Well, by way of the California-Nevada River Forecast Center, go-to source of data on winter storms during winters when we have those, here’s the latest attention-getting drought note:
TODAY MARKS THE 44TH CONSECUTIVE DRY DAY OVER SACRAMENTO…WHICH TIES THE ALL TIME RECORD FOR DRY SPELLS OVER THE WET SEASON. WITH NO PRECIP IN THE FORECAST FOR AT LEAST THE NEXT 6 DAYS…IT APPEARS THIS RECORD WILL BE FAR SURPASSED. THE RECORD IS LIKELY TO STRETCH TO WELL OVER 50 DAYS.
There may be a change on the horizon: Forecasters say models are showing a change in the weather pattern at the beginning of February, and we may see rain then. This late in the season, anything short of the deluge the state saw in the winter of 1861-62, when San Francisco got 24.36 inches of rain in January alone, will fall short of being a drought buster. Longer-term analyses say that the odds are good the next three months will be drier than normal here. But at this point, any kind of rain would be refreshing to see.
Thanks to the miracles of software and the Internet, I put together a short slideshow comparing scenes at Lake Oroville as I shot them late last March and yesterday. If I’d known back then to what extent the lake would empty out, I would have taken pictures all along the shoreline. As it was, the pictures I did take of the lake were an afterthought, something to do before we started to head home.
The big surprise in the “after” pictures, the ones I took yesterday, is the landscape revealed by the receding waters. There’s no hint looking at the surface in March what the underwater topography looks like. And it’s amazing looking at the exposed landscape now (it was drowned in 1969, when the new reservoir was first filled) and how completely it’s been scoured of anything that might suggest that before Oroville Dam was built, these were canyons choked with oak, pine and brush.
Here’s the slideshow which includes a few bonus shots at the end):
Kate and I went up to Lake Oroville for a couple days last spring. We found a great campground on the south side of the lake, which is the main water storage facility for the State Water Project and at 3.5 million acre feet, California’s second biggest reservoir (Lake Shasta, at 4.5 million, is No. 1). Our real purpose was to go further up into the foothills for a hike out to a falls we had read about. But before we headed back home, I took a few pictures down around the boat ramp nearest our campground, in an area called Loafer Creek.
Before I drove back up there today, I checked the Department of Water Resources data for the reservoir level both on March 27 last year, when the top picture was taken, and today. The numbers show that despite the dry second half of last winter, the lake was about 85 percent full on the day I was taking pictures. The elevation of the lake surface above sea level was reported at 860.37 feet, and, with the help of a couple of small storms that blew through in April, the lake level kept rising for the next several weeks, with the surface topping out at 871.75 feet above sea level.
In the current water year, which for the Department of Water Resources runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, Lake Oroville has seen 2.44 inches of rain. Just a guess: that’s about 10 percent of average for this date. Of that 2.44 inches, 1.96 fell on Nov 19th and 20th. The last rain was recorded Dec. 7, six weeks ago today. Not a drop has come down during the weeks that are typically the wettest of the year in this part of the world.
Which is why I went to take another look. The lake’s surface elevation today — drawn down by 10 months of water releases to generate power and send supplies down to the southern end of the Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley, and those big cities far to the south — now stands at 701feet, 159 feet below where I saw it last time. That’s roughly 35 percent full. I wondered how dramatically different it would look.
The truth is that if I didn’t have the earlier set of pictures and some fixed landmarks, I would have hardly recognized it as the same place. Here’s one example (and here’s the full Flickr slideshow: Lake Oroville, January 2014):
There it is: what you might refer to idiomatically as the sum total of Berkeley rainfall — or at least the rainfall we have seen here in the North Berkeley flatlands — for the entire month of January so far. When the drizzle started coming down last Saturday, I grabbed the camera and ran out to take a picture. It was just enough to moisten the pavement or the bottom of a rain gauge or, as above, to bead up on windshields.
