Tuesday, March 3, 2015

California's Precious Disappearing Prairies: A trip to the Willms Road Pond

One of California's precious landscapes is being lost, again. The state once had a vast prairie extending for 400 miles from Redding to Bakersfield. The grasslands were of course put to the plow, and agriculture rules the environment today. Less than 5% of the original grasslands of the Great Valley remain, and they've been under renewed assault in just the past few years.
The problem is nuts, and specifically almonds. The valley and nearby hills produce 80% of the world's supply, and they constitute the largest agricultural export we produce right now. The trees use prodigious amounts of water, but that hasn't stopped a vast expansion of the orchards into the remaining prairies on the east side of the valley where the Sierra Nevada foothills begin. With a crippling drought and no reservoir irrigation possible, the landowners are simply drilling wells and pumping the water from the ground. The supply of groundwater is limited and in severe decline. I am pretty sure these wells cannot provide more than a few year's worth of water before they'll be dry.
Still, the prairies aren't gone yet, and I took a break from taxes this weekend to catch the sunset from Warnerville and Willms Roads east of Oakdale. We drove through miles of newly planted orchards, and into some of the grazing lands beyond. It was a stunning reversal from the appearance last year of dead grass and dry streambeds. We've had adequate amounts of rain on the valley floor, with upwards of 10 inches in December, and a few good storms in February to make up for a record dry January. The grass was green and growing, and the ephemeral streams and vernal pools were filled with water. We just need more snow higher up in the mountains to get well from the drought, as the snowpack is less than 20% of normal right now, with the end of the rainy season looming.
We were following on the heels of an unusually active thunderstorm system. Our weather is pretty benign most of the time, but this storm dropped upwards of a foot of snow in the high country. The clouds were an incredible sight in the last glow of the dying sunset.

There were animals out and about. The Western Meadowlarks were present in large numbers, trying to attract some mates. They have a most beautiful song, which I captured on a brief video that you can listen to at my Geotripper's California Birds site (click here).
The story was the same with the Red-winged Blackbirds. There were dozens, if not hundreds, at our favorite little stock pond on Willms Road. They were strutting about displaying their bright red and yellow shoulder patches.
If some of the smaller animals weren't paying careful attention, they might not have noticed the hawk lurking in the almond trees. I almost didn't see it myself as we passed.
The biggest surprise came as we passed the small cliff along the creek that crossed Warnerville Road. I was expecting or hoping to see some burrowing owls, but the biggest hole was occupied by the raccoon seen below. When it noticed us, it just up and disappeared into the burrow.

The remaining prairies have persisted because no one could think of how to make money from them other than grazing cows or sheep. Now that almonds are a lucrative source of money, there is a target painted on the ranchlands in the Sierra Nevada foothills. I hope the state gets around to writing the groundwater regulations so we can get a handle on the unrestrained development that is taking place right now. It's clearly unsustainable in the long run.

Monday, March 2, 2015

How Did Fish Get into the Desert of the Basin and Range Province?

Source: "Pleistocene Lakes and Rivers of Mojave" by Philip Stoffer (14 January 2004). Changing Climates and Ancient Lakes (.html). Desert Landforms and Surface Processes in the Mojave National Preserve and Vicinity. USGS, US Department of the Interior. Retrieved on 2009-09-12. - http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2004/1007/images/glaciallakes.gif.
Following a pair of posts that mention fish in the desert (here and here), I received a comment asking where the connections were that allowed fish to make the journey from the Colorado River system into areas as isolated at the Owens Valley and Death Valley. Courtesy of Philip Stoffer of the U.S. Geological Survey, here is the map. The drainage through Danby, Cadiz, and Bristol Lakes is the probably route of numerous fish species during the ice ages. From there, they were able to move through Soda and Silver Lakes into the Death Valley-Owens River system.

