The big project for the last three weeks has been my first radio feature–on Northern California’s coho salmon populations nearing extinction. The story involved lots of driving–too much for someone doing a story that in many ways is about the larger state of our environment. And it involved lots of anxiety over whether I could sort through all the “tape” (I actually used a flash recorder) and manage to tell a coherent story that reflects the complexity of the subject. Overall, I’m happy with the way it came out. The audio to the story is embedded below, and here are a couple other story links for good measure:
The results of the state Department of Water Resources monthly snowpack survey are in. On the surface, the news looks good. The snowpack is 115 percent of normal for the end of January, and nearly double the amount for a year ago, when we had gone through a very dry January. But the state water managers want to make sure we don’t think the glass is half-full:
“Today’s snow survey offers us some cautious optimism as we continue to play catch-up with our statewide water supplies,” said DWR chief deputy director Sue Sims. “We are still looking at the real possibility of a fourth dry year. Even if California is blessed with a healthy snowpack, we must learn to always conserve this finite resource so that we have enough water for homes, farms, and businesses in 2010 and in the future.”
True, true: Our water account has not been replenished to the point where we can start writing blank checks again. Maybe, given our growing population, we’ll never have that sense about water again. Losing that mindset, in fact, would be a good thing. To the degree that Chief Deputy Director Sims reminds us of that, I applaud her.
But it’s notable that she omits the California environment from her list of clients for the state’s precious water supplies. Maybe she’s not aware that the state is now populated by a host of endangered fish species, once-abundant populations that have been driven to the brink of extinction in large part because of the way we have managed water and aquatic ecosystems.
In reality, of course, Sims and everyone else in the state’s water bureaucracy know all about the fish issue–in fact, they can’t help but be preoccupied with it. So declining to mention the environment in a statement like this is really a kind of negative policy statement about who ought to get water and who will have to fight for it.
With apologies, and unpermissioned gratitude, to Wallace Stevens, Busan (18th century Japanese poet, and Robert Hass, who brought them together in his book, “The Essential Haiku”:
“Among twenty snowy mountains
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.”
“On the whole, it is a bother to keep up relationships with people in this world.”
“When old Unraku was staying in Edo, in Nakabushi, he bought a keg of rice wine and a year’s supply of grain and kept himself in complete isolation. In the summers he composed haiku every day and kept them in a notebook.”
Friday morning: Heading north from San Rafael on my way to Santa Rosa. Yes–that San Francisco-bound rush-hour traffic wasn’t doing too well in the rain. Driving up again tomorrow to do some reporting on a radio story. It’s supposed to storm again. Not too much of a deluge, please, rain gods/goddesses.
Is California’s drought over? OK, let me take a step back. Yes, I realize one could debate whether the last three years in California actually constitute a drought. But that’s a discussion for another time. For now, I think everyone can agree that we’ve had lower-than-average precipitation for the past three years.
The only reason to ask the question is that, after the first half of the wet season delivered only spotty rain, we’ve had a pretty solid week of downpours. Water is sluicing into our reservoirs, and the hills are greening up. All of that is a sign of what we think winter should be here. ( My favorite water statistic of the week: when the storms were at their heaviest around Lake Shasta, California’s biggest reservoir, water was flowing into the lake at about 500,000 gallons per second. That’s 1.5 acre feet, or about enough for three “average” households for a year, every second.*)
Amazing numbers like that aside, the people who get paid to think about whether the drought is over say “not yet.” The San Jose Mercury News published a good summary of the situation a couple days ago: “It’s soaking. But the drought’s not over just yet.”
That story does contain one bit of typically odd California thinking about rain and water, though. It quotes a very knowledgeable local meteorologist, Jan Null, about where we stand in terms of normal rainfall. He says: “”We need February and March to be wetter than January to really end the drought. You have to look at the long game here. This is a great start, but we need to keep it going.”
