Fire crews worked overnight to stop the Walker Fire spreading east to Highway 395 and north toward Highway 120. The fire is currently 7% contained, and more fire activity is expected today. Lee Vining is currently under a precautionary notice for potential evacuation in case fire activity spreads. Highway 120 west remains closed from Highway 395 to the Blue Slide (just east of Warren Fork). Highway 120 is unlikely to open today. The cause of the fire, originating at Walker Lake, is currently under investigation.
After four years of drought in California snow has become a rare sight in the Sierra Nevada, but in July?! Last week an upper-level low-pressure system moved westward across California and generated thunderstorms, rain, hail, and a local dose of real snow to the Tioga Pass region, especially in the Lee Vining Creek headwaters. The area around Saddlebag Lake, in particular, received a solid coating of snow, estimated between 6-10″ in the early morning hours of July 9. The morning was reminiscent of January, except for highlights of bright green vegetation struggling through an unfamiliar white blanket. With a strong El Nino building in the Pacific, might this be a harbinger of the winter ahead? California, the Sierra Nevada, and Mono Lake are greatly in need of anything close to a normal snowpack, but as this past week illustrates, there is no normal with precipitation in California, just variability.
If climate model trends prove true, a significant El Niño event may be present by next fall. Could it mean an end to the California drought? Will it reverse Mono Lake’s falling lake level?
If El Niño strengthens and persists into the late fall, there will be an increased chance of above-normal precipitation for Southern California. The Eastern Sierra could also benefit, and the prognosis would be encouraging compared to the last four years. However, there are no guarantees, especially in an age of increasing oceanic and atmospheric temperatures and shifting climate patterns. We have observed few strong El Niño events in California history, and if one develops this fall it will be the most closely monitored and talked about to date.
In 2014 there were encouraging signs of a strong El Niño, but forecasts missed the mark. The Pacific is showing even more robust conditions this year, and the models are more bullish than ever. Even if an El Niño brings abundant precipitation in 2016, one wet winter cannot make up the deficit from California’s most extreme drought in 1,200 years.
This post was also published as an article in the Summer 2015 Mono Lake Newsletter.
By now, nearly everyone has heard that California is suffering from record-setting drought. After four consecutive years of below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures, the state is reeling. Every watershed in California is stressed, a mandatory 25% water reduction is in effect for residents, urban areas have begun rationing supplies, over half a million acres of agricultural land are fallowed, fish species are nearing extinction, millions of trees in the Sierra are dying from drought-related stress, and fire danger is extreme. Water levels in lakes and reservoirs around the state are well-below normal. The Mono Basin is also suffering from extraordinary drought.
Four dry years have depressed Mono Lake five feet in elevation and the lake is expected to lose around two feet this year. (more…)
Over half of all urban water use goes toward outdoor use. In Southern California, residential lawns provide a frontier of opportunity to conserve water. The worst drought in the state’s history and some strategic financial incentives have sparked a water-saving landscape revolution.
Throughout Southern California public utilities are offering financial incentive to replace water-intensive lawns with more water efficient landscapes. Turf replacement in the Southland is so successful that (more…)
A superlative drought continues for California and the impacts are unprecedented. Wherever you live in the state you can’t easily ignore the feeling that winter has been mostly absent. Rain and snow have largely missed California four years in a row. Record dry and warm conditions have combined to produce the worst drought in the state’s recorded weather history. By some measures it’s the most acute in 1,200 years.
The central Sierra Nevada sits at the epicenter of the worst drought conditions. Mono Lake and the Eastern Sierra remain at the boundary of exceptional and extreme drought categories as defined by the US Department of Agriculture. It has been so dry that Lee Vining and the Mono Basin have lost roughly the equivalent of an entire year’s worth of precipitation within the last three. So far this water year, we are running at 23% of normal with more than half of the winter past us. Record warm temperatures in the Sierra continue with increased sublimation, evaporation, and further dehydration of soils. (more…)
California just logged its warmest winter in history by the widest margin in history. December 2014 through February 2015 hosted average temperatures soaring 5.9°F above the long-term mean. This record increase topped the previous record gain by 1.5°F.
The state’s last record warm winter was … all the way back in 2014. Before this year, December 2013–February 2014 was the warmest winter in California history by 4.4°F above average (a 0.8°F increase over the previous record, which was, until this year, the highest record increase).
What about Lee Vining? We are still compiling the data, but it’s probable that Lee Vining tracked with the rest of the state. In February 2015 alone, 26 of 28 days brought well-above average temperatures to the town, typically reaching 6–24 degrees above average. For several consecutive days in February temperatures hovered at 67°F (a record high for February). Such extreme winter warmth rapidly melts snowpack while accelerating soil moisture loss in snowless terrain.
And what about the Sierra Nevada snowpack? Statewide it’s currently the lowest in history, sitting at 17% of average for April 1.
Each summer, Mono Lake undergoes a transformation. Brine shrimp flourish, alkali flies assemble, birds multiply, and the lake slowly transitions from green to tropical blue. Trillions of the endemic brine shrimp, Artemia monica, graze on algae in the upper water column, efficiently converting algal biomass into Artemia biomass. By early summer, following a peak in Artemia population, the upper waters shift from looking murky green to transparent blue. The process is so dramatic that the difference can be seen from space.
During the summer of 2014, for the first time that we know of, the lake did not turn blue. Like previous years, Artemia hatched in the late winter, slowly developed through the spring, and grew to seemingly robust numbers in May and June. Unlike previous years, the lake retained its greenish cast through (more…)
This last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest Synthesis Report (fifth report since 1990). It is a stark, sobering, and interesting read in context of the previous reports since scientific data and analysis support increasing certainty regarding climate warming, anthropogenic causes, strong and comprehensive impacts on natural systems, and “high risk of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts globally” without urgent and significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
California is currently experiencing it’s worst drought in history as the warmest year in history is about to be recorded. The long-term, increasing temperature trend for California, the ocean, and the rest of the world’s landmass is unequivocal.
What does this mean for Mono Lake? The impacts this year are clear—the lake level dropped. Will this continue? Are the hydrologic models predicting future lake levels already out of date? Will climate change bring other, less obvious impacts? Are they underway now? Of the known changes, which ones can be mitigated? These are among the questions that the Mono Lake Committee is presently trying to answer.
What we do know is that there is no one else to take the lead. While US Forest Service and California State Parks may wish to be more responsive, their staffing and resources are strapped. The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power is only responsible for fixing the damage of past excessive water diversions. It will be up to all of us and the Mono Lake Committee to find solutions and to take action at Mono Lake as we cope with the impacts of climate change.
A simulcast of the International Forum on Sage-Grouse in Salt Lake City, Utah will be streamed live at the Lee Vining Community Center on November 13–14 from 7:00am onward. Greater Sage-Grouse will not be attending, but they will not be far away. These birds have been the focus of unprecedented conservation and management efforts, and our regional population of Sage-Grouse has been proposed for Threatened listing by the US Fish & Wildlife Service.
The forum is free to everyone in Lee Vining, and will be particularly of note to those who are interested or have a stake in the conservation of these iconic birds. You can check out the forum schedule for more details (note that start times in Lee Vining will be one hour earlier due to Pacific Standard Time). Jeff Hunter and the Bodie Hills Conservation Partnership are hosting the forum free for the public.