A few thoughts on the Oroville Dam situation

This is adapted from something i wrote on Facebook today, blog-iffied upon request. I will try to go back to adding the occasional blog post here, if I can.

As of the morning of February 13rd, the immediate risk has lessened as the water has stopped pouring over the emergency ‘spillway’ – which is actually an un-reinforced 30 foot tall concrete dam. Water is being routed down the main spillway, which is also damaged, and there are more storms on the way. And after those, comes the spring melt of the enormous Sierra snowpack. The risk of lots of loss of life has thankfully decreased a lot. But the risk of very bad things hasn’t gone away. The engineers who run the dam have to somehow dump out more water than comes in until they can fix the spillways, which may not even be possible given the amount of time available.

It sounds like the emergency spillway very nearly collapsed. As mentioned above, it includes a ~30 foot tall concrete dam. Some very quick research: Lake Oroville holds about 25 square miles of water. Some of that is under 30 feet deep, but even given that, if this ‘spillway’ gave out, my rough calculation is it would release more water than the entirety of Lake Castaic, a large reservoir in southern California. If that had happened yesterday, before people got out, it would have probably amounted to the worst loss of civilian life in this country due to disaster since the Galveston hurricane of 1900. Or worse. if that came at all close to happening, then some VERY serious questions need to be asked.

California’s water situation is …complicated. Many think the state is all desert or it just never rains. The truth is much more complicated. Most of the state is not desert. However precipitation ranges widely from year to year. The one constant is that it almost all falls in the cold season. Oddly, very dry series of years often occur just before or after single very wet years. During wet years, storms cross an ocean that covers half the globe before hitting the Sierras and Transverse Ranges – 10,000 to 14,000 foot tall walls of granite. The amount of precipitation that falls is mind blowing – storms with over 20 inches of rain in the mountains over a day or two are not unheard of.

California’s Central Valley, home to several large cities and the largest and most productive factory farms perhaps on Earth, is mostly a floodplain. In the 1860s a flood turned it into an inland sea. Now, huge dams protect the valley from most floods and provide water in the summer – though a repeat of the 1860s flood would certainly overwhelm all the dams. Even in smaller floods, dams are not without risk. They can break, and in a geologically active place like the Sierra with high erosion most dams fill with sediment and become useless in 50 to 250 years anyway.
I realize that’the whole valley should have been left natural’ is probably not realistic. But on the other hand, if more space had been left for rivers and wetlands, more water could be released for the dams earlier, reducing risk. If flexible farming like that in the Yolo bypass took up the entire central valley, and people did not build permanent homes in the flood areas, the valley could be allowed to flood, and would replenish aquifers. Instead, the rivers are reduced to gutters and when it does flood the precious water is dumped into the sea. California needs to do a better job protecting its rivers, floodplains and wetlands downstream from its dams to reduce damage from floods. We also need to protect the watersheds upstream to reduce sedimentation and floods entering the dams in the first place.

A lot of weird garbage is flying around the Internet. People or things getting blamed, mostly in error:

-‘Liberals’ and ‘tree huggers’. – aren’t the ones who built dams or built in the flood plains. and ‘tree huggers’ actually warned of this possible disaster a decade ago. So… nope. And for you sick weirdos who take pleasure in ‘liberals’ potentially being drowned in this flood? Butte County went for Trump as did most other parts of the Sacramento Valley. Though it doesn’t really matter. you are a seriously screwed up individual if you wish drowning on people who vote for a different person, even one as awful as Trump.

-‘Trump’ – speaking of which – no, he’s an asshole, but he hasn’t been around long enough to cause this problem. He doesn’t know anything about California dams, nor does he care. Bush, Obama, and Clinton didn’t fix the dangerous emergency spillway situation. And considering Trump’s incompetence, cries to get him involved seem a bad idea to me. He’d probably appoint someone horrifically incompetent to deal with the problem anyway.