The last sentence stopped me: “This is a great start, but we need to keep it going.”
Of course, Mr. Null recognizes better than most that the amount of rain we get and when we get it is out of anyone’s control. Still, “we’ve got to keep it going.” Maybe he’s a professional rainmaker.
Once you understand the importance of water in California, once you get how crucial the winter rains are, there’s a score-keeping aspect to weather-watching here. It becomes second nature to study the rain gauge and the seasonal precipitation table as an index of performance, a reflection on whether a great collective goal is being attained. Lots of rain means we’re doing well (and that we can put the complexities of water supply out of our minds). A dry spell means we’re failing (and that there will be hell to pay, or at least the strong possibility of stringent conservation measures).
But in reality, there’s no performance going on. The rain is the rain, and the climate is the climate. California’s rainfall is famously variable. Dry spells can be counted on, and the current run of dry years is the third we’ve had since I arrived in Berkeley in the ’70s. My first California winter, 1976-’77, was bone dry and was in fact the second year of the driest two-year period ever recorded here. A decade later, from roughly 1986 through 1992, we had another run of dry years. And if our winter rains were to stop now, we’d be in the fourth year of drier-than-normal years. In between these periods we’ve had average years and very wet years and years that didn’t quite hit the average. That might not be too different from anywhere else. The reason it’s a bigger deal here than it might be in, say, central Wisconsin, is that we have a six-month dry season, we need to store water to get through that, and we have 37 million people and millions and millions acres of farmland that need water whether it’s falling from the sky or not. Thus the need to believe we can wish the rain to keep going during the wet season and the tendency to feel disappointment when the winter turns into a string of dry, sunny days.
*500,000 gallons per second. Here’s the arithmetic: California Department of Water Resources figures (here: http://bit.ly/6HzIuu) show that in the hour between noon and 1 p.m. on Tuesday, January 19, the net inflow into the lake was 66,288 cubic feet per second. That’s the highest inflow figure for any single hour all week. One cubic foot equals 7.48 gallons. 66,288*7.48=495,834.24 gallons. One acre foot=325,851 gallons. And 495,834.24/325,851=1.52 acre feet. Per second. For the entire 24 hours of the 19th, Lake Shasta’s inflow averaged just over 1 acre foot a second.
Bonus feature! KQED’s latest California Reservoir Watch map, updated earlier today:
View KQED: California Reservoir Watch in a larger map
Fortunate are we–or maybe “blessed” is a better word–to have a Supreme Court that defends the right of corporations to be heard above the clamor of the masses. This morning’s decision from our highest tribunal is titled Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (183-page PDF file). It could be called, “Democracy: What’s it worth if you can’t buy it?” I, for one, look eagerly forward to seeing companies like Chevron, like Halliburton, like Lockheed–I’m sure you’ve got your own list of favorites–burst the shackles of campaign-finance law and express themselves. Free at last!
Crybabies like high court dissenter Justice John Paul Stevens protest that corporations are fundamentally different from human individuals. For instance, they can’t vote or run for office. Further: “Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The financial resources, legal structure, and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process.”
Yawn. Tell it to Teddy Roosevelt, Stevens. That’s how old that kind of thinking is. And if corporations can’t vote or run for office, well maybe it’s time for the court to change that, too. Precedents are for sissies–and bonfires.
Read the decision, kids, and the dissent. This is where our democracy, such as it is, is headed.