And from what the weather forecasters, the paragons of prognosticatory pessimism, are saying, this is the only rain we can expect to see through the end of the month. Which means we’re starting 2014 with the driest January on record. Here’s a brief synopsis of where the rain season stands from the National Weather Service’s Bay Area forecast discussion:
SAN FRANCISCO`S CURRENT WATER YEAR TOTAL IS 2.11" WHICH IS NOW THE
THE DRIEST WATER YEAR TOTAL TO DATE ON RECORD. THE OLD RECORD WAS
2.26" THROUGH JANUARY 15TH SET BACK IN 1917. SAN FRANCISCO IS
RUNNING AROUND 9" BEHIND AN AVERAGE YEAR. IF NO ADDITIONAL RAINFALL
IS RECORDED BY THE END OF THE MONTH, SAN FRANCISCO WILL BE 11.50"
SAN FRANCISCO AVERAGES AROUND 8 DAYS IN JANUARY WHERE MORE THAN A
TENTH OF AN INCH OF RAINFALL IS REPORTED. THIS YEAR WE HAVE HAD
ZERO DAYS SO FAR. IF THAT HOLDS, IT WILL MARK THE FIRST TIME IN SAN
FRANCISCO`S HISTORY THAT AT LEAST ONE DAY IN JANUARY DID NOT PICK
UP MORE THAN A TENTH OF AN INCH.
And that, friends, kinds of puts things in perspective. What we’re seeing now hasn’t been seen since 1849, the beginning of San Francisco’s rain record.
With all sorts of bad news about California’s long, long dry spell — flows on the American River will be squeezed down to a relative trickle this week, suburban Sacramento is facing draconian water restrictions — here’s my favorite drought story. The Roman Catholic bishop of Sacramento, who leads the state’s conference of bishops, has issued a call for “people of faith” to ask God to make it rain. (Here’s the post I did on it for the KQED blog earlier today: “As Drought Deepens, Catholic Bishops Say ‘Pray for Rain’ “).
There are no atheists in foxholes, the saying goes, a simple way of communicating the notion that everyone gets religion when their mortal ass is on the line (or they think they’re about to meet their maker). But there are plenty of atheists in droughts, like the person who said to me this evening they can’t believe there’s a god who messes around with the weather. Myself, I don’t scoff at the notion of praying for rain and actually found something moving in some of the language in the bishops’ suggested entreaties to “the Almighty.”
Here’s my favorite, not least because it’s said to have originated in a 1950s volume called “The Rural Life Prayer Book” from the National Catholic Rural Life Conference:
Almighty God, we are in need of rain. We realize now, looking up into the clear, blue sky, what a marvel even the least drop of rain really is. To think that so much water can really fall out of the sky, which now is empty and clear! We place our trust in You. We are sure that You know our needs. But You want us to ask you anyway, to show You that we know we are dependent on you. Look to our dry hills and fields, dear God, and bless them with the living blessing of soft rain. Then the land will rejoice and rivers will sing Your praises, and the hearts of all will be made glad. Amen.
I admit I’m not crazy about the “you want us to ask anyway, to show You that we know we are dependent on you” part of that plea. Assuming we’re not dealing with Zeus and his ilk, what kind of a scheming, manipulative jerk of a god is going to hold back the rain just to maneuver us into begging? (Yeah, I know, scripture is probably chock full of examples of god in his/her various guises acting the jerk.) But what I do like about that prayer is the sense of wonder at nature: “To think that so much water can really fall out of the sky, which is now empty and clear.”
I’m of the mind that help is welcome from whatever quarter it arrives. We have fish runs struggling, pastures withering, farms going fallow, streams dwindling, and forests drying out. Native shamans, do your stuff. Bishops, priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, clerics and monks and religious practitioners of all sorts and stripes — likewise. Let’s clap in the presence of our local kami, Shinto style. Pray, if you’re moved to. Ponder this dry place of ours and all that’s beautiful in it. Then look west, or north, or east, or south — that’s where the rain will be coming from.
If you live in California, you’ve been hearing about how dry it is here. Our previous rainy season stopped abruptly just before New Year’s Day 2013. The rains didn’t return this fall, meaning many sites in the state had their lowest recorded precipitation ever. San Francisco, with records dating back to 1849, was one of those places; just 5.59 inches of rain fell during 2013. (The next-lowest total was 8.73 inches, recorded during the severe drought of 1976-77.) San Francisco’s average seasonal rainfall — dated from July 1 through June 30 to take account of the wet season — is about 21 inches. The highest rain total ever: the epic winter of 1861-62, which almost drowned Sacramento: 49.27 inches.
About the wet and dry seasons: Supposing we ever have a “typical” year, storms start arriving from the Pacific in October and keep rolling in through April. Normally, we’ll get breaks between waves of storms that bring lowland rains and huge amounts of snowfall to the Sierra Nevada. Since the state needs water year-round, since so much of it arrives in the form of snow that runs off from the mountains when the weather warms up, since there’s no way of knowing from one year to the next how much rain and snow we’ll get, we live on stored water. We have lots and lots of reservoirs.
And one reservoir that’s getting lots of attention during the current drought is Folsom Lake, on the American River northeast of Sacramento. As California reservoirs go, it’s not one of the biggest — in fact I think it ranks as the tenth largest in storage capacity, with 977,000 acre feet (if you buy the definition that an acre foot can supply about two U.S. households for a year, that’s enough water for roughly 5 million people for a year). The water in the lake is used to generate electricity, for drinking water, and for downstream farms. It’s also supposed to provide flood protection and “recreational opportunities” — swimming, boating, fishing, all those things you can do in a lake that’s in the middle of the hot, dry Sierra foothills.
Right now, Folsom lake is down to about 180,000 acre feet, about 18 percent of capacity. That’s just the sixth time since the reservoir was filled in 1955-56 that the level has fallen below 200,000 acre feet, and it appears to be the lowest the lake has ever been in January, right in the middle of what’s supposed to be the rainy season. And when I say low, I mean low. At capacity, the lake’s surface is 466 feet above sea level; yesterday, the lake level fell below 362 feet.
I drove up yesterday to take a look at the lake, the sand, the rocks, the mud, and the little bit of water that’s still spread out in the lake’s deeper channels. The weather was beautiful. People were out sight-seeing, riding bikes, meditating, even fishing, though one guy told me that when he cast his lures out into the water, they were hitting the bottom. It was pretty hard to imagine that all this was going on 104 feet below the surface of the full reservoir would be. We’ll see how low it goes. Right now, there aren’t any real storms on the horizon.
An American coot (Fulica americana) on the rocks next to the Oakland ferry terminal last week. I took the picture (through a window) for one reason: While these coots are omnipresent, cruising the local waterways, I have never seen one out of the water and had no idea what huge, strange feet they have: big, greenish things with prominent claws on the end of each toe. (click on the image for a bigger version and a better view of the coot feet in their full bipedal grandeur).
Walking The Dog this morning, Kate announced she had something she wanted to show me. It was on Cedar Street, on a block adjacent to the one we live on, but on the side of the street I never use. “Never” meaning I may have walked that block half a dozen times in the 25 years we’ve lived here.
Anyway, what was the mystery object Kate wanted to show me? I thought it would be an exotic plant or impromptu art installation. Well, in a sense, the latter guess was kind of close. We walked down the sidewalk, passed one of the Chinese pistache trees growing along the block, then Kate told me to turn around and look down. Down at the base of one of the trees was a beautifully crafted little “Wind in the Willows” or “House at Pooh Corner” door. Inside were what look like a couple battery-powered candles and some shiny pebbles.
Who made it? I have no idea. A pretty neat gift to passers-by who happen to look down, though.
This got my attention: A badly damaged car parked at the curb of Warring Street south of the Cal campus, with debris from the apparently recent collision still scattered in the street. Being as impulsively voyeuristic as the next person, I decided to stop and investigate when I saw there was a note on the windshield. I’ll refrain from the particulars in the note except to say that it was the driver who hit the parked car took responsibility, apologized, and left a personal phone number and apparently full insurance information, including a claim number.
Taking a closer look at the car that was hit, I think the owner is in for more than a little body work here. This Honda probably dates back to the mid-90s. And the driver who hit it really hit it — the parked car was pushed maybe 10 feet forward and two or three feet to the right and up over the curb. The back left of the car — destroyed. The rear wheel seems to been pushed askew. All told — 15- to 20-year-old car, severe body damage and chassis and/or axle damage — we’re looking at a total loss. Then again, I’m no insurance adjuster.
(You also kind of wonder how it happened. There’s a stop sign about 300 feet or so from the crash site, so you’d guess the driver either didn’t stop or floored it out of the stop sign to build up enough speed to move the other car as far as they did.)
I suppose if I really wanted to bookend the “Last of 2013” with a “first of the year” image, I should have been up at sunrise this morning. But it was not to be. Instead, we got out for a Rose Bowl-time hike up through the upper reaches of Claremont Canyon in the Berkeley Hills, then down across the top of the Caldecott Tunnel on the trail to Sibley Regional Park. After we got back to the car, we drove up to Grizzly Peak Boulevard, just south of Claremont, where dozens of people were parked to take in the first sunset of 2014. Here’s the view across the bay to San Francisco, with the Bay Bridge at center stage.