-‘The Delta Smelt’ – a poor little fish that is going extinct due to bad land and water management. The punching bag of certain people who want unlimited water to waste on their fields and lawns. If anything trying to save the smelt meant slightly more river left intact and slightly lower flood risk. Anyhow, there’s a good chance it is extinct anyway.

-‘Climate Change’ – it is likely it made this particular flood worse by causing higher snow levels and more precipitation to fall as rain instead of snow. But did not cause the underlying problem. The extreme rains have a historic precedent. There were worse floods in the 1800s. Climate change is a big deal and we need to stop adding to it, but blaming every California drought or flood or tree death on it ignores the other much deeper and more complex problems facing the watersheds and ecology of the state.

-lack of infrastructure maintenance – yeah a legit problem. But who to blame? Happened under the watch of both parties and many others. Apparently people don’t want to properly maintain dams. One could argue this is an example of apathy towards the well-being of rural people, but if the dam broke people in the larger cities would face serious problems later on as well.

-People living in flood plains – not the fault of the people living there, they are just trying to get by and there aren’t many other options. These aren’t wealthy towns. When a whole valley is a flood plain, that is where your farm is, and there aren’t other options, you just do what you do and hope for the best. the whole Central Valley should have been developed very differently but that isn’t the fault of the people who live there now.

-Complete failure of land use planning, conservation, water use, oversight of any of these problems over the last 150 years by both/all parties – yeah I am gonna go with this. Definitely this.

Moving forward, if we are lucky the spillway will not fail, but the dam is also not able to do its intended job in reducing floods. This will cause impacts all the way down to the sea, because the Feather River is huge by California standards, probably the biggest tributary of the sacramento. At least one levee failure in the Delta was apparently already happening. if too many delta levees fail, salt water may intrude into the new ‘bay’ and make the California aqueduct unusable. Which is a Big Deal. So… still a LOT to watch here.

I am hoping we avoid the worse scenarios here. I am also hoping that this event causes a rethinking of water and watershed management in the state, though I am not hopeful.

Sorry this is kind of an unedited and ragged post. I will try to share more as it comes.

California note 1

In the sierra foothills. Typing on my portable electronic device amidst the squeaks and squawks of stellars jays and quail and other birds I didn’t know or had forgotten. It’s cool out, a gentle breeze, but that won’t last. Sitting on a rock covered in ancient lichens. The forest here is grey pine and canyon live oak with manzanita, toyon, and the ubiquitous non native bromes and oatgrass. On a ridge not too far away are ponderosa pines. I wonder if they are doomed to die like the ones across the hill,a victim of drought, climate change, bad forestry, bad grazing, the bromes.
They say nature bats last but I get the feeling this is only the second inning. We batted and now nature is up. We think we are winning but we are losing. Badly. It’s only begun.
It’s the smells that bring it back. I think it’s the lichens. They smell so sweet. That and sun baked oaks. Back to a summer on the other side of the great valley. Maybe 15 years ago. Studying the spread of wild oats. We learned that in this case the damage was already done. Not spreading because they are already here, everywhere they could be. Whatever they replaced is gone.
Two days ago we drove across the Central Valley. It’s always felt like a dead place to me but this time its energy just vibrated in the air. Dead isn’t the right word but I don’t know what is. This is drought twisted sideways. On one ridgetop trees die but in another range to the shout the lakes and ponds are full. Roaming summer storms dump rain where they didn’t before. Winter storms fail. Overlying it all is the simple fact. We used the water wrong. We used the land wrong. We used the very air wrong. The land isn’t dead. It’s in a deep hybernation. It knows, in some sense, it can wait out its disease. Meanwhile its back is turned to us. Cold, hot, dry, twisted sideways. Like an ancient turtle buried in mud. After we are gone it will stick it’s head up, find what is left, and work from there. It doesn’t have to be that way but all indications are that it will be.

I try to talk to people about this place but that too twists sideways. The feeling of loss turns to hostility. Stupid lawns. Stupid Monsanto. Stupid almonds. Stupid dams. Stupid invasive wild oats. Stupid people who I also love. Stupid. My time with California reminds me of one and only one thing.
A dying relationship. which i have had, with the backdrop of these mountains. I say something originating in love but it filters through the fear and anger in my heart and it comes out mean. She does the same. Our conversations as through a filter. The end is already written and we must act it out regardless of how aware we are of the end. A drought mixed with feverish heat we brought on knowingly. A trail we always loved viewed through the filter of failure. Looking at this oak covered hill feeling love and desperation. Feeling the end. Not here yet but coming. When I do leave it is reluctantly but am made to re avow my loss again and again. When called back I always had to answer no. So I left. It wasn’t my choice at first but later it is. Worst of both worlds. That lichen smell brings back my love of this place as strongly as that summer so long ago. It always will. I left. And coming back even for these moments is an emotional battlefield.
California… I tried. I really did. Maybe in a different time, a different world. Not this one. Sleep well.

Sunk Into The Land, Ripping Up Sod

It’s hard to find solid work in conservation. It’s harder still to find solid work in conservation without being willing to move. And when home is the heart of rural Vermont, well… there are options, but not a lot of them. The world expects me to move, and I have. 15 times in the period since I left for college and now.

We are not going to move again. I am growing roots deep into the cold soil. Our land is only a little over an acre, but an acre can easily fill a full summer life. In the all too short period bookended by maple syrup season and deer hunting season, this place, my home and field shared with my wife… this is our core. It is a place of love… with my wife, my few close friends who live nearby, and the land.

Before we came to this home, the previous owners had deep roots – that even if we live very long lives we will likely not surpass. Over 70 years, an entire life lived here, a family grown and dispersed, a person rooted here deep enough to remain a decade or two after her husband passed away of old age, with whom she had built the house itself. We only met her briefly, and I wish we had found more time to hear her stories, learn of this place and the changes it has seen since 1940. Her family name still clings to nearby landmarks and in the sound the pine makes in the breeze.

They had most recently kept the field as a mowed lawn, probably because for much of their life it was a dairy farm. Lawn here is just what happens if you keep cows around. Back where I grew up, a lawn is a sign of waste, of water dumped on the ground instead of left in the river or used to grow food. I do not like lawn and my wife, having grown up in a cold desert with few lawns, is ambivalent. I spend time ripping up the sod with my bare hands. Anything I can find that isn’t invasive or harmful goes in its place. Apple trees, cherry trees. Blueberry bushes. A huge vegetable garden. Cuttings of red osier dogwood from a plant I found hiding behind the shed. A four level rain garden, Jewelweed, a native wildflower also growing in the strange little refuge behind the shed. Slate stepping stones. Bulbs – tulips, crocuses, daffodils. Native plants from a friend’s land. Native plants bought when I can find and afford them. Native plants that jumped in to sme of the newly open space where lawn was ripped out, including one uncommon orchid that appeared in a wet spot on its own. Birch trees, and a fraction of the maple seedlings that try to grow here (i still have to cull most though it makes me sad). Chives – delicious and also apparently a native species. Oregano that I found growing in the field and spread around. Milkweed – for the monarchs, for the bees, and to displace the ugly hayfield grasses – spread scattered across the field last fall both via me and the neighbor kids tossing fluffy seeds and via me digging up and transplanting their tubers. A copious fire pit – into which goes the cut up buckthorn which i dislike even more than the grass. A scorched spot in the sod where I sat for many chilly spring hours boiling down maple sap. Dead rotten pine wood left to lay on the grass in a wet spot and rot – the insects like it and once I found a salamander hiding under some old rotten firewood nearby. The ubiquitous goldenrod. Mint. Hawkweed, though i watch closely because I hear it is invasive elsewhere. New England Aster. A deep purple plant oddly named “Carpet Bugle” that is displacing the grass in front of our house – it isn’t native but the beleaguered native bumblebees absolutely love it. Anything else that pops up I think a bumblebee might like. Bumblebees can’t use a lawn. Ground ivy, a weed I pull intermittently but have left alone when it’s fighting with the turfgrass. The bees like this too. Innumerable dandelions.

The first year the turf had inertia. Pulling grass up, smothering it with cardboard, flipping it upside down to die, a form of meditation, a mantra ‘less lawn, less lawn’… it seemed endless. The second year the battle continued, though change shined in the cracks and the holes in the sod. This year… this year the grass is yielding. I will grant it a space behind our house where the neighborhood kids like to play, and where if things go as we hope our kids may play some day too. I will allow it to persist around the picnic table and some of the places the snowplow scrapes clean in the winter, though i will grant it no fertilizer or well water. But beyond that.. the grass is yielding both in the front of the house and in the wide field in the back. The difference in how the field looks is noticeable already this year. I expect a flush of goldenrod and milkweed late this summer. Not the sneeze-inducing hay grasses of two summers ago waving in the wind smothering the soil. The buzzing of bees. A monarch, perhaps? Definitely milkweed tussock moths. Moths are the forgotten corner of the natural world, where wonder exists that is only just being rediscovered.

So I pull the plants I don’t want, divide and move and split the plants I do want. I bring in a few plants from elsewhere. There are many more native species I hope to either bring in or entice in with my turf removal. We work in our big veggie garden.. here in mid-elevation Vermont where the growing season is so short we start the plants indoors in March or April. The old timers say don’t plant until memorial day and sure enough the forecast for next Friday calls for a low of 35 – easily close enough that a few hours of clear and calm could send our cold hollow down to 31, 30, perhaps even 29. We hope for a blanket of cloud or frost-mixing wind to protect the few things we have planted, but the rest will wait.

I don’t want to leave our field. I don’t want to go to work sometimes, even though it is field work season, because there is still too much lawn, or because the moneywort is growing into the strawberries again. The sunset however vibrant is a disappointment, though I’ve been known to stay out and dump compost on cardboard covering the grass with a headlamp amidst the fireflies and distant lightning flashes. It continues until the days start to shrink back down, until a few hard frosts zap the maples to glorious reds and oranges, and the field to yellow and brown. Time for preparation – preserving food, deer hunting (this will be my second year, perhaps it will be years before I am successful), and then the resting time of winter. Over the winter I will undoubtedly become reobsessed with creating my video game that I have set aside for the moment… I will become restless and imagine starting a business, or leaving the conservation world for good. One of these days… maybe. Though I’d rather not. Meanwhile, the wood stove needs another log or two…

But tonight the wood stove lays empty. Summer is here, but unlike the maple trees which spend their summer energy on exuberant green leaves, my energy goes towards growing roots.

Weather Videos

I haven’t been inspired to blog much lately, but I have started a small new project to make silly fun videos about weather (mostly in Vermont). If you are interested in such things, you can find them at my Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC9d8BspVvnrRjqjJPDSY0FA . Let me know if you enjoy them (or not)… because that may have an influence on if I keep doing them.
Enjoy your winter!

What If?

For those who clicked through to my blog from the “What-If” I have participated in, welcome to my blog! A few things…

if you are interested in conservation and/or the desert, check out the other blogs in this blog network.

I haven’t been great about updating this blog lately, but it is loosely about my interest in slowing down the flow of water through human-influenced landscapes. This goes a lot of different directions including coloring icicles with food coloring, getting caught in Tropical Storm Irene, wringing my hands about California’s water situation, and dabbling in attempts to make an ecology-based video game (it works… kinda… but it’s buggy.)

I work as an ecologist, conducting vegetation mapping. Basically this means I go look at forests and wetlands and other natural places, I gather data, and I use my data and that of many others to draw maps of the different types of ecosystems. I use ArcGIS, and use air photos and LIDAR data where we have it – Vermont isn’t as hi-tech as some places, so I don’t have a drone yet. I post occasional tidbits about it on this tumblr.