After light showers Friday and Saturday and a steadier drizzling rain much of Sunday, we got heavy rain Monday morning. Just like the weather forecasters and their models predicted. But the summary of coming weather rarely does justice to the reality. In Monday’s case, a pounding early morning rain gave way to showers and then a long, windy break complete with a few flying patches of blue sky. We went out to the Albany Bulb–the old garbage dump of the little suburb just north of us that protrudes into the bay–and gave the dog a run. How was it out there? Blustery, windy enough that a little swell had come up on the Bay and waves were driving all the way up the pocket beach near the Golden Gate Fields racetrack. It started showering again pretty soon after we got back to the car. The next storm arrived, as predicted, early, early this morning, Tuesday. It was heralded by long, deep peals of thunder that at first only The Dog was hearing–he growled every time one sounded. Just before daybreak, the sky opened up for about four hours of thundering, pounding rain. Water shot down the gutters, and all day after and tonight, too, water seems to be flowing everywhere. We had some heavy showers through the day, and tonight the next storm is moving in. It’s supposed to be more intense than today’s. On my last walk with The Dog this morning, I could have sworn I heard a rumbling in the distance, something gathering itself to roll in across the coast; either that, or a string of diesel engines getting ready to roll up the Southern Pacific tracks just west of here.
How often do I sit or stand still long enough to follow a “This American Life” episode from beginning to end. Not often. That’s at least as much a comment on my attention span, though, as it is on the program. But today, I did manage that feat for a segment entitled “Hasta la Vista, Maybe.” It was about a “model” prisoner at San Quentin prison who in his mid-20s murdered a man during an armed robbery and was sentenced to 25 years to life–with the possibility of parole. The story turns on the inmate’s efforts to rehabilitate himself after his conviction–he managed to do 27 years in state prison without a single infraction and worked hard to make something of his life behind bars and to prepare for a life outside someday. After the state parole board found him “unsuitable for parole” six times, it finally changed their verdict and ruled him suitable for release. Then the board’s decision went to the governor, who reversed it.
Why? Probably the best answer is that it’s politically untenable for a governor to show a whit of leniency–even after a prisoner has done all that’s humanly possible to pay his debt and “rehabilitate” himself, even after a famously conservative parole board approves a release. It’s not just the incumbent Republican governor who behaves this way. According to the story, he’s reversed 75 percent of the parole board’s release recommendations. His Democratic predecessor reversed 99 percent of such cases.
The “Hasta la Vista” case has something of a happy ending. The inmate’s lawyers challenged the governor’s decision in court and won, and the man finally went free. But the state’s institutions remain unchanged. When it comes to crime, they are singularly focused on retribution and punishment. They are abandoning the idea that preventive programs–like a decent education–can keep people from winding up in jail in the first place. And they make a mockery of the notion that a “corrections” system should work to effect lasting positive change in inmates lives.
Just a few minutes ago, I heard NPR’s correspondent in the ruins of Port-au-Prince narrating the scene and talking about how there is simply no food and water there for the millions who survived Monday’s earthquake. I admit I wondered whether I’d be game for such a reporting assignment myself and also what in the world she’ll do for food and water herself (as to the second question, she’s probably being taken care of pretty well by NPR. Hard to imagine doing traditional reporting–staying above the fray to meet deadlines and get stories on the air–amid so many needing help so urgently).
Putting aside the imponderable questions for a second: Give what you can. I just did the Red Cross cellphone donation — texting “haiti” to 90999 results in a $10 donation to the relief effort. It’s a pittance, but apparently millions are being raised this way.
Another imponderable question: What was The New York Times trying to say in its “Haiti” editorial today? I mean beyond the obvious: that the United States has an obligation to help. In discussing various steps our government might take, Bill Clinton’s name comes up:
“Former President Bill Clinton, the United Nations’ special envoy to Haiti, has an opportunity to bring all his skills of leadership and persuasion to bear. If ever there was a time for so gifted and trouble-prone former president to make himself useful, this is it.”
That second sentence doesn’t scan gramatically or logically. Words got left out that should have been in there, and other words are included that don’t make sense. What does Clinton’s “trouble-proneness” have to do with anything? When I read this in my (West Coast, ink-on-paper version) paper this morning, I thought it was simply something sloppy that was rushed into print. Maybe it is, but it’s also in the online version of the piece. Weird. And off-point, given that the subject is a national disaster just off our shores.