Wednesday, April 13, 2011



by: Shirley Gutierrez

My wife Julie and I just got back from a cross-country skiing trip in the Sierras, where the temperatures are now in the 50s. There is indeed tons of snow, more than I've seen in years, and yet this ski season totally sucked for us. Why?

It seems that even in non-drought years, winter still behaves in weird ways. This whole beautiful blog entry of Fred's began because I wrote a letter when I was going absolutely crazy during the six week dry spell we had back in January/February. Skiers HATE warm dry spells in January! After that, we had a series of huge storms that pounded the Sierras and helped finish creating a snow pack that in some places is the height of a two-story building.

So what makes it hard to cross country ski in a big winter like this one? The answer: the crazy alternation between huge storms, storms that close roads and make transportation impossible, destroy property, and sometimes threaten life, followed by the sudden and inexplicable shift to to-warm temperatures that make the skiing conditions suck. In the first case, you can't get to the mountains, and the resorts are probably closed anyway. In the second case, you don't WANT to get to the mountains.

What happened to winter? You remember winter, right? You know, it used to rain and snow, and then it would stop, but it would stay cold and cloudy for a few days before the next moderately productive system moved in. Now, we have this festival of extremity, crazy dangerous storms that dump multiple feet of snow, followed by unseasonably warm weather.

My ability to get my favorite recreation is really not the most important thing, but the fact that I can no longer really get it in the way I could fifteen years ago tells us something about climate change and its effect on mountain ecosystems.

For the past decade, I have watched the forests along the highway 80 corridor visibly decline. Once thick stands of evergreen are now scrubby and thin, mixed with deciduous trees and other species that tolerate the warm temperatures better, and that tend to colonize in the wake of the catastrophic fires that are the result of the drought years. A certain percentage of the evergreens that are left are dead, though I can only speculate as to why. I think we do know that warm temperatures favor tree parasites like beetles, which can weaken forests and make the effects of fires worse.

I think the trees are like me: we both depend on winter, that time of rest, cleansing, and renewal. Like the trees, I need winter to BE winter, and that means that winter is of normal duration and consistency. I've lived in this area for 53 years, and what's happening now, with the weather lurching from extreme to extreme like a drunk, doesn't feel right, or safe, at all.

But now we have 20 feet of snow, and I know how this goes. Once the reservoirs are full, in fact over full, everyone goes back to watering their lawns, washing their cars at high pressure, running their back yard water features, etc. Out here in the suburbs where I live, not even catastrophic drought can make people conserve, so a big winter like this one will only harden the suburban view of water as entitlement. And you know, they have a point; if we can't really store the water we save, if in fact in a big year like this one the water authorities will have to LET WATER OUT of the reservoirs in order to accommodate the melt from this major snow pack, what do we gain when we conserve?

Fred put it well. Water resources seem to be in a boom and bust cycle, and we have to prepare for both. Some people say we should increase our storage capacity, but more water storage means dams, and dams are justly controversial. So what do we do? I'm not really sure, but in the meantime, I'll keep taking my Navy showers, turning off the tap as often as possible, and generally trying to save water. Even if I don't get to keep the water I save, I think those are good habits to have. And what I would tell my suburban neighbors is that unfortunately, I can be pretty sure that the urgent need for those habits will be a reality before long.

© 2011, Shirley Gutierrez, All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

Steven Gowin said...

I do love the photo and niece to hear from Shirley.

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