It is an unexpectedly diverse group of fish. According to this report, there were 56 species and 75 subspecies of fish living in the Basin and Range/Mojave Desert provinces. Ten of these historically known species/subspecies are extinct. Another 75 are listed, are candidates for federal listing, or are species of concern. 9 out of 10 of the subspecies are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world. The fish include the highly endangered Devils Hole Pupfish, the popular Lahontan cutthroat trout, as well as a variety of dace, chubs and suckers.

The story of why they are endangered is easy to summarize. They need water to survive, and so do humans. It is the choices that humans make that will determine the future of this fascinating group of fish. The Owens pupfish (Cyprinodon radiosus) would be extinct today but for the intervention of a Fish and Wildlife officer who carried the worlds entire population (800 individuals) out of a drying pond in two buckets, and established the fish in six other localities (four of these remain). The Devils Hole Pupfish in Death Valley National Park exist today because of a Supreme Court decision halting the drilling of groundwater near the only pool in which they exist.
A Death Valley Pupfish, found in Salt Creek on the floor of Death Valley.


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Where the River No Longer Runs, Life Persists: Fossil Falls in the Eastern Sierra Nevada

Red Hill near Fossil Falls, with the crest of the Sierra Nevada in the distance.
The Sierra Nevada is the largest single block of rock in the United States. It takes the shape of a huge 400 mile long westward tilting range reaching elevations exceeding 14,000 feet. As such, it acts as a gigantic barrier to Pacific storms. The lands to the east are dry and largely barren. One high mountain range after another, like the White and Inyo Mountains, or the Panamints, capture what little precipitation remains, so that Death Valley is left as the driest place on the continent.

A few streams originate near the crest and flow into the Owens Valley. For years these streams fed the Owens River which filled Owens Lake, covering just over 100 square miles to a depth of 30 feet or so. From there the water could only evaporate or sink into the ground. Today the lake is dry, the victim of water diversions that sent Sierra water to Los Angeles. The lake would have to fill to a depth of 200 feet before spilling over into the next basin at China Lake. That would require much more precipitation than happens in the present day.
Upstream portion of Fossil Falls
But the climate has not always been like it is today. At various times during the last 2 million years the world cooled, and glaciers grew in the Sierra Nevada, eventually covering as much as 30% of the range. The glaciers would melt and some 10% of the Sierra water would drain into Owens Lake and spill over into China Lake, eventually reaching Death Valley. Rivers once flowed across the barren desert.

The rivers were like a highway for life. At some point in time, they connected with the Colorado River and numerous species of fish entered the waterways: trout, chub, pupfish and many others established populations in the streams and lakes of the Sierra and eastern desert valleys. As the glaciers receded and disappeared, so did the rivers and lakes of the desert. The few fish populations that survived did so in springs and Sierra streams. For the most part, aquatic life withered away in the desert heat.
There was another element to the story. The extensional forces that broke up the crust and formed the desert valleys produced fault lines, and provided conduits for lava to reach the surface. Volcanoes formed in many areas of the desert, including impossibly large calderas like the one at Mammoth Lakes, but in other places, the volcanism was less explosive. South of Owens Lake, there were a number of basaltic lava flows extruded within the last 130,000 years or so. Some of them crossed and blocked the Owens River. The rivers developed channels across the lava  flows, and in one place, the waters poured over a forty foot wall, forming a waterfall.

The waters carved a channel in the solid basalt, and swirling gravel and boulders carved deep potholes. Fossil Falls, just a short distance off of Highway 395 near Red Hill cinder cone is what remains of this now extinct river. It is a fascinating place to explore, and was one of our stops on our journey to Death Valley a few weeks ago.
There is little to suggest that aquatic life could survive here, but the potholes play host to a surprising survivor of wetter days. Fairy shrimp are small branchiopods that lay eggs that can survive long periods of dehydration. They lie in the sediment in the bottoms of potholes at Fossil Falls, and on the rare occasions that rain fall, water fills the potholes. This sets off a race for survival as the eggs hatch, and the organisms try to reach adulthood and reproduce before the pitiless sun dries up the water in the holes. It's a hard life, but they've survived this way for thousands of years.

