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Early snow in the Sierras - and worries about another drought

Vermillion Valley Resort is a cluster of wooden structures at the end of a narrow, boulder-dodging track that climbs east into the High Sierras from Shaver Lake.

It’s named in honor of what is said to have been a glorious Alpine meadow, now lost. In 1954, the Vermillion Valley was flooded to create Lake Thomas Edison, one of the chain of big reservoirs on the western slope of the range that provide water and hydroelectric power for California.

Water managers set the water levels at the reservoirs according to demand (for power and irrigation) and supply (snowpack and consequent runoff). In the worst days of California’s recent three-year drought, Lake Edison was drawn way down, to only 20 percent of capacity.

In the store at the resort, there’s a sign on the cash register that recalls those bleak days: “Don’t complain about the level of the lake if you’re still watering your lawn,” it says.
Today, Lake Edison is nearly full again, and the sign is a rare reminder of the drought, which broke last winter with a series of wild storms.

Helloratty/FlickrMono Creek, John Muir Wilderness

Before that, from 2007 to 2009, California's water problems were dire indeed. Lacking irrigation water, growers let fields go fallow, and unemployment rates in some Central Valley towns edged above 40 percent. The lack of water was also blamed for the ecological crisis in the Delta, where the Sacramento River’s storied salmon run was on the brink of extinction. The crisis grew so alarming that, in the summer of 2009, lawmakers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger crafted an emergency $11.4 billion plan that they said would solve California’s water problems for a generation.

But after the wet winter, California’s water problems were seemingly forgotten. Schwarzenegger’s pricey package of bond issues, conservation measures and a massive new dam on the San Joaquin River lost its political traction, and last month the governor pulled the enabling measure, Prop. 18, off the November ballot.

When it comes to water planning in California, “we’re kicking the can down the road for a couple of years,” says John McManus of the environmental group Earth Justice, which opposed Prop. 18 because of the dam-building.

Meanwhile, it’s not at all certain that the drought is over.

“We absolutely don’t know” whether this coming winter will be wet or dry, says Wendy Martin, statewide drought coordinator for the Department of Water Resources. “It’s very early in the season to be making projections,” she says, noting that “long range forecasting is an inexact science.”

Like everyone else, Martin is hoping for the best: “Drought would be tough for the state,” she says.

Vermillion Valley Resort is also a trailhead into the John Muir Wilderness, the gorgeous expanse of high country bounded by Yosemite on the north and Kings Canyon on the south. I spent five nights up there last week, and the wilderness also seemed to have forgotten the drought.

A forest ecologist could tell you the real score, but to me, the forests looked healthy enough – no apparent evidence of dying or drought-stressed trees. The creeks were low, and thus easy to ford, but they still were booming with water. Nowhere did I encounter that depressing sight that was all too common in the drought years – a big creek, dried to dust except for the deepest holes, where all the trout huddled in the brackish water, waiting to see if predators would get them before evaporation did.

The high country empties out after Labor Day. I saw perhaps six people, all them heading south on the John Muir Trail, the big hike from Tuolumne Meadows to Mt. Whitney.

One was a man from Portland, dressed as you would for a run in Portland – tights, baseball cap, Nike running shoes. On his back was a pack the size of a woman’s handbag from the 1950s.

He said he was running the John Muir Trail, and hoped to finish the 211 miles in nine days.
As we chatted, big grey clouds were blowing toward the Sierra crest. That night I camped on an outlet stream below a lake. By sundown you could see your breath, and all night long the wind gusted and blew the tent.

In the morning, the ground was covered with snow.

It must have been a rough night for the man from Portland – he couldn’t have had much of a tent in that little pack. But snow in September surely means a long, wet winter – doesn’t it?



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