We first toured these watersheds in Summer 2015, witnessing our reservoirs at the bottom of a five year drought. Since then California has swept through three of the wettest winters ever ~ and as of Spring Equinox 2019 we are officially OUT OF THE DROUGHT for the first time since 2011!
The intervening years were record breakers. The rains were relentless. Reservoirs overflowed. Dams and hatcheries were overwhelmed, the Tuolumne spillway opened for the first time in twenty years, and Lake Berryessa's glory hole started sucking again for the first time in a decade. 24 California counties received disaster declarations in 2016, and while overall Bay Area infrastructure held, places like Big Sur along the coast were blocked for over a year by landslides, and the Oroville Dam spillway on the Feather River North of Sacramento finally failed from flooding in 2017, prompting the mandatory evacuation of 190,000 people downstream. The spillway was only fully repaired recently, in March 2019.
Before the rains stopped that first winter, EBMUD, the water supplier for the East Bay reassured their customers that "not another drop is needed." Meaning any extra water was lost, returned to the ocean -- revealing our lingering need to learn how to make the most of our rainfalls, to change California's short-sighted and imbalanced historic relationship with groundwater and water rights.
Much more challenging records were broken in 2017. The overwhelming winter rains spurred abundant spring green growth, followed by the hottest summer in recorded California history, leading directly to the deadliest and most destructive fall fire season up till that point ~ topped only, as we found out, by the astronomical costs in money and lives, of 2018.
We underwent vivid witnessing of the struggles of water protectors around the world -- in the solidarities born at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota (just declared a disaster area in March 2019 due to flooding) and the anniversary of Berta Caceres's assassination for protecting the Gualcarque River in Honduras. In 2017 there were 4 environmental activists killed per week around the world. Do you know who's protecting your water?
Our re-engagements with nature require reminders that the land we call home holds the scars of an ongoing deadly history with indigenous communities, as well as escalating exploitive relationships with the ecological fabric of life on the planet. Water is life. Mni Wiconi.
Around the world struggles with drought and clean water continue to worsen, while learning from embedded stories of consideration and improved access become so vital -- and inspiring too, like granting rivers the rights of people (welcome to personhood Ganga, Yamuna, and Whanganui rivers!)
Closer to home, there are Bay Area Ohlone indigenous initiatives we can support this season, and near at hand challenges of climate justice, including East Bay sacrifice zones and decolonization approaches, as well as Californian's overall access to clean water, to educate each other and get involved around together.
These Watershed Witness Tours offer the possibility of embedding ourselves within these stories, and passes along 10% of the proceeds from each tour to support local and global watershed protection. This year we'll again be supporting the Winnemem Wintu Salmon Run, tracing by foot, horse, bike, boat, and canoe, the route our Salmon family return to their birth homes on the McCloud River, and their reactivated fight against the raising of the Shasta Dam.
Katherine Evatt of the Foothills Conservancy, which has protected the Mokelumne watershed for the past 30 years, celebrated a successful campaign in 2018, convincing the California Natural Resources Agency and Governor Brown to declare 37 miles of the Mokelumne (between the reservoirs we visit on our Watershed Witness Tours) part of its protected California Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Katherine has generously offered to meet up with our next tour group to discuss the history and ongoing protection of the Moke.
Winter '17-'18 in NorCal was all over the place -- warm bud-blossoming weeks interspersed with unexpected frosts. February tracked close to the driest year on record ('76-'77), then a wetter "March Miracle" precipitated by several atmospheric rivers passing along precipitation from the Pacific, doubled the amount of Sierra snowpack. April's Pineapple Expresses of warm waters from Hawaii forced the closure of Yosemite Valley for flooding, and in one storm sadly killed 90% of the fish at Mocassin Creek Hatchery when the Mocassin Dam downstream from Hetch Hetchy overflowed.
In the fall, the Ferguson Fire became the largest fire in Sierra National Forest history, and the first to close Yosemite National Park in decades. Previously the closest threat to Hetch Hetchy came from the 2013 Rim Fire, when flames got within a mile of the reservoir, close enough to drop ash into the water supply, and shut down 2/3 of the hydroelectric plants providing energy to SF.
Of note, former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke visited Hetch Hetchy while it remained blanketed in wildfire smoke, invited by the advocacy group Restore Hetch Hetchy, the main association advocating for dismantling the dam and restoring the valley to its pre-reservoir glory ~ raising the question of whether Zinke, known to be pro-extraction and anti-environmentalist, is trolling San Franciscans, who so far have overwhelmingly rejected proposals to move their water supply downstream to Don Pedro reservoir.
Starting with the first raindrops of Thanksgiving week that cleared the Bay Area air (which for a few days had the dubious distinction of #1 worst air quality in the world) from the wildfire smoke, this 2018-2019 winter and early spring has dropped “can’t believe it’s still raining!” level rains, refilling our reservoirs, piling snowpack in the mountains, and there’s more rain pitter-pattering our roof right now! Awesome for the aquifers and water tables if they can slowly fill up from snow melt. Curious and excited to discover how much snow will still be up there when we tour the mountains in May and June!
Important to note: the waters are likely to remain dangerously rushing while the snowpack melts, so we will need to keep a careful distance and probably wait to splash in the rivers till our summer tours. But there’s plenty of excitement in store every season, while we support safety in each other’s adventures. Our spring seasonal tours for 2019 are available for registration here, at eventbrite, or book your own tour as your schedule offers, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
While our relationship with climate continues to change rapidly -- California will face more extreme drought/deluge pendulum swings, and the likelihood of mega-droughts linger over the coming decades ~ today these rivers still hold and support our thirsts, our homes, and our lives.
May all our rivers flow free.
May all our sources stay clear.
May we stay connected as currents shift.