No Surprises in Season’s First Snow Survey

California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) today released the first of the season’s surveys of snow conditions, an indicator of how much runoff we can expect to fill reservoirs in the spring.

Snow surveyor Frank Gehrke at the Phillips Station survey site. Photo: Gretchen Weber

Snow surveyor Frank Gehrke at the Phillips Station survey site. Photo: Gretchen Weber

At the Phillips Station survey site, just off U.S. Highway 50, lead surveyor Frank Gehrke found about the conditions he expected; water content of the accumulated snowfall there weighed in at 75% of normal. For the five survey sites in the region defined by DWR as the Central Sierra, and for all Sierra survey sites combined, water content was a slightly healthier 85%. While the average represents a slight improvement over last year at this time, when statewide water content clocked in at 76%, DWR officials emphasized that conditions are still below normal. And with the accumulating effects of three prior relatively dry years, some major reservoirs remain at low levels. A sobering example from today’s DWR release:

“Lake Oroville, the principal storage reservoir for the State Water Project (SWP), is at 29 percent of capacity, and 47 percent of average storage for this time of year.”

With several months remaining in the state’s traditional “wet” season, the January survey is perhaps the least reliable indicator of final runoff. According to Gehrke, the season can “go either way from here.”

In a 110-page California Drought Update just released, DWR wrote that:

“Impacts being experienced in the present three-year drought are relatively more severe than those experienced during prior dry conditions – such as the first three years of the 1987-92 drought.”

As such, the agency says it “will move aggressively forward to plan for a potentially dry 2010…”

In February Governor Schwarzenegger declared a drought state of emergency for nine counties that is technically still in effect, though appeals to the federal government for disaster relief have gone unanswered. The Governor has also called on all urban water consumers to cut back their use by 20%.

Sierra Snow: Scientists in Heated Agreement

Loot from the recent invasion of email servers at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in Britain has raised questions about whether scientists who dissent from the prevailing views of climate research are being muzzled by their colleagues.

Snow on Mt. Whitney. Photo: USFS

Snow on Mt. Whitney. Photo: USFS

An interesting example of this arose this week in a report by Richard Harris for NPR’s All Things Considered. It’s worth a listen, if only for the back-and-forth between two climate scientists over snowfall in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains. John Christy of the University of Alabama, Huntsville, tells Harris about trouble he’s had publishing research that appears to counter the mainstream view that the Sierra snowpack is endangered. For a response, Harris goes to Philip Mote at Oregon State University, one of the scientists who reviewed Christy’s research.

Also interviewed are Gavin Schmidt of NASA and Judy Curry from Georgia Tech.

The head of the UN’s climate panel finally issued his own statement on the email flap, which was part condemnation of the hackers, part defense of the science and peer review process.

Thousand-Year-Old Trees Get a Growth Spurt

Bristlecone pine. Photo: US Forest Service

Bristlecone pine in the Inyo National Forest. Photo: US Forest Service

There’s a lot of history packed into a tree with more than 4,000 annual growth rings. Scientists who count them (dendrochronologists) have been able to learn a lot about the drought history of California and the West.

The Great Basin bristlecone pines that grow along the spine of the Sierra are the oldest living things on Earth–older, even, than the giant sequoias. Studying the uppermost trees, around 12,000 ft., researchers stumbled on a strange trend. The trees, legendary for their slow rate of growth, have been growing faster over the last 50 years or so, than at any time in the last three millennia.

If you missed it this week, Malcolm Hughes, one of the study’s lead researchers and a professor of dendrochronology at the University of Arizona’s Laboratory for Tree-Ring Research, spoke to NPR’s All Things Considered about the possible cause.

There’s more on the study in a recent post on the RealClimate blog.

You can see these astonishing trees for yourself in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest of Inyo National Forest–but you might want to wait until spring. The visitor center is not staffed between November and May and winter access is iffy at 10,000 feet. Worse yet, the original vistor center burned down in the fall of last year. The Forest Service is using a temporary (trailer) facility until a permanent one is rebuilt. According to the Forest Service website:

“…the visitor center is being designed to be a model of energy efficiency, utilizing the latest in “green” building practices.   According to Bristlecone Pine Forest Manager John Louth, some of the improvements that visitors will see will be a state-of-the art solar power system, updated exhibits addressing the impacts of global warming on the ancient trees, a small research library, a slightly larger theatre room and a fire/intrusion detection & suppression system.”