It had rained a week before our arrival and water stood in a few of the potholes. I took a close look, and the  small pools were teeming with life. I couldn't get any good pictures, but a video I took shows the action. There are longish gray shrimp and some kind of very small swimming creatures at the water's edge. It's is amazing to see life persisting in the most difficult of environments.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Barren Cliffs Reveal a Rich and Violent Past: Red Rock Canyon State Park

Deserts have such a fearsome reputation around the world, but deserts can be both beautiful and at certain times of the year a pleasant place to visit. The dry lands of the American Southwest are no exception. For geologists, the treat is made better by the marvelous exposures of barren rock that tell stories of the past when the landscape was very different. This is one of those places: Red Rock Canyon State Park in California. We paid a visit on our way to Death Valley a few weeks ago.
The Garlock fault cuts across the boundary between the Basin and Range province and the Mojave Desert, forming a high linear ridge called the El Paso Mountains. Erosion has stripped away the alluvial cover, exposing the underlying continental sedimentary rocks. The rocks, candy-striped in tones of red, pink and white, formed in a deep basin between 12.5 to 7.5 million years ago, accumulating to a depth of more than a mile. The sediments include arkosic sandstone, siltstone, shale, along with volcanic ash and lava flows recorded several dozen eruptive events. The environment was perhaps semiarid, but certainly wetter than the current day. The fossil record suggests an Upper Sonoran paleobotanical zone, with Black Locust, Mexican pinyon pine, cypress, California live oak, red-root, acacia, desert thorn and palm. Similar plants are found today in the high mountain ridges between San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Peaks in southern California (a region I explored often in my youth).

The steep cliffs have attracted filmmakers for decades, making appearances in all manner of movies, including a lot of westerns, and one of my favorites, the opening scenes of "Jurassic Park".  But instead of dinosaurs, paleontologists have discovered a treasure trove of late Cenozoic mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds. More than 100 species have been found thus far.
What kinds of animals lived in the western North America around 10 million years ago? It was a diverse ecosystem with many unexpected species for those who think that deer, antelope and buffalo cover all the bases. Thanks to David Whistler, we have a rather comprehensive list of the animals who lived here.

On the open plains, one would have seen two different rhino species, ten species of horse, four kinds of camels, three antelope species, two elephant-like gomphotheres, vultures, two large land tortoises, pika, two ground squirrel species, deer mice, and rabbits

In the brush covered woodlands, one would have found two oreodonts (extinct sheep-like animals), peccary, three-toed browsing horse, short-legged camel, ringtailed cat, skunk, two weasel-like animals, wolverine,  four distinctly different spiny lizards, night lizard, rosy boa, racer snakes, hedgehog, chipmunk, two gopher-like rodents, two different pocket mice, a bat, three small perching birds, mole, four different shrews, a small, rear-fanged snake, and two alligator lizard species.

This rich selection of plant eating animals represented a huge source of walking protein, so there were predators, lots of them. There were six different species of canids (ancestors to the wolves, foxes, and coyotes), a very large bear-like animal, and three large ancestors to the cats including a an early form of sabertooth.
We spent our time learning the basics of stratigraphy, practiced a rudimentary form of geologic mapping, and interpreted the environment of deposition from the nature of the sediments exposed in the cliff. I wandered between groups of working students, answering questions, but my eyes kept ranging across the cliffs, thinking how incredible it is that we live in a time when we can discern the past history of our planet, and in so doing, understanding how we came to be. We are both a part of the Earth's ecosystem, and yet exist outside that ecosystem (for better or worse).

