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Portrait of the Drought: Lake Don Pedro

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In our last installment, we were taking in the sights of Lake McClure just as night fell. Now, let’s reverse gears and go about an hour or so backwards, when I arrived at Lake Don Pedro — on the Tuolumne River east of Modesto — after an afternoon of noodling around near downtown Modesto (photo subjects: church, train station turned bus depot), Roberts Ferry Cemetery (graves) and numerous pretty spots along Highway 132, aka The Unknown (to Me) Highway, to look at trees, hills, rocks and clouds.

Highway 132, which heads east from Interstate 580 south of Tracy and goes through Modesto (city) and Empire, Waterford and LaGrange (town, town, hamlet), is the perfect route if you want to see two of California’s biggest reservoirs because a) the lakes almost touch each other and b) the road runs right between them. Here’s the map:

So I thought that I’d drive up there and see both drought-reduced lakes and, if I managed my time wisely, have time to get to a third a little further north, New Melones Reservoir, on the Stanislaus River. That was too big an if. I took it easy Sunday morning, found a few chores to do, sat and thought about it a little while, considered what a beautiful day it was, checked the time of sunset, saw that it was almost exactly 6 p.m., then finally, about 1:30.

I will say this: The light was beautiful all the way out of the Bay Area, across the Central Valley and into the foothills. As I drove out there, I wondered whether I would have enough time to happen across anything that would say anything unique about each lake. After awhile, the once-drowned, now-denuded reservoir landscape takes on a certain sameness: the red earth, the bare slopes showing the lines of the receding lake, the out-of-commission boat ramps, the house boats confined shrinking bays.

When I finally got to Lake Don Pedro — according to a credible-sounding history, it’s named after a Frenchman, Pierre Sainsevain, who came to California in the 1830s, became naturalized as a Mexican citizen, and was granted land near Santa Cruz as Don Pedro before heading to the Sierra foothills during the Gold Rush — it was 5:30 and the shadows were getting pretty long. I shot a few pictures (a couple of them are posted here). It felt haphazard. I wasn’t able to frame anything really different from what I’d seen at, say, Lake Oroville.

Then I headed to Lake McClure, But we’ve already been there, blogwise. It happened to be a more dramatic spot, the lake is much lower than Don Pedro, and the just-after-sunset light there added a dramatic element.

One other thing to note here about the appearance of the lakes in these two posts:

Lake Don Pedro is a big reservoir, with a capacity just over 2 million acre-feet. It’s 43 percent of capacity right now, and its surface elevation is 710 feet above sea level. That’s 120 feet below its “full” elevation, 830 feet. Lake McClure is about half the capacity of Don Pedro, and is currently at just 9 percent capacity. Its surface elevation is currently 605 feet — 274 feet below it’s brim-full level.

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California Fire Season: Goofing with Maps

I don’t really have too much time on my hands. I have actual work I might be doing and undoubtedly will do. But wildfires have been a major professional preoccupation this summer — here’s a current example of what I’m talking about. And visualizing where the fires are and how big they are (in both absolute and relative terms) has become part of that preoccupation.

There are lots of maps out there. For instance, both Cal Fire’s site (maintained by our state firefighting agency) and Inciweb (the site reporting fires on federal lands) both feature maps of each and every conflagration. And there are independent mapping sites — for instance, the one that created this rather amazingly detailed map of the King Fire currently burning northeast of Sacramento — that provide details that most people would never even think of (for instance, overlaying wind data on the area where the fire is burning).

But of course, if you have a map, you want another map. So I started goofing around with a site/service a colleague introduced me to several months ago, Mapbox. My original purpose was to create a map that overlaid the footprint of the King Fire (which as of today has burned 82,000 acres, or 120 square miles) on the Bay Area. In theory, that would allow Bay Area people to envision better what that burned area means in a context they may understand better than a) “82,000 acres” and b) 120 square miles. I discovered that it’s easy to find the data showing the footprint of the King Fire and others, and I wound up making the map above. Plenty of room for improvement there. For instance, including the date and size of each fire.

The execution of my original concept, accomplished with my crude beginner’s skills in Photoshop, is below. I tweeted that image, and someone out there on the twtinternets suggested I could make this image more interesting by rotating the overlaid fire footprint so that it’s aligned better with the San Francisco Peninsula. Well, maybe I will.

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Audio Experiment: Talking Groundwater

OK, here’s another little experiment. I spent part of the last 10 days or so taking a little bit of a crash course in California groundwater for a radio feature. The feature’s done, but I still need to do a web post for program I did the story for (“America Abroad,” distributed by Public Radio International). I’ve had a hard time sitting down and writing again after crashing for the radio deadline, so I decided to just record some of the stuff I’ve packed into my brain on this topic. The result is what might pass for a podcast, though I’m not betting that the world is waiting for 30 minutes of talk on a resource that’s mostly invisible.

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Portrait of a Drought: Lake Oroville

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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:

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Slideshow: Lake Oroville, Before and After

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):

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Lake Oroville, Pre-Drought and Now

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):

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Lake Oroville at Loafer Creek: March 27, 2013

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Lake Oroville at Loafer Creek: January 18, 2014

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California Road Trip: Yolano Wandering

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As earlier recounted, Kate and I went up the Delta on Friday, the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend, in search of ferries. After riding back and forth on the Real McCoy II (just outside Rio Vista) and the J-Mack (at a non-place called Howard’s Landing, across Steamboat Slough between Ryer and Grand islands), we started thinking about getting something to eat. We both had the same thought: a hamburger. One place to procure a decent one–OK, everyone’s got their own idea of decent–In N Out Burger in Davis.

So we set out north from Rio Vista, ignored signs that we were trespassing as we crossed onto Hastings Island, then hit state Highway 113 somewhere south of Dixon. My knowledge of the farms roads in that part of the world, earned from cycling on some of them day and night, told me we ought to head east off 113, in the general direction of Davis, which still lay to the north. I turned on Midway Road and at every crossroads looked for names that looked familiar. Pedrick Road–I knew that would take us up to Interstate 80 a few miles southwest of downtown Davis; I kept heading east on Midway. At one corner, I saw a sign for Yolano–my favorite kind of name, a hybrid of two places (Yolo and Solano counties, in this case) and probably right on their border. I headed east thinking there might be a town out there I had never seen. We got to Midway and Yolano roads–farms in every direction (looking at the map now, the hamlet is south and west of this intersection).

Eventually I started to get the feeling I’d driven too far east. Way off in the lowering sunlight to the northeast, I could see some tall buildings that had to be downtown Sacramento. I kept east but decided to turn north at the next opportunity, no matter what road I came across. It was Levee Road, and it was gravel.

I turned, and just north of the intersection with Midway, on the lefthand side of the road, the west side, just at the edge of the right of way, there was a big stand of eucalyptus, maybe a shelter belt for a nearby farm. And there were dozens of turkey vultures in the trees, getting ready to roost for the night. We stopped to take a look. The birds stirred. Then Kate pointed up to a tree that had a pair of big white egrets, right in among the vultures. I grabbed my camera and opened the door to climb out and take pictures. And doing only that much prompted a mass takeoff of the vultures–50, maybe 100 of them, along with the egrets and maybe a stray hawk or two. Some turkeys that were roosting nearby started to gobble. It was a full on big-bird party.

Here’s a snippet of the sound, and after that, a couple more pictures:

Picture above: Vultures (and maybe others) above eucalyptus grove in Yolo County, south of Davis. Below left: turkey vulture at same location. Below right: turkey vulture at same location and airliner far above (I’m having trouble identifying the plane, though: It looks like a four-engine jet, and the colors look like a United scheme; as it turns out, there was a United 747 to Frankfurt passing over the area right about this time, so maybe that’s it.)

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Roadside Find: Zedonk (or Is It a Donkra?)

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Exotic fauna of Sutter County: a zebroid on the hoof (click for larger images).

We’re in the bittersweet last day or so of our joint spring break (Kate from the demanding world of public education, me from the somewhat less demanding world of public broadcasting). At the beginning of the week, we went on a mini road trip to see a relatively little-visited natural wonder I’d read about in the paper a few weeks (Feather Falls–more on that later). We wound up spending a day driving up to one of the state’s big reservoirs, Lake Oroville, a day hiking, then another day winding our way back down to the Bay Area.

There’s a certain part of the Sacramento Valley I’ve gotten to know from riding a bicycle through it–generally the area on the southern half or so of the valley, from the state capital up to about Chico. The most striking visual feature of that part of the state, almost everyone would agree, is the volcanic remnant rising up from the floor of the valley, known now as the Sutter Buttes. Someone sometime in the distant past–probably Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not, probably in the 1940s–designated the buttes, which rise to a maximum elevation of just over 2,100 feet and cover about 75 square miles, “the smallest mountain range in the world.”

One thing about the buttes: though a piece of the central buttes is now public land, access is across private land and thus only possible by appointment–either on a pre-arranged tour or with researchers (a public-radio colleague, Molly Samuel, got in a while back with some biologists studying an animal I had never heard of before: the ringtail). So what the public gets to do, generally, is drive around the perimeter. So Wednesday, that’s what we did, retracing a path I’ve ridden a few times in the past. West of Yuba City, just outside the little town of Sutter, we had our own exotic animal encounter.

Passing a farmyard, Kate called out, “Is that a zebra?” I missed whatever she had seen, but when I looked over, I saw a couple of llamas (more and more common on ranches here) and, very uncommon, a camel. A camel? A zebra? I turned around to take a look.

The “zebra” was pretty clearly a hybrid of some kind–probably a cross between a zebra and a donkey. She, or perhaps he, certainly looked like a donkey and had the docile, inquisitive nature of a donkey, coming right over to the fence to check out Scout (a.k.a The Dog). We checked out some of the other animals on the premises–some odd-looking goats, a pygmy donkey of some sort, the llamas, a few horses, the aforementioned camel, and a pack of furious dogs that seemed to contain at least one labradoodle.

Wikipedia says zebra/equine hybrids–known generally as zebroids–have a long history and even drew Darwin’s attention. The names for the crosses are many, including zonkey, donkra, zedonk, zebonkey, zebronkey, zebrinny, zebrula, zebrass, and zebadonk. I came up with my own term: variegated ass.

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Journal of Self-Promotion: Water and Power

A long, long time ago (sometime last fall), one of my fellow editors at KQED radio asked if I’d be interested in doing a story for a series on water and power in California. The series would look at the close relationship between water and energy in the state: on one California needs to move immense quantities of a very heavy substance over very long distances, and that requires a lot of power; and on the other, a lot of water is needed to help generate power.

To go back to last fall: Yes, I was interested. And today, a mere seven or eight months later, we have the first part of the series. If you wonder what I sound like climbing a steep hill with 60-some pounds on my back, it’s a must-listen.

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Eclipse, Grass, Water, Rancher, Mormons

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As anyone who cares knows, we in Northern California had an annular eclipse on Sunday. “Annular” means ring-shaped, and this term for an eclipse denotes one in which the moon at apogee, the highest point in its orbit relative to the Earth, crosses the sun’s disk but does not entirely block it (as it does in a true total eclipse). The result is a “ring of fire.” The sun is dimmed but still quite bright.

This is as close as I’ve ever lived to a real live total eclipse, so I took it upon myself to drive about 170 miles north into the area where the maximum annular eclipse could be observed. Those possibly wiser and possessed of less nervous energy than myself decided to stay here in Berkeley, where the eclipse was going to be about 90 percent of maximum.

Headed north on Interstate 5, I found myself imagining the gears of the solar system turning, the moon sliding invisible in the clear sky toward the brilliant sun. My idea was to get off the interstate somewhere north of the town of Willows, which was near the southern limit of the annular zone, and head east toward the foothills that rise east of the Sacramento River. I exited at County Road 7 at the northern end of Glenn County, heading over to old Highway 99, the former main route up the valley, and then noodled around on smaller roads in southern Tehama County headed toward the river. I stopped a couple of times to scope out the sun action (I was unprepared to photograph the eclipse so was depending on projecting the image onto an index card with a pair of binoculars) and take some pictures (landscape highlight: Mount Lassen in the distance). I hit one dead end, reversed field, and in due course wound up in the town of Los Molinos (“The Mills”), about 15 miles southeast of Red Bluff, as the hour of maximum eclipse neared. I found a promising-looking eastbound route called Wilson Road. A mile or two outside town, I passed an intersection marked with a “no outlet” sign, and figured I ought to park and get ready for the big moment.

The eclipse experience: The sky was noticeably darker the closer it got to the eclipse maximum. The temperature, which started out in the low 90s, seemed to fall about 10 degrees or so. Once stopped, I called home and got the Berkeley sky report as I projected the eclipse image on my little white card. Somewhere a magnificent cosmic event was taking place, but I was standing amid pastures fumbling with office supplies.

But the scene was beautiful. I heard moving water and realized a small irrigation ditch was running down one side of the road. After the eclipse maxed out and the sun started to re-emerge and the heat came back on, I snapped a few pictures. I was curious about the irrigation works, which included a few hand-operated gates. I took a few pictures of the main ditch, then walked down the road a hundred yards to where it crossed under the road and took more pictures there. After a few minutes, I heard the sound of a bike tires on gravel, and a youngish guy, say mid-30s, showed up with a little cattle dog. “Can I help you?” he asked. I was trespassing by stepping off the public road, he said. I told him I just happened to be up there looking at the eclipse and was interested in the irrigation. He looked and sounded very skeptical and almost dumbfounded when I told him I’d driven up from Berkeley. I gave him my card, which includes the name of my public-radio employer. “And what do you … do … at Northern California Public Broadcasting?” he wanted to know. His tone was what I’d imagine a government agent might hear after happening upon a still in yonder hollow. “I’m a news editor,” I said. I explained more: that I took an interest in how water works here in California, that it’s not well-enough understood, that I was familiar with some of the creeks in the area and their spring-run chinook salmon. He took all this in with an expression that said, “Uh huh.” In fact, I think he actually said, “Uh huh.” We probably talked for 15 minutes, during which time he allowed that folks in the Los Molinos area are defensive about water because people (environmentalists) are trying to take it away (to restore flows for fish and wildlife). He got a call from his wife on his cellphone and headed back up to his house. I headed back onto the road.

A car drove up. Two young guys were sitting in the front seat, wearing short-sleeve white shirts with black ties. Mormons on mission, for sure, which they confirmed when I asked them. They were curious what I was doing out there, so we talked about the eclipse. Elder Miller, who was driving, said he’d gotten a nice photo shooting through a piece of welding glass (I should have gotten a piece of welding glass). We talked a little Latter-Day Saints talk, and I tried to avoid anything that might make me look open-minded enough to consider a religious pitch. I did give them my email address, though, so Elder Miller could send me a copy of his eclipse picture. He did. (That’s it below).

I went back to my car. The sun was low enough that it was shining through the grasses along the roadside. I took a few frames (a couple examples at the top of the post). Then I was ready for the drive home.

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