Berkeley Trashcan Battle, Round 2


Though I’m spending the week in Seattle, an informant alerts me that the simmering hyperlocal brouhaha over trash receptacles on the sidewalk in the 1500 block of McGee Avenue (just north of Cedar) appears to have entered a new phase. The disgruntled and anonymous resident who recently offered a neighborly chiding to those who had failed to remove their garbage cans from the sidewalk after trash pickup — see “Berkeley: Your Absolutely Free Advice of the Week” — has upped the ante. He or she has now duct-taping an official-looking notice informing them that they’re in violation of city ordinances.

On the off-chance that the person who’s posting these notices reads this (it’s a long shot): I’d love to talk to you about the history of your grievance. Send me an email or leave me a comment.

Tuesday Night Ferry: Seattle


I’m up in Seattle for a few days with my sister and nephew, who are checking out the campus of The Evergreen State College (note the “The”) in Olympia. We drove down there yesterday, then continued up the west shore of lower Puget Sound to Bremerton to catch the car ferry back to the city.

The day was rainy off and on all day and into the night, but we got a break all the way across the passage to downtown, complete with dramatic banks of cumulus backing the Space Needle.

Nighttime Campground Visitor


We did a car-camping trip down to Central California last week: spent a night on the shore of Lake Nacimiento on the Monterey-San Luis Obispo county border, then a couple nights at Wheeler Springs, a National Forest campground on Highway 33 a few miles north of Ojai in Ventura County.

The second night at Wheeler, while we got ready to go to bed, the individual above landed on a towel on our picnic table. He tolerated lots of picture taking and stayed on the towel when I carried it into our tent’s front vestibule (he/she flew off, eventually). I’d say the wingspan was an inch and a half or two inches.

Thanks to the excellent iNaturalist site, I’ve got an identification for the creature: Tetracis cervinaria (Tetracis are also called “slant line” moths, it appears). This one’s a native, seen up and down the West Coast from Southern California (Ventura County is near the southern limit of its range, apparently) up to British Columbia and east to the Rocky Mountains.

In looking and photographing a few moths and butterflies, it’s always surprising to me to see how much there is to the organism beyond the wings. In the case of moths, big hairy bodies. I said this guy (or whatever) was tolerant of my picture taking. I happened to have a headlamp on and used it to light up the moth as I shot it from different angles. When I shone the light directly into its eyes, I expected it to react. It didn’t appear to, though if you’re in an anthropomorphizing mood its stare looks a little baleful.


Berkeley: Your Absolutely Free Advice of the Week


For those seeking random, sometimes helpful and often stern advice from anonymous strangers, a stroll through Berkeley rarely disappoints. On a walk back from downtown to our manse in the North Berkeley flatlands yesterday, I encountered a detailed sign posted on one resident’s fence advising those who park at the curb that they face fines if they don’t have the appropriate residential sticker. That could certainly be interpreted as helpful information (as well as a warning to out-of-neighborhood interlopers to keep moving).

A few blocks farther on, I found the sheet printed above inserted into several waste and recycling bins that someone had left along the sidewalk. The advisory: It’s against the law to leave your garbage cans in the public way. For its officiousness and snide tone — “thank you for helping keep the neighborhood tidy and attractive” — it’s one of my all-time favorite pieces of posted advice.

There are all sorts of things this makes me wonder. There are all sorts of irritants introduced into our daily lives by dint of living in society, and yeah, part of me really understands being bothered by something as trivial as this (ask me how I feel about parking in our neighborhood and I can come up with a long list of grievances that I’ve decided I need to get over in the interest of my mental health). This note makes me curious about how long this particular complaint has festered before being committed to paper, how much research into the city code was undertaken, and about what sort of relationship the writer has with neighbors that she or he can’t address this subject in person.

Tax Day Moon


We watched the start of tonight’s/this morning’s lunar eclipse from the sidewalk in front of the house. A couple of neighbors came out to see the moon starting to enter the Earth’s shadow — but the show was a little misty and it looked like things would get more overcast as the eclipse progressed. About 25 minutes or so before the total phase was to begin, the moon was all but invisible down here at 120 feet above sea level. But the weather forecast had suggested that the marine layer, the band of atmosphere influenced most by the moisture coming in from the ocean (and thus foggy), might be just 1,500 feet deep. Grizzly Peak Boulevard, the main road through the Berkeley Hills, tops out at just below 1,700 feet — so I thought the sky might be clear, or at least clearer, up there.

