Dry lands: Wrapping our heads around California’s ecological future

A mere three years ago, every headline about California from the Times to Buzzfeed was screaming about the droughtpocalypse.

Then we had a semi-normal precipitation year, in 2015-16. We learned to use a little less water. And after that, a historically wet winter (2016-17) changed us from worrying about empty reservoirs to scrambling to stop dams from bursting.

Now, we’re deep into another epically dry winter. On February 19, Los Angeles passed 365 days without significant rainfall. The snowpack in the Sierra is as bad as or worse than in 2015—which was supposed to be a once-in-a-few-centuries event. And it has been not only dry but exceptionally hot. The Bay Area has seen day after day of blazing sunshine—and this coming on the heels of a hot autumn where the air was choked with the smoke of massive wildfires for weeks on end. The water-watchers on Twitter and in government are starting to fret. They are running out of superlatives to describe the type of non-winter we are having.

Meanwhile, the general buzz amongst the populace seems to be something along the lines of, “Wow, isn’t this weird and kinda scary?” But water-saving habits have started to slip in some locations. The snow machines are chugging away at Squaw. The almond orchards are still blooming across the Central Valley.

The fact is that, as a state, it seems like we still haven’t come to grips with the new hydrological and ecological realities we are dealing with. We’re living paycheck to paycheck, water-wise. Our anxiety levels ebb and flow in inverse proportion to the rivers that fill our reservoirs. But what we really need is action on a much larger scale—an adjustment of our water priorities from the level of the household to the megafarm.

Being a nature lover gives one a special perspective on the true dimensions of what is happening. I’ve spent a little time every summer in the High Sierra almost every year since I was 14. I have seen the drying out of the high peaks, the melting snows, the tree saplings at nearly 13,000 feet (high above the old timberline), and the changes to species distributions. In the last few years, I’ve watched as the giant trees of the Southern Sierra snow forest have died en masse, cramming the mountainsides and valleys with rust-colored corpses. There are now an estimated 100 million dead trees in the state. Among the worst hit are the sugar pines, largest pine tree in the world. In my childhood summers, the silhouettes of their thick trunks and pendulous five-pound cones marked the gateway to the mountains, and the beginning of a dark and seemingly endless forest. In the future, they may become a rarity.

The ecological cost has already been a tragedy for tree-huggers, but larger human costs are in the offing. It is likely that vast wildfires will occur in the next few years, and the blazes of 2017 will begin to seem like the first episode of a new normal.

Not all of this is purely due to water scarcity. It’s also about rising temperatures that have allowed bark beetles to run wild, and about a century of fire suppression. But that’s sort of my point: lack of moisture is just one prong of the environmental shifts under way in California. Even without human-caused climate change, we are probably unprepared for the types of megadroughts that have occurred in the past. The fact that the world is now hotter, and that we’ve been mismanaging our resources for a solid 160 years, is making the new normal that much harder to adjust to.

There’s always a starting point for creating change. I think a statewide consciousness about water and the environmental transformations happening around us is, for most of us, a good first step.

It really doesn’t matter how much it rains in California this year 

Just a quick reminder that, no matter how much El Niño drenches us this year (or doesn’t—we’re actually behind the curve on rainfall), California is still kind of up dirt creek in the long run.

I think that’s worth remembering as we gaze longingly to the skies, parse the intricacies of meteorological models, and discuss their “what ifs” and “probablys,” and our “hopes” and “fears” about the rain and snow.

Those are words I see a lot in the internet discussions of the California drought. Weather buffs, for all their obsession with the high-tech minutiae of the field, still end up sounding like so many Merlins wondering if the eye-of-newt-to-frankincense ratios are off in the potion they’ve whipped up to beseech the Northwind.


Neat trick, wizard!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of the advancement of predictive science. It’s just that I see people looking to meteorology not just as technicians or out of curiosity but for answers on whether we’ll be OK. Filtered through the news, the effect is even worse—the jet stream is cast as a fickle savior. It’s scientific language projected onto an essentially religious relationship with the weather that probably goes back to the days of bone divination and smoky fires beneath cave paintings.

Let us all hope harder that we get enough rain to get us through another year of this madness.

Reno NWS

This year is less of a cataclysm than last, oh thank goodness!

But it doesn’t matter how hard we hope, how bad we want it, whether the models are right or not, or whether you’ve been naughty or nice this year. It doesn’t even really matter if it rains a lot this winter.


California—and the Western United States—faces a water crisis of its own design. We knew this long before we understood climate change, before the current drought put our state’s agriculture in doubt, triggered massive forest fires, and threatened to kill off 20% of our trees.

The real issue in California is a gigantic water management problem that has political origins—and only political solutions (with perhaps a bit of help from technology). Climate change and a historic drought have merely helped reveal the rottenness of our system. The mining of millennia-worth of groundwater; diversion of rivers hundreds of miles from their courses; the use of old, inefficient technologies; verdant golf courses in the desert; a frontier-era finders-keepers scheme for water rights: it all sounds pretty dumb, because it is.

It shouldn’t be a shocker that a system built by ambitious men for their own personal gain—whether Gold Rush prospectors, displaced Southern cotton kings, or resort developers, the motivations have been about the same—is failing to serve the public interest.

All the smartest weather researchers and journalists already know this. But I’m a bit worried the popular attitude of supplication to the weather gods (of which I am also guilty) is distracting us from the true source of our H20 woes.

Would that more of us directed our angst and dreams toward political action rather than pulling our hair out and wishing for rain. Things like further reducing our consumption of water, subsidizing more efficient technologies, banning wasteful practices, making sustainability and equity a headline in every one of our efforts at economic growth, and taking an active part in international movements to mitigate climate change.

Many Californians are already involved in these activities, but not enough. And definitely not as many as worry about the weather.

Celebrating Wangari Maathai

On Saturday, Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai passed on. I feel the loss — her mission was yet incomplete, and in the most recent appearances she exuded such youth that you would never expect the end was near. Take a look at this nice three-part CNN bio to get a feel for her character, her grit, and her vision.

Professor Maathai’s championing of environmental rights speaks to me in a special way. Growing up enjoying the forests, mountains, and open spaces of California, I have a deep respect and affinity for the wonders of the wild. But the degree to which our society is divorced from the land in its wild state has meant that the enjoyment of nature has nearly become thought of as a luxury activity (falsely, however — I can put you in the mountains for a week for $100), sought out mostly by upper middle class white Americans. By extension, conservation of the environment sometimes seems a preoccupation of the well-to-do. This perspective seems more obvious in poor countries, where the pressures of daily life make sentimental hang-ups about the view seem almost cruel.

Professor Maathai showed another way: there are more choices than preservation versus prosperity. Indeed, true and sustainable prosperity will only be enjoyed when it is accompanied by good stewardship of the earth. A thriving environment is a right, not a luxury — and one worth fighting for just as much as other basic rights. And she spoke these truths as someone who came from a community that uses land — gains sustenance from it directly, is born on it, lives with it, dies with it. She did not come from a community that builds subdivisions and malls on 95% (or most) of its territory, and rails off a tiny fraction to be saved. That made her message all the more profound.

Thank you, Professor Maathai.

*UPDATE: A reader notes that my 95% figure is a bit off: “the USA has 9.83 million km2 land mass and that the combined area of the National Forests, National Parks, and BLM land is 2.2 million km2 — or about 22% of the total land mass of the US.” Fair enough, and I’m glad the figure isn’t smaller. (The 95% was intended to be figurative, I’ve edited it above.) The point is that the American tendency is to be OK with trashing places that we develop, while maintaining the purity of a small fraction of the land that we have specifically protected. I think a better version of conservation would be one that is more integrated in our lives.

The importance of logging off

Just me and the mountains (no cell signal).

I was delighted to see the front page New York Times article today. Not only did it describe one of my favorite stretches of the San Juan River west of Mexican Hat, Utah — a river that gave me one of my first tastes of the wilderness as an eight year-old — but it also made a splashy introduction of some points that I think everyone will take more and more seriously in the next decade or so. Namely, that being constantly online shapes the way we think and process information, and that sometimes, we have to get offline.
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Sonora Spring

Last week, I had the privilege to spend a couple of days in Tucson, Arizona, on family business. It made me realize how much I miss the West and the great outdoors. It also gave me an excuse to use WordPress.com’s new (and a little late in the game, to be honest) slide show feature. Following are some hiking pictures from a “desert” that is in bloom after getting big winter rains. First time I ever saw miners’ lettuce outside of Northern California. I hiked to raging waterfalls, saw poppies blooming under cacti, and went from 85 degree sunshine to snow in a 25 minute drive up a sky island. And, I also spotted a troop of snookum bears!

Is that it? No rants about the politics of urban development in Southern Arizona? Or a discussion of the way that Mamdani’s theories about how colonizers turned ethnicities into hardened political entities — by designating them tribes — might be relevant to the Hopi-Navajo land dispute?

Not right now. This post is a little off-topic for the LGD. But life is life, and we all do as we can.* Enjoy the slide show.

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*I realize this is a largely meaningless sentence. Sorry. 🙂

Is it too late to wish my loyal readers Happy New Year?

Ten days isn’t too late, right folks? I’m still basking in a new year glow, and just want to give everyone my sincere thanks for following me through 2009. I transformed into a functional digital addict this year, and through your comments, tweets and feedback, you helped me do it.

Here’s an image that belongs on the LGD: I like to think this is what this blog is all about. This photo is on the trail below Banner Peak, California in June, 2009 (count yourself lucky, I don’t always identify the location of my Sierran pics). That mountain looks imposing, but then look at the view from near the top — all the topography of the land traversed is clear. Kinda like starting and finishing up the year.

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The Last Cedars of Lebanon

I’m already back stateside, but I wanted to write a few lines about my visit to Lebanon’s cedars in early August.

When you hear Lebanon, you think cedars. The tree is featured on the Lebanese flag, the cedar forests of Lebanon are mentioned in Gilgamesh — which is the oldest known written story — and any two-bit Beirut tourist shop will have trinkets supposedly carved from cedars. Which is why it is astonishing to see just how few are left. (At least in the main preserve, which is the one I visited. Apparently there is a secondary one in the Chouf that is quite a bit more extensive.)

