Sunday, October 18, 2015

Tuolumne River Trail Nears Completion: A Short Explore Along a Priceless River

The value of a river can be measured in so many ways, and the Tuolumne River here in California is no exception. It has headwaters in the spectacular high country of Yosemite National Park, flows through a gorge as deep as the Grand Canyon, gets trapped for a time in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and later in Don Pedro Reservoir. Then the river sort of falls out of public perception. It drains onto the floor of the Great Valley at Waterford, sort of sneaks past the city of Modesto, and joins with the very shrunken San Joaquin River before flowing into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and then into San Francisco Bay.
But what are the most important parts of a river? The scenery of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and Tuolumne Meadows is unmatched, one of the most beautiful places in the world. But farmers and city planners could care less about the scenery up in the mountains. Their lives are dominated by acre-feet and cubic feet per second, the measures of how much water in the river is available for agricultural, industrial and domestic use. What gets lost in the shuffle is that downstream part, past the spectacular parks and huge reservoirs. That part of the river in the long run might be the most important.
The Great Valley of California is one of the most productive landscapes on planet Earth. We subsumed most of it, 95%, for our own purposes, but the valley still supports a stunning variety of plant and animal life. In my own county alone, more than 300 bird species have been sighted at one time or another. Vast numbers of Arctic-breeding birds, Snow Geese, Sandhill Cranes, Cackling Geese, Ross's Geese, and White-fronted Geese still spend the winter in the small wildlife refuges that preserve a portion of the wetlands that once existed in the valley.
A Northern Flicker, a type of woodpecker, on a dead oak tree along the river trail.
Many of these facts are unknown to the children of our valley (and yes, their parents and grandparents too). Many of them live next to some of these arteries of life that flow past their towns, and the birds, insects and other animals lurk unseen just a few blocks from their homes. There is a huge need for nature education for these students, and the rivers are marvelous outdoor laboratories.
Foundations for a stairway that will provide access to the river. It's within walking distance of three schools.
So I'm excited by a few developments in the last few months. I've written a great deal about the Great Valley Museum on my campus in Modesto, but something else is happening right in my own backyard in Waterford. The small city has recognized the value of the beautiful river flowing nearby and is putting the finishing touches on a two-mile long river trail that will include interpretive signs and chances to see wildlife, as well as water-related recreation. An opening ceremony will take place on November 21.
A female Phainopepla. The males are pure black. This is the first time I've seen one around here.
I've been walking the river trail for months now, watching the progress. Today's walk was unusually rich in wildlife discoveries. Standing under a native Elderberry I saw a half dozen bird species, including Yellow-rumped Warblers, Vireos, a Black Phoebe, a Scrub Jay, a finch, and for the first time for me, a Phainopepla! I've seen them in the deserts east of the Sierra Nevada, but never here at home.
A Black Phoebe, a species of tyrant flycatcher.
It's been a tough year for wildlife as we suffer through another year of unprecedented drought. The rivers have been low and choked with invasive Hyacinth, but they've continued to flow, providing life for the birds, the mammals, and the fish, including the salmon. Until the San Joaquin River is rehabilitated, the Tuolumne River is pretty much the southernmost river providing at least some refuge to the endangered Chinook Salmon. The low flows have contributed to declines in their population. But life persists. And soon our children will have better opportunities to see the birds and other animals in their native habitats.
A Yellow-rumped Warbler
It's so easy to live in our insulated homes and ignore that we are part of a larger ecosystem. Preservation of our river and valley environments provides us an opportunity to learn more about our place in the greater scheme of things. Next time you are heading up to Yosemite National Park, or to the reservoir for some recreation, stop in Waterford and check out our modest effort to explain the value of the lower Tuolumne River. It's not Yosemite, but it has its own separate kind of beauty.
I'm not sure what kind this one is, but others I've seen around this shrub have been Black-chinned Hummingbirds.

1 comment:

John Gunderson said...

Phainopepla is an awesome bird. They have a kind of wispy flight habit, fun to watch. See them through the years while in Mariposa County, historically I imagine the Central Valley had populations exceeding what is here currently. Congrats on the sighting!