I've been a regular visitor to the Sierras in California for twenty years. It's hard to express what that means to me, but I'm drawn there and I feel like I belong. The Sierra lets me co-exist. I fell in love with my husband in the Sierra wilderness. I spent my honeymoon backpacking there. I've climbed and hiked and sat on my butt in those mountains, and my remains will someday rest there forever. That's what it means to me.
The Sierra Nevada is in a precarious place right now -- a dangerous place. Years of persistent, increasing drought have dried it too much, a century of mismanagement leaves it full of dry foliage that would have naturally burned away in small fires every decade or two, and the climate has changed remarkably.
It's always been dry, but it is now parched in a profound way. Two years ago at Christmas, there was no snow. The mountain pass was open. What once was covered by 15 feet of snow every winter, passable only with skis and snowshoes, was absolutely bare. There just wasn't any snow. We drove up to the pass and I walked on it. It was surreal and dreamlike. A group of kids played ice football on Mosquito Lake.
The Sierra serves as a watershed for the entire state of California. Without snow on the mountaintops, there isn't enough water to go around. These mountains are quietly strained. Rather, the life support they provide for us is strained -- they will live on with or without us.
We returned from the Sierra a week ago, where we were about 50 miles north of the Yosemite fire. That fire is now mostly contained, although it is still burning. It is expected to take a couple more weeks to contain. The photos here were taken on a walk going south on the Pacific Crest Trail from Ebbetts Pass -- one mountain pass north of the area directly threatened by the fire. This trail is where I took my very first walk in the Sierra Nevada.
This creek bed is where I collected my first drinking water in the Sierra. As you can see, there isn't much water today. It's late in the year, so I expect the stream to be low -- but this is dry beyond my wildest expectations. There is some green, so there is moisture somewhere, but much less than I remember seeing in Augusts prior.
The haze you see in these photos is smoke from the north rim of the Yosemite fire. The air quality was not pristine, to say the least.
Here is a photo of a smoky Noble Lake. It's a cold, pretty much fishless lake -- at least there are none to be seen. It could be that this lake freezes solid in the winter. There are maps that claim it has golden trout, but it's really not high enough to ensure that the goldens don't lose out to more aggressive trout species.
I've added a map below where I've circled Noble Lake. The other circle contains my honeymoon spot -- Asa Lake. Asa does have fish, and I'm here to tell you that those fish are brilliant at catching Boy Scouts. We wound up sharing the space with a couple dozen 8-12 year old boys as we celebrated our first days of marriage. Their leaders took the opportunity for a lesson in camp etiquette. It was astounding. If we were in our tent, they sounded like a loud band of boys having fun at the lake. If we stepped out of our tent, they were silent.
I'm told that there are grinding stones near Asa Lake. The Native people who lived in this part of the Sierra ate acorns, which they had to wash and grind into a kind of flat bread to eat. I've never seen the grinding stones around Asa, although I have seen them in and around Yosemite Valley.
The photo below looks northward from Noble Lake. There is a lot of smoke. By the Paciific Crest Trail, this spot is about 30 miles north of Sonora Pass, where highway 108 crosses over the Sierra. An area south of 108 down to 120 is where the fire burns. The fire has now burned nearly 400 square miles, including a significant fraction of the land at the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which supplies water to people in the Bay Area.
It isn't hyperbole to say that water doesn't flow freely in California under the best of conditions, and as water becomes more scarce, that shortage will threaten lives and whole economic sectors. Drought is a climate impact that gets people's attention. It is also one that climate scientists can model with a high degree of confidence. The period where climate denial is tolerated must come to an end.
What can a Hummingbird do about looming drought? He can hope that El Nino smiles upon us while bloated atmospheric rivers smile somewhere else. There isn't a lot the Hummingbird can do to bring water to California today, but he can work to change climate and energy policies and practices that will support water flow in coming decades.
Honestly, we've tolerated willful climate ignorance for far too long.
There is still a trickle in this stream. It's full of life. It really doesn't have to be too late.