We drove up, and as we wound up the road south past the city limits and above the University of California campus, ascending above 1,000 feet, more and more cars appeared. There are a few small parking areas as the road nears its summit, and those were full of cars. Soon, we were passing cars that were only pulled halfway off the pavement. Hundreds of people were up at the top of the hills at midnight watching the eclipse.

We pulled into the parking lot for the Tilden Park steam trains just as totality began. It was kind of a cool moment: We could hear people cheering and howling up at the moon from all around. A true Berkeley sky party. We stayed up in the parking lot — which had a great view and just a handful of people watching — for about an hour before heading back down. There were still dozens of cars up along the road — the partiers and die-hards watching the moon return from the dark.

(That bright star in the pictures, to the right of the moon — it’s Spica, the principal star of the constellation Virgo).

Portrait of a Drought: Lake Oroville


The further adventures of a California reservoir. A year and a week ago — late March 2013 — Kate and I camped in the very nice Loafer Creek campground at Lake Oroville State Recreation Area. The lake, the main reservoir for the State Water Project and the second largest California reservoir after Lake Shasta, was about 85 percent full at the time. If you were following the vagaries of the state’s water season, you might have been a little troubled by the fact the 2012-13 rains had virtually disappeared after the turn of the new year. What wasn’t apparent during the first visit up there was that the rains wouldn’t return in the fall, either, and that the lake would fall to just one-third full by January — low in any season, but especially alarming in that the reservoir levels here and virtually everywhere else across the state continued to decline at a time when they’d usually be filling up with runoff from winter storms.

I drove up to Lake Oroville on January 18, which happened to mark the lake’s low point during the current water year (July 1, 2013-June 30, 2014). The difference in the lake’s appearance was dramatic — see the slideshow below. But when seasonal rains finally returned in early February, the lake began to rise. One way of measuring lake level is the height of the lake surface above sea level. When full, Lake Oroville’s surface is 900 feet above sea level. When Kate and I visited in March 2013, the surface level was 860 feet; when I went back in January, it stood at 701 feet according to the numbers from the state Department of Water Resources. The same source shows the lake at 759 feet now and rising.

Yesterday, Thom and I drove up to Oroville to take a look and take a new set of pictures to show the change since January (they’re incorporated into the slideshow). My impressions:

I suppose this is a “glass half-full/half-empty” exercise on a grand scale, especially since the lake is at almost exactly 50 percent of its total capacity right now. On one hand the lake is up almost 60 feet from the last time I saw it and has added about 40 percent to its storage — it’s added about 500,000 acre-feet since January, enough water for about 1 million California households. More water is coming, too: Even though the forecast for the next couple of weeks and beyond looks pretty dry, and even though we’re nearing the tail end of the rainy season, the snowpack will start too melt and run down the branches of the Feather River that flow into the lake.

The conventional wisdom is that half of the state’s stored water is captured in the Sierra snows that wind up in streams, rivers and reservoirs. One slice of Lake Oroville history shows how dramatic an impact the snowpack can have:

A drier-than-normal water year in 2008-09 reduced the reservoir’s storage to a shade more than 1 million acre-feet, less than 30 percent of capacity, and lowered the surface to 665 feet above sea level by early January 2009; that’s about 20 percent less water and about 45 feet lower than the level we saw this past January. Then storms began arriving and began building the northern Sierra snowpack. The water content of the snow in the Feather River drainage reached about 130 percent of normal by early April 2010, and the lake had come up to virtually the same level as it is this weekend. The reservoir, which had reached its lowest point on January 11, kept rising through June 29, when it reached its high point of about 2.7 million acre-feet and elevation of 843 feet above sea level. That’s a rise of 178 feet in less than six months.

So that’s the glass half-full. It’s normal for our reservoirs to rise and fall, often dramatically (and no, I’m not addressing here the impact of how the reservoirs are operated — how much water is released, when, and why).

