend Moon” bumper sticker; I skidded into a car stopped to make a left turn into a high school parking lot, a collision which prevented me from drifting into two lanes of fast oncoming traffic or into groups of kids lined up to catch their school buses.

1960-something Oldsmobile sedan. Or maybe it was a Buick. It was horrible and dark green. It was the second card that replaced the wrecked Ford. It should have been vaporized by the Death Star instead of Princess Leia’s beloved Alderaan.

1974 (?) Volkswagen Dasher. A nifty, nimble little navy-blue thing that acquainted us (but especially Dad, who paid the bills) with the manifold mechanical frailties of the VW products of the era.

1975 (?) Volkswagen Beetle. A clumsy, loud little Miami-blue thing that further acquainted us with VW’s shoddy approach to assembling vehicles. The Fuehrer would never have tolerated such goings on.

1970-something Volkswagen Rabbit. Another light blue car, but actually much sturdier and more reliable than its stablemates. I really shouldn’t count this one because it came along after I moved away to California.

Next time: Cars–The Berkeley Years

Wind and Water


From the archives: Last spring, Kate and I drove out to Bethany Reservoir, just south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta at one of the key points in the state’s complex water system. The site is also on the lower eastern slopes of the Altamont Pass country, a big wind-generation site. Pondering the state’s water story and how to tell it–do you take the narrative back to Genesis and/or The Big Bang and talk about where water itself comes from, and how long would it take from that point to get to a discussion of a salmon in the river?– I thought of that visit tonight. Here’s a shot of a wind farm virtually on the bank of the Delta-Mendota Canal–part of the federally developed Central Valley Project–just southeast of Bethany. Whatever you happen to think of the way the water systems were built here and the damage they have caused to salmon and other parts of the old California environment–the engineering is never less than impressive and sometimes beautiful.

The aqueducts move water through a combination of gentle flow and brute force: huge quantities of water are lifted from pumping stations to artificial lakes like Bethany. Then gravity takes over, and the water flows down the manmade rivers to the next set of pumps, maybe 60 or 100 miles away, and the process is repeated. (One of the more surreal sights in the state is along Interstate 5 as the highway climbs the Tehachapi Mountains. The aqueduct runs along the highway, and the water is pumped up nearly 2,000 feet through a pair of above-ground tunnels.) One beauty in the aqueducts is the way they follow the contours along the border of the Coast Range hills to the west and the great valley to the east. The engineers had to work with and respect the lay of the land here.

(Here’s the satellite view, with the hills in their full-on golden summer hue. The image shows Bethany Reservoir. The water comes in from a channel at the northwest corner, having been pumped out of the Sacramento River to a holding basin called Clifton Court Forebay. The California Aqueduct flows out to the south and east (below and to the right). Drag the map to follow the course of the aqueduct. In this image, the California Aqueduct is on the left and the Delta-Mendota Canal is to the right.)

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Special Election

As you Californians know, and as you non-Golden Staters may have heard, we have a statewide special election today. “Special election” is a misnomer of sorts, since we’re deciding not on any candidate but on a series of ballot initiatives that putatively address the state’s fiscal crisis. The state’s finances are in a royal mess thanks largely to the housing bust. The budget process has been subjected to a galaxy of special conditions thanks to decades of initiatives and ballot-box constitutional amendments. So the Legislature and governor are reduced to, and have let themselves be reduced to, the role of managers of the voters’ contrary and self-contradictory whims.

Expression of these whims may seem like a form of democracy. But it’s a twisted and extremely limited form of democratic expression. The simple arithmetic of our electoral process — about two-thirds of eligible voters register, and about two-thirds of the registered voters go to the polls in a good year, and decisions are usually rendered by a simple majority of those who cast ballots — guarantees a form of minority rule. And it’s a minority with an identifiable character: the active electorate tends to be older, whiter, more affluent, and more conservative than the population in general. Today’s vote will be even more skewed than usual. The guesses out there are that just 25 percent of registered voters will go to the polls. That means that the agreement of just one-eighth of those registered, and less than one-tenth of those eligible, will be enough to set state policy for years to come.

Not that I blame voters entirely. The propositions before them are singularly unattractive. The people are confronted with a palette of taxes, theoretical spending limits, special set-asides for education, and changes in the operation of the California lottery. They’ve been told that whatever the outcome, the state is about to undergo another round of deep budget cuts. To vote yes on most of these initiatives is to opt into a dim future; to vote no is to invite a dreadful one. The only measure people seem to really comprehend and support is one that will prevent state officials from taking a pay raise when the state is running a deficit.

California is one of those enterprises that is too big to let fail. It’ll be here tomorrow, next week, and next year, 38 million strong. It’ll have all its problems and its promise. But it’s stuck with a hell of an inefficient way of running things. It makes you think that some time soon it might be a good idea to consider tearing up the rule book we have and starting from scratch.