When Will Lake Mead Go Dry?

Exposed turbine intakes and the "bathtub ring" at Lake Mead. Photo: Craig Miller

Exposed turbine intakes and the "bathtub ring" at Lake Mead. Photo: Craig Miller

You can see a slide show of the retreating waters at Lake Mead and Hoover Dam and listen to my radio feature from The California Report. Also, The American Experience will rerun its documentary on Hoover Dam, Monday night on most PBS stations.

The Las Vegas Sun has a digital clock on its website, counting down to a theoretical doomsday when the city’s principal source of water would go dry. Wagering on that question may not have found its way into the sports books on the Strip–but it did become a lively pastime among engineers and hydrologists, when a report emerged from San Diego’s Scripps Institution, with a dire forecast. The paper, by climate physicist Tim Barnett, put the odds at 50-50 that Lake Mead, the giant reservoir behind Hoover Dam, would reach “dead pool” by 2017. That’s the point at which the dam shuts down and neither hydroelectric power nor water emerges from it.

The Barnett study “definitely raised eyebrows throughout the basin,” admits Terry Fulp, deputy director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Region, which operates Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. As it turns out, Barnett was a bit pessimistic. Subsequent work by him and others revealed that he overestimated the evaporation rate at Lake Mead, and omitted inflows below a certain point on the river.

The bottom line, according to Balaji Rajagopalan at the University of Colorado: Doomsday is not quite that near at hand. But that doesn’t mean it’s not on the horizon. “After 2027, the demand increase outpaces the supply decrease,” Rajagopalan told me in a recent interview. “And that’s why much of the risk explodes from 2027 to 2057.”

All of these studies are couched in probabilities, much in the same way that the Corps of Engineers talks about a “100-year” flood. Rajagopalan says: “Even in our study, we have a 50% risk [of dead pool], but that occurs in 2057. And that makes a big difference in terms of water managers, what they can do.”

One of those managers is Pat Mulroy, who directs the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Her constituents rely on Lake Mead for 90% of their water, so she says she’s not inclined to wait around for a consensus. “I mean, during the entire period of the ‘90s when we were bickering with our friends in the lower basin over surpluses, there was zero probability that the drought that we’re currently in was going to happen,” Mulroy told me.  “I’ve lost confidence in probabilities.”

The Bureau’s Fulp says the Colorado system leans heavily on the huge water storage capacity of Lake Mead and its sister reservoir upstream, Lake Powell. “We’ve known for decades that this system is highly variable and that’s why so much storage was built.” When filled to capacity (which it was, more or less, 10 years ago), Lake Mead alone can hold enough to put an area the size of Pennsylvania under a foot of water. But a 10-year drought has left Mead at just over 40% of capacity (so think of flooding something more the size of Costa Rica). Just as current evidence and climate models both point toward lessening flows on the Colorado, many parts of the southwest still see relatively high population growth.

Scientists continue to run their statistical models aimed at handicapping the Colorado’s demise as a dependable bringer of water. But as Fulp sums it up, “It’s really a debate about when. It’s not really ‘if.”

I regret an error of my own that appeared in the radio feature. I misstated the number of people in southern Nevada who are dependent on water from the Colorado. The correct number is about two million.

Yosemite’s Fiery Future

Tim Walton

Photo: Tim Walton

California’s Yosemite National Park has been scarred by several big fires in recent years—the latest contained less than two months ago. But new research affirms that this crown jewel among national parks is likely to have even more fire in its future.

In late August, when fire crews attacked the Big Meadow Fire in Yosemite, it was hard to blame nature for the 74-hundred acres lost. That was a “prescribed burn” that got out of hand (or “escaped,” as the official report puts it). But nine out of ten wildland fires in the Sierra start with a lightning strike. Newly published work suggests that as California’s climate changes, the combination of warmer temperatures, less snow and more lightning strikes could mean 20% more fires by mid-century.

USGS research forester emeritus Jan van Wagtendonk co-authored the study with James Lutz at the University of Washington. He says they studied 20 years of Yosemite fire data to identify a trend. The mechanism starts with the oft-cited warming scenario, causing more rain and less snow at upper elevations.

“What happens in the mountains is that, as snow recedes in the spring the moisture in the fuels follows,” says van Wagtendonk. “The fuel starts drying out earlier and we extend the fire season by having more days available for fires to burn.”

But there’s another wildcard in the deck: lightning. Separate studies suggest that higher concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide will set the stage for more lightning strikes.

The study assumes a 17% reduction in snowpack by 2050—under the relatively modest B1 warming scenario, drawn from IPCC models. The results are in line with other climate studies that imply not just more fires, but more intense fires as the climate warms. It’s a trend, says van Wagtendonk, that has already started:

“We were able to trace, through satellite imagery, the change that we’ve seen in the severity of those fires just over the past 20 years, so it’s been obvious to us from those data that whatever temperature trends are occurring today are already having an effect on increased severity.”

“We see more of the same,” said the forester, “and a continued increase in both size, number and severity of fires.”

Yosemite fires from 1984-2005. The black triangles are fires sparked by lightning. Image: International Journal of Wildland Fire.

Yosemite fires from 1984-2005. The black triangles indicate fires sparked by lightning. Image: International Journal of Wildland Fire.

Scott Stephens, an associate professor of fire science at UC Berkeley, says lightning is changing the landscape in more ways than one.

Stephens recently told KQED’s Central Valley Bureau Chief, Sasha Khokha: “In Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon, they manage quite a few lighting fires in the wilderness area, away from people, and they allow these things to burn for months and months and months to try to allow that lighting fire to begin to shape the landscape again like it did 100 or 200 yrs ago. Those types of events probably increased the resiliency of the forest to deal with climate change and other impacts.”

The article is published in the current issue (10/27) of the International Journal of Wildland Fire.

KQED’s Central Valley Bureau Chief, Sasha Khokha, contributed to this post, as well as to the radio report.

Seeding Clouds for Hydropower

PG&E cloud seeders located near Burney Falls, CA.  Photo: PG&E

PG&E cloud seeders located near Burney Falls, CA. Photo: PG&E

Christina Aanestad’s radio feature for Climate Watch airs Monday morning on The California Report.

Wringing Hydropower Out of the Clouds

By Christina Aanestad

When cloud seeding began in the 1950’s there were no laws governing weather modification. According to Maurice Roos, Chief Hydrologist with the state Department of Water Resources (DWR), it wasn’t until the late 1970’s when a storm in a seeded area near Los Angeles flooded, that regulations governing weather modification were included in the state’s water code. In the West, “Most of the states have legislation that governs the conduct of weather modification activity,” says Brant Foote, director of the Research Applications Lab at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado.

Government oversight has changed over the years. Today in California, state regulations have slackened. “As for the State’s role, it is mainly informational. There are no permits or licenses,” said Roos. According to Roos, all cloud-seeding projects required permits until the law was reformed. “The old law required licenses and permits but it was repealed in the 1980’s. There was a general move toward deregulation in the government–mainly to reduce costs.” Today, according to Roos, Sponsors of cloud-seeding projects must notify DWR and county governments of the project, “This can be a letter or, for DWR, an e-mail notice,” he said. “They also have to publish a Notice of Intention in the county or counties affected by their proposed operations.”

Most of what this reporter learned was from Roos’ institutional memory, and going directly to sponsors of cloud-seeding operations–about 15 intermittent projects around the state. Data on cloud seeding at the state level is scattered, according to Roos. “We used to have an annual report that was published. Last time I tried to find it, it was in an archived box and nobody knew where it was,” said Roos, who added that budget cuts and deregulation mostly gutted the oversight program.

Despite lax oversight, the State of California wants to use weather modification as part of its 2009 Water Plan, which states:

“Cloud seeding has advantages over many other strategies for providing water. A project can be developed and implemented relatively quickly…it could offset some of the loss in snow pack expected from global warming.”

According to the plan, some regulation remains: weather modification sponsors need to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act [CEQA]. But not all seeding has to comply with environmental regulations. PG&E contends that an environmental impact report is not required for its Pit-McCloud River project because it is privately funded, with equipment on private lands,” said Roos.