Here’s the empty half of the glass for Lake Oroville: This year, the Department of Water Resources estimates that the water content in the thin layer of snow in the Feather River watershed’s high country is just 13 percent of average for this time of year. Thirteen percent. So, we’re not going to see any late season rise in the lake. More likely, we’ll see a scenario more like the one that unfolded in 2007-08, when two drier-than-normal years left the lake at close to the same level we see today — 753 feet. The watershed’s snowpack was lower than normal, and although runoff gave the lake a boost, it topped out at just 760 feet and 50 percent capacity in late May. That dry rain year was followed by another, and in February 2009, the state declared a drought emergency.

None of this is meant to make a single reservoir, even a big one like Lake Oroville, seem more important than it really is. But reservoirs are important to making it possible for 38 million people to live, and for a rich agricultural industry to thrive,in a place where it typically doesn’t rain much for six months of the year. And Lake Oroville’s water storage happens to mirror what’s happening with the state’s water supply picture as a whole at the moment: The Department of Water Resources’ daily summary of 44 key reservoirs shows them collectively at 64.4 percent of average for today’s date. Lake Oroville is at 65 percent.

Here’s the revised slideshow:

The News Arrives with a Bang


We had that rarest of Berkeley weather days yesterday. OK — not as rare as snow. But we did have this:

Early in the afternoon, thunder started to roll as a storm headed our way across San Francisco Bay. We had a series of strikes over about five to 10 minutes, each closer than the last. One was marked by a brilliant flash and maybe a three-second pause before a big, house-shaking peal of thunder. I went to look out one of the front windows — to see if I could see the next bolt. In a couple of minutes, it came: a brilliant streak just to the northwest of the house accompanied by a simultaneous ear-splitting crash. The lights went out for a few seconds, then came right back on. I didn’t see exactly where the bolt hit or if it had hit, and was preoccupied with checking out a circuit-breaker that had tripped when the power failed. I figured the lightning had struck a school building that’s about 200 yards from us. I was expecting to hear sirens.

Maybe five minutes, maybe 10 minutes later, a fire truck rolled slowly up the street in the rain. I went out to take a look, and the first thing I noticed was that a big redwood up at the next corner, a full, beautifully symmetrical tree that was 80 feet or more tall, wasn’t there. My one thought going up the street was a hope that the tree hadn’t come down on the adjacent home and that the guy who lives there was OK. He was, emerging from the front door as I got up there. He said he was supposed to have an arborist come out next week to talk about thinning the tree, which had lost a couple of boughs during big windstorms over the winter. “I guess I don’t have to worry about that now,” he said.

The tree had detonated when the lightning hit it, and shreds and spears and chunks of wood and big sections of the trunk were scattered in the street and throughout nearby yards, It turned out houses a couple blocks away had been struck by debris. About a dozen homes, most in a 50-yard radius, had windows broken or wood come through the roof. Several houses, on the lots immediately north and west of where the tree stood, had more significant damage — one section of the trunk, 20 or 25 feet and weighing hundreds of pounds, had flown through the air, striking the front roof of a two-story house and fallen into the front yard. The house on the corner lot, where the tree’s owner lived, had parts of the roof smashed in and was red-tagged as uninhabitable for the time being.

And the tree itself? All that remains is a 25-foot-high snag that comes to a jagged point reaching up over the adjacent homes and foliage. Neighbors, gawkers and curiosity seekers have all been out picking up bits of the blown-up tree (the smithereens to which the redwood was blown); I saw a woman pull up, tour the site, and walk away with what looked like a 50-pound remnant. The red-tagged home and the remains of the tree have served as a set since for every Bay Area TV news show — until 11 p.m. last night and then again this morning before dawn. In fact, when I went out this morning to check out the scene, the Channel 2 reporter asked me if I’d go on camera. No, I said — I haven’t shaved since last Friday. I was wearing what amounted to pajamas. Et cetera. I’m all for projecting a rugged, laid-back image to my public, but I thought that might be going too far.

Today: The rumor is that a crane is coming to lift a massive piece of the tree off the corner house so that the place can be cleaned up and inspected prior to having the roof rebuilt. (And as you can see from the following slide show, the rumor was true. A crew has been buy all day removing big pieces of the trunk from the house, then taking down the snag. All very impressive to watch and still a big draw for locals who heard something happened here).

Here’s a collection pictures from the street, from yesterday afternoon through this afternoon: