Weathering the Extremes

Today’s flooding in San Jose made national news, so I’ve put together a brief post to let my friends know that my family is safe and dry. [drone footage, no audio below]

We’ve had a reversal of fortunes so to speak, replacing six years of drought with one of the wettest winters in recent memory. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for nearly fifty years, and I’ve never seen anything like this.

As our reservoirs reached capacity in early January, we let out a collective sigh. The drought could now be viewed from the rear-view mirror.

It kept raining. Then it rained some more. Powerful, drenching, atmospheric river styled storms, up and down the state. We had brief days of dry weather, followed by more intense storms.

Mountainous regions about twenty miles south had two or three times the rainfall. Nearly 50,000 commuters travel the mountainous corridor daily between Santa Cruz and San Jose. Trees and slopes, barely hanging on after so many years of drought were suddenly deluged with water. This  led to collapsed roads, devastating mudslides, falling trees and sinkholes. Flooded roads and lane closures have been a daily occurrence now for weeks.

To our north, friends in Oroville have been dealing with a failed spillway.  The Oroville Spillway serves America’s tallest dam. During a recent storm, a section the size of multiple football fields failed, sending water gushing off the sides and threatening homes along the Feather River below. At one point, over 180,000 people evacuated fearing the river would overflow, flooding homes and businesses along its path.  My friend Barbara lives just above the Feather River, and has written her personal account Vegan Above The Flood Plane on her blog AtFiftySomething.

Over the weekend, we’ve been closely monitoring the Anderson Reservoir, the largest in Silicon Valley. Due to seismic concerns, officials prefer to keep the reservoir at 68% of capacity. It reached 103% over the weekend, and continued to fill with today’s rains.

I don’t know why San Jose didn’t order a mandatory evacuation. All the signs were there. I checked notifications from my couch all day, as I’m home recovering from a stomach virus. Then the worst happened. The water overflowed the banks along the river, forcing emergency evacuations. Footage shows fire fighters in neck-high water bringing residences to safety.  The water is filthy, contaminated with everything in its path. Folks living in homeless encampments had to be rescued from trees. Heartbreaking.

I’ve never been so grateful for a warm, safe, dry home. As soon as I’m well, I’ll be off this couch, finding a way to pay it forward. Our community has already rallied. This rain-loving gardener has never been so happy to see a few days of sun in the forecast. I’ll share more as the news unfolds.

One Month, Four Seasons

As January draws to a close I’m struggling mightily to find some equilibrium.

It’s been a month of cold and frosty nights. It burns off early, but some of our plants collapsed from the cold.

Frozen Nasturtium

Frozen Nasturtium

These nasturtiums bloomed last spring, died in the heat of summer, then self-seeded in late November. The frost did them in.

frozen-bird-bath

Frozen bird bath

frost-kitty-paws-in-the-garden

Frosty paw prints courtesy of Mouse

It’s also been a month of rain.  Cold days gave way to magnificent rain storms. It was too much all at once, but at the same time exactly what we needed. The sky opened up and dumped record-breaking rain on our parched state.

Almaden Lake after a storm

Washed out trail along Almaden Lake

The powers that be declared last week that the six-year California drought is all but over.

Pacific storms in early January have brought widespread, intense precipitation to California, providing relief to some drought-stricken regions but also flooding. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, about 35% of the state is no longer experiencing drought, and the proportion of areas under extreme-to-exceptional drought fell from 38% on January 3rd to 28 percent by January 10. Cumulative precipitation hit a record high, doubling the historical average for this time of year. While a weak La Niña persists, sea surface temperature will transition back to normal by February 2017. Surface reservoirs, especially in Northern California, are beginning to refill, but groundwater aquifers in many parts of the state remain severely over drafted and will take far longer to recover. Source: Californiadrought.org

Yesterday the temperatures climbed into the high sixties (19 C). A week of unseasonably warm days offered a much-needed dry out for communities with overflowing riverbanks and mudslides. Potholes turned into sinkholes, and the CHP humorously named one Steve.  You can read about Steve’s short “life” as a magnificent sinkhole here. I’ve been raking pine needles, removing dead branches and gently pruning damaged leaves.

thinning-the-grass-on-the-walkway

And finally, it’s been a season of disquieting change.

The country said goodbye to President Obama and First Lady Michelle.  Obama the candidate campaigned on hope. Once elected, he brought intelligence and grace to the White House. Obama governed in measured and thoughtful ways, and his presidency was one of inclusiveness.  When the US elected its first black president, it gave the rest of the world hope. The United States was not a racist nation after all!

I still don’t know how we got here? January draws to a close in a season of hatred. Inexplicably, this country reversed course. We’re on a maddening and frightening  path to the 1930s.

san jose women's march

San Jose Women’s March * January 21, 2017

I’m trying to find a balance between action and despair. It’s only about a week since the women’s march and I’m already feeling deflated. Pauline said it bluntly: we’ve elected a mad man.