I also am interested in weather and post about that here.

I am highly involved obsessed with iNaturalist, a place where citizen scientists and professional ecologists alike can share any living thing they find in nature. The data is used for a variety of real-life research goals. The best part? You can use your smartphone like a trichorder – photograph somethingand it automatically tracks where you found it and people online will help you identify it, sometimes within minutes. I think it’s just about the best thing ever.

I have a twitter but mostly it just reposts every time I add something to iNaturalist, which is really quite often.

This post is making me realize I have way too many projects.

I live in Vermont, which constantly surprises me with its beauty. Today every branch and pine needle is coated in snow. It’s constantly changing and always beautiful.

And lastly.. if you haven’t checked out Randall Munroe’s What If series, definitely do so! It’s incredible, as is all of Randall’s art and science communication material and I feel so honored to be a part of it. Cheesy, but true!

On Nostalgia and Giant Snowflakes

Late fall and early winter can be harsh times in Vermont. The beautiful transient fall foliage has gone away, but a deep snowpack usually hasn’t formed. Alternating bouts of rain and snow lead to ice and mud, and dusk comes at 4 PM. I spent much of the second half of November on my first time deer hunting… a story in and of itself. When early December came, the dustings of perfect deer-tracking snow gave way to wintry mix and wet cold. It is a bit of a lonely time, and lonely times tend to cause a bit of sentimental backwards-gazing.

It’s funny to be nostalgic about a time I KNOW I was so much less happy, but the feelings are there nonetheless. I think back to a past love – but not a person… a place. I hear stories of rain finally drenching the parched canyons of coastal California. I imagine the indescribable sound of a boulder rolling in a canyon during a flash flood. I can nearly smell the purple and black sage waking up with the first raindrops. I envision the way mosses and clubmoss awaken and turn green seemingly minutes after the first rains, the way wild cucumber sends out its eerie odd tendrils to feel around for dry shrubs to ramble up upon and sprout its pufferfish pods. I think of the vibrant exuberance that follows a wet year. One sizable storm has already hit, and an even bigger one is roaring down the coast as I type with another likely behind it. It may not end the drought, but to the California sunflower and the bigpod ceanothus, these storms will be enough. The hills will burst forth with yellow and white, a strange inverse vibrancy to the fall foliage of red maple and birch of mid-autumn in Vermont. Seeds will fall and new plants will sprout. All while Vermont is buried in frozen mud awaiting more substantial snow.

Of course, as is sometimes the case with lost love, I don’t limit myself to thoughts. During the cold dark nights, when sleety rain is pelting the window, I’m watching over my past canyons. As part of my long-standing obsession with iNaturalist.org , I spend hours identifying plants posted by others. I even dig through some very old photos and added a few observations of my own. I keep refreshing the Weather West blog, hearing stories of lowering clouds and rising winds. I imagine the renewal of the first heavy rains on a fire scar, as they rip through the soil like a scab, exposing long-dormant seeds below and removing debris to rush downhill into someone’s swimming pool.

I imagine I will always hold a sort of deep, confused love for California’s canyons… but it comes like a flash flood and is gone again just as fast. Vermont’s moods are varied and sometimes challenging, but it doesn’t take long for a new Vermont wonder to emerge. This week we were pelted by a bizarre wrong-way Nor’easter that came from the southeast instead of moving up the coast from the southwest. It had pulled in warm air, and we were getting the same frustrating rain, sleet, and wet sodden snow… until suddenly everything changed. I looked outside to see what appeared to be soap suds blowing around our porchlight. Massive – absolutely massive blobs of snowflakes. Some of them were at least three inches across, and they fell so slowly they seemed suspended in air. We ran outside to the sound of plopping snowballs and dripping meltwater from the rooftops. Looking up into the falling snow globs was dizzying, catching one in your mouth would literally fill it full of snow. This must be what it is like for a three year old to witness a hard wet snow… and when I was three I had never seen snow fall. As the snow squall moved away there was even a flash of lightning. Thundersnow!