That has locals groups near Mount Shasta concerned with PG&E’s proposed project in the Pit and McCloud River watersheds. “It’s a clear unequal treatment between public agencies and private entities,” said Angelina Cook with the Climate Council and the Mount Shasta Community Rights Project. “Private corporations require more government oversight and regulation to ensure accountability for the their practices.” But compiling all cloud-seeding data in California into one reference source today would be “a labor of love,” says Roos. “There’s no funds for it,” he said.

Cook says she is working on a cloud-seeding ban in Mount Shasta City, which may include a chemical trespass for silver iodide, the common chemical used in cloud seeding. “If silver iodide is found in the area, PG&E would be liable,” said Cook.
But Roos, who says cloud seeding is mostly benign, asks where one would draw the line. “There’s all kinds of influences on the air like people driving their cars, diesel trucks running around,” said Roos. Just as California has increased its regulations on air emissions in the state, some like Cook would like to see tougher regulations for weather modification as well.

Meanwhile, the state’s 2009 water plan also urges more research and development into cloud-seeding. Research could include cloud seeding’s impact on global climate change, and it’s effectiveness. The plan also identifies areas that could provide optimal results from cloud seeding, mostly in Northern California, along the Sacramento, Trinity and Russian Rivers.

Cloud Seeding Projects in California

View Cloud Seeding Projects in California in a larger map

To find references to cloud-seeding in the state’s water plan, look under Volume 3, then for “Precipitation Enhancement.”

Parsing the White House Climate Report

At least one researcher cited in the 196-page climate impacts report issued this week by the Obama administration is not impressed with the final product. Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado’s Center for Science & Technology Research has written a blog post critical of the report and in particular, the way in which his work was interpreted. If you’d rather not plow through the entire post, John Tierney has an overview of Pielke’s critique on his blog for the New York Times.

California heat wave, from the Aqua satellite. Image: NASA

2004 California heat wave, from the Aqua satellite. Image: NASA

The report was arguably the first to break down both observed and projected effects of climate change into coherent regional summaries. For the purposes of the report, California was considered part of the Southwest region, which included states as far east as Colorado and New Mexico.

Not surprisingly, many of the points raised in the Southwest section (beginning on p. 129) have to do with water supply. Most have been reported or discussed in our Climate Watch coverage, either here or in our radio reports. Selected “highlights” include:

– Past climate records based on changes in Colorado River flows indicate that drought is a frequent feature of the Southwest, with some of the longest documented “megadroughts” on Earth.

– The prospect of future droughts becoming more severe as a result of global warming is a significant concern, especially because the Southwest continues to lead the nation in population growth.

– Human-induced climate change appears to be well underway in the Southwest. Recent warming is among the most rapid in the nation, significantly more than the global average in some areas.

– Projections suggest continued strong warming, with much larger increases under higher emissions scenarios compared to lower emissions scenarios. Projected summertime temperature increases are greater than the annual average increases in some parts of the region, and are likely to be exacerbated locally by expanding urban
heat island effects.

– Water supplies in some areas of the Southwest are already becoming limited, and this trend toward scarcity is likely to be a harbinger of future water shortages. Groundwater pumping is lowering water tables, while rising temperatures reduce river flows in vital rivers including the Colorado.

– Projected temperature increases, combined with river-flow reductions, will increase the risk of water conflicts between sectors, states, and even nations.

– Increasing temperature, drought, wildfire, and invasive species will accelerate transformation of the landscape.

– Under higher emissions scenarios, high-elevation forests in California, for example, are projected to decline by 60 to 90 percent before the end of the century.

– In California, two-thirds of the more than 5,500 native plant species are projected to experience range reductions up to 80 percent before the end of this century under projected warming.

– Projected changes in the timing and amount of river flow, particularly in winter and spring, is estimated to more than double the risk of Delta flooding events by mid-century, and result in an eight-fold increase before the end of the century.

– A steady reduction in winter chilling could have serious economic impacts on fruit and nut production in the region. California’s losses due to future climate change are estimated between zero and 40 percent for wine and table grapes, almonds, oranges, walnuts, and avocados, varying significantly by location.

By the way, Pielke’s critique does not directly address anything in this list, though his work does involve weather-related disasters, which would include floods. Asked by a commentator on his blog if he thinks the entire report should be dismissed based on the flawed interpretation of his research, Pielke replied: “I wouldn’t think so and would certainly hope not. At the same time the section which covers my research does not give me a lot of confidence in the process that led to the report.”

More Adventures “Paddling to the Sea”

Here are some more journal entries from participants in the Paddle to the Sea project, to raise awareness of river and water supply issues. For most, it’s a relay event and they’re taking a leg or two of the voyage from the upper Tuolumne to the San Francisco Bay. But two paddlers have pledged to go all the way. Here are some of their observations.

Facing the froth--and mortality--on the Tuolumne.

Facing the froth--and mortality--on the Tuolumne. Photo by Jayne Johnson.

Emilio Martinez: whitewater section, Tuolumne River

Once the green terror subsided and I knew I might not drown, rafting the “T” (river rat lingo) was an absolute blast! Our blue rafts, manned by a crew of four apiece, plus an experienced guide at the helm, put in about ten miles upstream from where the Clavey River and the Tuolumne River meet in a thunderous embrace. And I am not ashamed to tell you that seeing the river run at 7000+ cubic feet per second was exhilarating to the point of terror. Whether due to climate change or pure luck, the Tuolumne was in fine form that weekend: racing down its bed like some aquatic serpentine creature from another dimension, wildly snaking its way through ancient bedrock as it bucked and thrashed, arching into the wind, pummeling its way through narrow confines of rock and tree as only a force of nature unleashed can.

For two days, thirty of us clung to the River, loving it and fearing it, crawling out of our rafts each day, tired and hungry, but somehow spiritually cleansed by the only worldly thing I’ve ever known that I can call sacred.

Unlike my rafting cohorts–who likely must travel some distance to the “T” to pay it homage–as denizens of Modesto’s “Airport District,” we are blessed with the Tuolumne as a constant benevolent feature of our neighborhood (emphasis on hood), which squats on the River’s banks, roughly one square mile of humanity and squalor broiling in the San Joaquin Valley, and whose inhabitants are more known for our deficits than our merits, for our God-fearing ways rather than earth-loving hearts.

My first encounters with the “Tuolumne” were a mix of horror (fear of drowning), awe (Pentecostal baptisms), joy (childhood treasure hunts at the Modesto landfill – now filled up and landscaped into something called the Tuolumne River Regional Park), and food (Mexican fiestas, where beer, barbeque, and corridos mixed nicely).

And, as befits my low-income neighborhood: I am still largely ignorant of the ecology of this gorgeous river.

So, speaking for myself, my trip down the Tuolumne River is something like an awakening to nature in the Garden of Eden, for there is precious little vocabulary in the noisy, backward streets of the Airport District for the marvels of nature that abound on the banks, canyons, and hillside forests that flank the River: though we children of the Airport grow up touching the River almost daily, we are taught almost nothing about its nature or how to address it.


Still, I figure (hope) that my vocabulary for its flora and fauna and geology will grow as I flow downstream towards the San Francisco Bay; that I’ll be able to distinguish an oak from alder some day, egret from swallow, poison ivy from blackberry vine, and that my eyes will see “salmon” and not just vague swimming things.

I exaggerate, but not by too much.


Emilio Martinez grew up in the Central Valley and currently lives in Modesto. The rivers are uncharted territory for him and have inspired his poetic side.

Segerstrom and Martinez on the river.

Segerstrom and Martinez on the river. Photo by Jayne Johnson.

Owen Segerstrom: whitewater section, Tuolumne River:

It is a privilege to be on the “T” (Tuolumne River) during a peak snow melt flow like the one we experienced over the weekend.  My cousin Tom, son of Sierra Mac founder and TRT (Tuolumne River Trust) board member Marty McDonnell, said it was the second highest flow he had ever seen (out of an estimated thirty-five trips).

Our guide, an east coaster working his first season for Sierra Mac, opined that the T would be the national gold standard in whitewater if such flows were a regular occurrence. We took a nasty swim on a 4+ rapid called “Frame Crusher,” a humbling reminder of the river’s power.  The excitement of the water conditions was rivaled only by the magnificence of the river canyon itself.  As if to remind us not to stay away for too long, a bald eagle swooped above us on an up-canyon trajectory less than a mile before the take-out.

Owen Segerstrom grew up in Sonora, near the upper reaches of the Tuolumne River, and spent his childhood and teenage years exploring the Tuolumne and Clavey swimming holes.  He’s also done quite a bit of rafting on the Tuolumne.


Paddling to the Sea

Jessie Raeder is Bay Area Organizer for the Tuolumne River Trust. More than 200 paddlers are expected to take to the river between now and June 7, for this river awareness relay. Raeder offers this dispatch from the starting line, near the headwaters in Yosemite National Park.

By Jessie Raeder

Paddle to the Sea got off to a roaring start over the weekend.  Melting snow caused by an early heat wave in the Sierras had the river pumping at much higher flows than rafters typically face. The Tuolumne is usually rated Class 4–but goes to Class 5 when flows get over 4000 cubic feet per second.   This weekend saw the river flowing at 7000 cfs! For a while it looked like we might have to cancel all the whitewater trips due to safety concerns, but in the end one trip did go on and needless to say it was an epic journey for our Paddle-to-the-Sea team.

A paddler takes on the Clavey. Photo:

A paddler takes on the Clavey. Photo: Patrick Koepele, Tuolumne River Trust

Meanwhile, an international team of 12 hotshot kayakers ran the Clavey River, a tributary of the Tuolumne and one of only three remaining free-flowing rivers in the Sierra.  The Clavey is a class 5+ river that’s rarely run and only by experts.

Paddle to the Sea is a three-week festival to foster stewardship of the Tuolumne River. Hundreds are joining in this epic journey from the Sierra to the Sea. Kayakers and rafters will begin on the upper stretches of the Clavey and Tuolumne Rivers, travel through the Central Valley where canoers take the lead, pass through the confluence of the Tuolumne and San Joaquin Rivers, and sea kayakers will finish the trip in San Francisco Bay.

A changing and increasingly unpredictable water supply will be the first way that most people in California experience climate change affecting their own lives.  Here in the Bay Area, tap water for 2.5 million people comes from the Tuolumne River, whose headwaters start with melting snow from the Lyell Glacier (picture attached).  That glacier is on the retreat, and more frequent droughts are expected throughout the Sierra.

Paddle to the Sea is meant to demonstrate that issues that affect one section of the river ripple up and down the watershed.   Bay Area water users share this resource with farmers in Modesto, anglers in Yosemite, the commercial salmon industry on the Pacific, and a host of native fish, plant, and wildlife species, many of which are endangered.

As population and demand for water continues to grow, California will be faced with many questions about how we use water, and where it will come from.  The Tuolumne River Trust is working to ensure that we turn to water efficiency and water recycling as much as possible–alternatives which are far more sustainable and renewable than continuing to take additional water from the Tuolumne River, which has been the solution most turned to in the past.


Pika One Step Closer to ESA Listing


American pika. Photo by Chris Ray.

American pika. Photo by Chris Ray.

UPDATE: Federal fish & wildlife authorities have decided to proceed with a full review of the American pika, for potential listing under the Endangered Species Act. The US Fish & Wildlife Service will formally publish its decision this week, including this summary:

“We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, announce a 90-day finding on a petition to list the American pika (Ochotona princeps) as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended. We find that the petition presents substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that listing of the American pika may be warranted. Therefore, with the publication of this notice, we are initiating a status review of the species, and we will issue a 12-month finding to determine if the petitioned action is warranted. To ensure that the status review is comprehensive, we are soliciting scientific and commercial data regarding this species. We will make a determination on critical habitat for this species if, and when, we initiate a listing action.”

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) first petitioned for listing in 2007, and then followed with a lawsuit a year later, when federal authorities shelved the request.

The significance of this week’s decision, according to a CBD news release, is that “the pika will become the first mammal considered for protection under the Act due to global warming in the continental United States outside of Alaska.”

Last month a San Francisco court ruled that state wildlife officials wrongly denied the CBD’s petition for listing under California’s ESA. So it looks like the little critter will get a fresh review at both the state and federal levels.