In the reserve in Mount Lebanon, the cedars are confined to a few acres on a broad, denuded plateau at about 8000 feet. The winding road that takes you to them — with the anticipation mounting all the while — goes straight up from the sea through fantastic villages perched on the sides of chasms whose bottoms lie in shadow. You pass the village of Khalil Gibran — the famous poet who wrote The Prophet, a popular feature at 70s weddings — and churches built improbably on precipices. Bare mountain summits tug on shreds of mist. You’re almost there as the car climbs up through a final ravine…

Suddenly, the car passes through a 30 meter stretch of crammed stalls selling cedar-related tourist goods, and a few stately cedars begin to pop up on your right. Man, you must really be getting close to the forest!

But then you pull out into a treeless plain and there’s nothing in front of you except a bare mountainside with a lonely ski lift floppily hanging to it. Those few stately cedars were the forest. And barring a somewhat spotty attempt at replanting on the road to the entrance of the preserve, all the old trees have been cut down, literally to the edge of the stone wall surrounding the preserve. Inside, there are just enough trees — and some of them truly are sacred, thousand-year-old grandfathers that instill a lot of awe — that you can briefly be tricked into thinking you are inside a forest.

From a vantage point high on the mountain ridge above, however — where I drove afterward — the magnitude of the deforestation is clear. The cedars look like someone’s garden, perched on the lip of a high basin that must have once cradled a mighty forest that seemed inexhaustible to its early harvesters. The deforestation is probably a problem that dates back to ancient times, because there is very little evidence of stumps or the former forest. But based on the topography and climate, and my experience with clear-cuts in North America, it seems pretty clear that the forest was as large as I imagine (though I’d like to get a scientific confirmation).

It is a pitiful sight and one representative of Lebanon in general — so much has been taken from this country’s glory. Only a tiny glimmer remains, just like these cedars. Perhaps it is just barely enough to produce seeds, which if carefully protected could produce another forest of beautiful Lebanese cedars one day. Then again, the grove is also so small that a single catastrophe could easily wipe it out.

The sight of this grove also made me thankful for the systems of public land protection we have in the United States, something we need to continue to protect. We are extremely lucky to have as many national forests, parks, monuments and wilderness areas as we do. Let’s not take it for granted.

Heart of Solitude, One Year Later

It’s been a year since two friends and I crossed the Sierra Nevada through its most remote heart. For me, it was a spiritual experience, extremely difficult — the most challenging climb/hike I’ve ever done — and a reference point for all things afterwards.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot because I have been so out of touch with nature since then, and decided to post a few pics from that time. (My brief encounter with nature in Batroun, see previous post, made me realize that.)

I am too selfish to write the place names — I don’t want this to be searchable and then draw a bunch of people to these amazing places. Some spots are secret and sacred, and should only be available to people who study topo maps for hours and dream about the obscure swaths of peaks, canyons and lakes where no trails lead.

Your eyes follow the lines, and a landscape opens up in your head. The unnamed lakes with their high elevations printed on them, the creeks in canyons so narrow all the contours touch, the glaciers that cling to northeastern cliffs on the highest peaks are flat and dry on the unbeautiful paper, but your imagination runs wild. Then, when you finally see the places that inspired these maps, there is no way to exaggerate how beautiful this hidden land is. The feeling of crossing over mountains and valleys with only your food, maps and shelter — and no guide or path — is the closest thing I’ve felt to flying like a bird. Pure freedom.

I won’t name the places, but I will give a few clues: Enchanted Gorge, 10 days of hiking and an east-west traverse of the Sierra Nevada, completely off trail. And I will say that we once went three days in California without seeing another person, which is an accomplishment. Enjoy.

Peering into the Gorge.
Everything was silent as we passed between two peaks named after mythic monsters.

Mouth of the Enchanted
(and we look like a party of 1860s surveyors)

On top of the world, somewhere on the western ridges.
We had nearly completed our crossing.

Dimmy’s final resting place at 10,500 feet, where he lay down to sleep and turned into a stone (inside joke).

Prospect Park Thunderstorm

Two friends and I chilled yesterday on the big rolling green of Prospect Park near Grand Army Plaza. The day was sunny and warm, with an increasing sheen of clouds that made the quality of light like that softened sun that happens during a California wildfire.

We sat on the grass and looked at the scene of mixed groups of people — I love Brooklyn for its diversity — picnicking, playing footie and volleyball and enjoying each other’s company. It looked like a tableau from that crappy kid’s magazine High Life, which we grew up on. I mentioned that, and we laughed, but it made it a little sentimental, because the scene was indeed picture-book perfect.

The green trees were seething all around with sap and leaves — all the longing for energy stored up during the hungry winter. The clouds closed in and long rich thunder began to rumble from distant corners. Finally the skies opened and flashed. We ran back to the Grand Army Plaza station — I had to go back to Manhattan and the two SF natives I was with, to Crown Heights. Lightening exploded in front of us on the plaza, near the arch and the fountain. Rain soaked us to the bone.

It was wonderful.