I don’t know why the snowflake blobs were so enormous, but I know people saw them elsewhere – in Rutland, in Calais, in Burlington. The atmosphere was very near freezing for a long way up, so perhaps the snow globs had a long time to gravitate towards each other as they wavered a few tenths of a degree from freezing on their long descent. Or perhaps they hovered in an updraft like hail, slowly growing until they reached immense size. Either way, a memory came into my head… snowflakes big as golf balls.. a song, from long ago, from a part of my life that felt like a whole other world, like I was a whole different person.

Piebald: Part II: The Nor’Easter.

…another chapter is written
I think we’re going on twenty six
it took a nor’easter to break the silence
that night snowflakes fell as big as golfballs
foreshadow the mood for my journey…

The word ‘home’ still feels like an oversized clammy wet cobble when I say it. it’s only slowly sinking in that I finally know what that word means.

2014-2015 Winter Forecast Roundup

The second half of Fall is the time of year some of my favorite science fiction short stories are published. But these stories don’t have spaceships, aliens, or robots. That’s right, I’m talking about the long-range forecast for the coming winter!

Why do I call them science fiction, you ask? Well, because they tend to be wrong. Here’s an overview from last year (see my post from last year):

The Farmer’s Almanac is predicting a very cold winter, especially the second half of the winter. (Though again… ‘bitterly cold and full of snow’ even describes a ‘warm’ Vermont winter). Accu-Weather predicts above average snow in northern Vermont but a slow start to winter in the southern part of the state. The Weather Channel has a similar forecast except for a warm December, along with a bunch of annoying audio ads. (a side note… why would anyone want a news video when they could read the same text five times as fast in peace?) NOAA’s typically vague forecast calls for above normal temperatures for the first part of the winter but equal odds of warmer or colder than average conditions later in the winter. Equal odds are given for a wet, dry, or average amount of precipitation. And if you don’t like those, there are more forecasts to choose from too.

The Farmer’s Almanac was correct this time… but it seems like they always forecast a very cold winter. The Accu-weather forecast was so/so, it wasn’t an unusually snowy winter, just a cold one. NOAA was dead wrong, except for the ‘equal odds’ forecasts which weren’t possible to quantify success. Perhaps that is the point.

So, the forecasts all called for something different, and thus some were correct and some weren’t. What are we up against this year?

While I don’t fully understand how this works, the Old Farmer’s Almanac is different from the Farmer’s Almanac. Their forecasts aren’t too different though… the former is calling for a ‘bitterly cold’ winter for northern New England and the latter for a ‘wintry, white and wet’ winter. Those all sound like a cold forecast, except for the ‘wet’ part which perhaps alludes to thaws or ice storms (yuck). Accu-weather calls for a ‘snowy’ winter. The Weather Channel again has a confusing forecast, in the text it calls for a warm December with little information about January, but the video calls for a cold winter. NOAA is again calling for a warmer than average winter with equal chances of high or low precipitation amounts.

For a minute in writing this I became confused that I perhaps clicked on some wrong links, because pretty much all of these forecasts are nearly identical to what each of them forecast last year.

In general i trust NOAA but I am skeptical of the warm forecast. The main reason was outlined in this previous post. There is evidence that the same sort of ridge setup that formed last year could recur this year. That pattern lead to cold conditions in New England, and unfortunately also led to drought in California. Hopefully I am wrong about that last bit as the situation there is quite dire.

As usual, it’s anyone’s guess. Between all these forecasts, one of them has to be correct, right? The last few days have been very warm with record highs set in several parts of Vermont, but next week will be colder – more normal late October weather is on the way. The mountains will probably even pick up their first significant snow.