This rich variety of animals in Miocene time occurred because the climate provided rich sources of food, and diversity of the ecosystem was the result. Today, if a climate is not to our liking, we alter the ecosystem to our own ends. We build our shelters, we travel in little cocoons with air-conditioning and stereophonic sound, and we import vast amounts of resources and fuels to maintain our chosen lifestyle. We tend to ignore the other elements of the ecosystem where we live and visit. We don't embrace our environment, we cut ourselves off from it. It's when I'm in a place like Red Rock that I am reminded of where we come from, our ultimate heritage. We are children of the Earth. And there are limits.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Different Kind of "Snow" in California, and a Coming World of Hurt

 There is a different kind of snow falling in California right now. It might look vaguely like that cold stuff that has been falling back east, but the resemblance stops at "white". The almond orchards of the Great Valley have been blooming for the last two weeks or so, and the flower petals are starting to fall to the ground as the buds break out into an explosion of green (green leaves now, and green piles of money later).

The almond blossoms are one of the earliest fruit and nut trees to bloom. The pink peach blossoms are just getting started. Things look great right now. The valley floor is green with grass and the ground is moist, because here in the valley, our rainfall totals are actually ahead of normal in some places. In Modesto so far this year, 10.70 inches of rain has fallen, when 8.45 inches is normal. Last year at this time, we had received a paltry 3.26 inches.

So this is good news, right? Not really. It's good that the orchards didn't need a February "drink" from the irrigation system. It's good that the ranches in the foothills have some of the best grazing conditions in a couple of years. But it won't last. The normal rainfall in our valley was not matched by normal precipitation in the Sierra Nevada, and that is where the precipitation counts. The snowpack in the Sierra is barely a quarter of normal right now, meaning very low runoff in the spring, and almost no irrigation water available for the hot summer months.
We are in a world of hurt. The state is in the fourth year of drought, and there are just not a lot of alternative sources of water to fall back on. We've used way too much groundwater, and it isn't being replaced at all. What are we going to do?

These are hard questions, and they will have to lead to some hard choices. In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy my very colorful commute through the blooming fields and orchards. Spring is always a time of hope and rebirth, and there are still six or seven weeks left in the rainy season. Who knows what could happen?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Defining Irony: Welcome to One of the Few Parts of California Not Suffering Extreme Drought

The bottom of Death Valley is the driest place in North America, and the hottest place in the world. It might stand to reason that it is a place that withstands the effects of California's horrific four-year drought, which is true, but it's not necessary this year. Death Valley is one of the few parts of the state that is running close to normal in the precipitation department.
Source: http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Home/StateDroughtMonitor.aspx?CA
In fact, based on what we saw on our trip to Death Valley last week, this may be a very good year for wildflowers. There were some good storms in December that dropped around an inch of rain in the region, and a later storm dropped another half inch, giving a jump start to seedlings that were starting to grow. An inch and a half constitutes a near-normal rain year in Death Valley!
Photo by Mrs. Geotripper

There were green shoots covering many of the slopes in the Mojave Desert and Death Valley when we visited on the 13th through the 16th. Only a few of the flowers had bloomed, but another week or two and the desert should be coming alive with color.
Sand Verbena on an alluvial fan below Jubilee Pass in southern Death Valley
It's fairly rare for us to see a true flower show on our mid-February trips, but conditions were extraordinary in 1997 and 2005, and I will never forget the color explosion we saw at those times. But enough flowers were present to keep things interesting for us when we weren't observing the rocks.

My guess? Arizona Popcorn Flower

I am not at all good at flower identification, so I expect my good friend Jon Mark Stewart will quickly correct my mistakes. He is the author of Mojave Desert Wildflowers and Colorado Desert Wildflowers, two indispensable guides for desert travelers and flower lovers.
My guess: Yellow Peppergrass
We saw a fair number of flowers at Red Rock Canyon State Park in the Mojave Desert, including the Popcorn Flower and Yellow Peppergrass (above). Red Rock is one of California's gems, familiar to many because of its use as a movie set for all manner of westerns, and at least one "recent" movie: Jurassic Park.
I have no idea...

One of the best early season flower sites in Death Valley is the alluvial fan that extends down to the valley from Jubilee Pass at the south end of the valley. Although the road is paved (it travels from the village of Shoshone to Badwater and on to Furnace Creek), it is far less used by tourists and is usually quiet. We make several important geological stops along this stretch, including a traverse of some of the formations of the Late Proterozoic Pahrump Group. The rocks are around a billion years old, and record the continental divergence that eventually produced the Pacific Ocean.
My guess is Little Gold Poppy

The Sand Verbena and poppies were in evidence, as well as the first outliers of the Desert Sunflower aka Desert Gold. This is a site where we have seen incredible flower displays.

I would dearly love to reach Death Valley in another week or two. Darn work and all that!

The picture below was most certainly not what we saw last week. It dates from 2005 when prodigious amounts of rain (and snow!) fell in the Death Valley region, including a lot that fell on us during our trip. Even at this, the season was early and more flowers bloomed in later weeks. It was quite a year.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Are There No More Sacred Places? Desecration at the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, close to the proposed site of a desecration.
I encourage you to read a story in Smithsonian, found here:  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/who-can-save-the-grand-canyon-180954329/?no-ist. And remember the name of a corporation: Confluence Partners LLC, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based investment group. This is a company that feels it has the right to profit by desecrating our national treasure. The company proposes to build a billion dollar complex on the east rim of the Grand Canyon. But not just on the rim. They propose to build a tramway with the capacity to move 10,000 people a day to the bottom of the Grand Canyon to where they intend to build restaurants and curio shops on lands that are sacred to many people.
Truly a confluence: Muddy water from a flooding Little Colorado River mixes with the relatively clear green water of the Colorado River.
I am sadly reminded of the proposal in the 1970s to build a tramway from Glacier Point in Yosemite to the floor of Yosemite Valley. A tram that would have been visible from all over the valley. That proposal was eventually scrapped, but I am truly worried about this one.

I really wonder if anything is sacred anymore. After all, the Liberty Bell is just a piece of broken metal. Why don't we cordon off a corner of it and put in an electronic rolling ad? It would make lots of money for someone. Let's gently carve off a corner of the Declaration of Independence and put in a corporate logo, maybe where that egotist John Hancock signed in such big letters. No one will miss it. Let's dig up some of the dead bodies in Gettysburg and put in a fast-food joint so more people can be well-fed while learning their history (as far as I know that's maybe happened already; I haven't been there). Really, who are we to say whether a small group of investors should be able to profit from the destruction of something that is holy to a great many people?
The Nankoweap Ruins a few miles upstream of the proposed development.
For a century since the designation of Grand Canyon as one of the most important of our national treasures we have managed to keep the lands below the rim inviolate. We've turned away proposals to build dams and we've said no to roads (a single gravel road reaches into the western Grand Canyon where rafters can leave the river). There were a few mines, but those failed long ago. Today the Grand Canyon is under assault: besides this awful proposal, there is a bought-and-paid-for (by the home-building company) city council in Tusayan at the South Rim of the canyon attempting to allow the building of 2,500 homes. With no permanent water sources besides groundwater, which is in limited supply. There are proposals to mine uranium right up to the borders of the park. And what drives it all? Money. Money, and more money. Someone profits in a big way, and we all lose something precious. They can argue all they want, until they are blue in the face, about the merits of their projects, and how they will benefit so many people. If they are truly so altruistic about their motives, I am sure they'd be willing to build their projects at cost with no profit. Right?
The Hopi salt mines in the Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is a sacred place. It is the place from which many human beings entered into this world, including the Hopi and Zuni people. It is one of the precious places where Americans learned the value of something besides money when they established a national monument, later to become a park. As we enter into a enter a future in which the oligarchy can do whatever they please to increase their profit margin, we need to hold onto these precious places, and expand them, not shrink and defile them.

Joni Mitchell, bless her, wrote and sang Big Yellow Taxi:

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot

They took all the trees
Put 'em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see 'em

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

The Colorado River a short distance upstream of the confluence with the Little Colorado River.
What can be done? I don't entirely know, but a good place to start is here: http://savetheconfluence.com/