None of the rules apply.

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Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall: California’s Pineapple Express

What a week! To say it rained is an understatement. Back to back storms battered California for several days, wreaking havoc up and down the state. Dangerous mudslides, overflowing waterways, downed trees and snarled traffic have been the norm.

california-grey-squirrel-in-the-rain-jan-8-2017-5-03-pm

California Grey Squirrel using his tail as an umbrella

Much like the proverbial flood gate, we’ve endured five years of drought and then the rain all flowed at once.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):

atmospheric rivers come in many shapes and sizes, those that contain the largest amounts of water vapor and the strongest winds can create extreme rainfall and floods, often by stalling over watersheds vulnerable to flooding. These events can disrupt travel, induce mudslides and cause catastrophic damage to life and property. A well-known example is the “Pineapple Express,” a strong atmospheric river that is capable of bringing moisture from the tropics near Hawaii over to the U.S. West Coast.

flooded-los-gatos-creek-trail

Flooded sign at the head of Los Gatos Creek Trail

Here in San Jose we’ve been incredibly lucky. Other than losing power for several hours after the first storm, we’ve been otherwise okay. Our street didn’t flood, and we didn’t lose any trees (thank goodness).

power-outage-by-city-jan-3-2017-7-44-pm

From the PG& E website

The only nail-biting experience was my attempt to get to an appointment mid-week “over the hill” in nearby Felton. There are only two ways to get there from here, by highway 17 or highway 9. Both routes travel through winding hills. I checked the traffic reports before heading out (CHP closed Highway 9 but 17 remained open), but it was not to be. Just a few miles in to my trip, the rain started to fall in sheets. There were mudslides the day before, and heavy puddles were already forming. I found a safe place to exit the freeway, canceled my appointment by phone, then headed home. What timing. The traffic had already stalled, backing up for miles in the southbound direction. Another mudslide snarled traffic. My friend who lives in Santa Cruz left work around 6 Tuesday evening, and didn’t arrive home until 2 am. She sat on the freeway for hours, finally got off the road in nearby Los Gatos, until road crews were able to clear one lane.  Several of us offered her a place to stay, but I think she was anxious to get home to her dog.

Unfortunately, many others in the state have not been so lucky. When trees endure years of drought, their roots shrink as a form of self-preservation. When heavy rains come along, the ground is quickly saturated and the water has nowhere to go. Massive trees toppled all over the area, destroying cars, a few homes and stalling our Bay Area Rapid Transit.  Several rivers and streams reached and then exceeded flood stage, spilling water into nearby communities.

I took this video of Lexington Reservoir after turning back for home on Tuesday. An hour and a half later, it overflowed its banks into the Los Gatos creek flooding the trails and closing the park.

In between storms, I walked with a friend near Almaden Lake.  I’ve never seen it so full, and again, parts overflowed washing out trails.

There are many positives in all of this. For the first time in years, most of the state’s reservoirs are full. Snow pack in the Sierra, which provides a third of our fresh water doubled in a week. On January 3rd, it was only 70% of normal for this time of year. After this series of storms it’s 158% of normal!

According to our local paper, the storms delivered a whopping 350 Billion gallons of water to our reservoirs. I can’t begin to wrap my brain around that number.

The Rainy Day

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Beautiful poetry aside, rainy days lift my spirits. I’m not feeling dark or dreary, just hopeful that this could be the beginning of the end of this California drought.

What’s your weather up to today?

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August Doldrums: Dirty Air, Dryer Woes and a Cat Named Slinky

I have the August doldrums. Blah!

It is usually hot, dry and smoggy in San Jose throughout August. It’s been particularly bad this year with multiple wildfires burning up and down the state.

Spare the Air Alert: Source, San Jose Mercury News

Spare the Air Alert: Source, San Jose Mercury News

After five years of the drought, there is plenty of fuel feeding the wildfires. Millions of trees have died from drought-related conditions, providing even more fuel than usual. According to News Deeply

A bark beetle epidemic driven by drought is killing off millions of trees in the Sierra Nevada as California starts another summer plagued by drought and higher temperatures.

This is the driest time of year, with virtually no rain during the months of July, August and September.

The Soberanes fire started in July in Monterey County, not far from the lovely town of Carmel where we spent our get away weekend in March. It’s only 60% contained and fire crews don’t expect to have it out until September 30th!  Because San Jose is in a valley, the smoke gathers in the basin, with no wind or rain to carry it away. It adds to such a sense of gloom when the skies are a hazy gray. Even when you avoid the news, as I’m trying to do, it’s impossible not to see those hazy skies and realize what’s happening around us.

august smog

Believe it or not, there is a mountain range beyond the trees. You can just make it out.

valley fair view smog

View of the mountains from a nearby shopping center.

My dryer woes aren’t nearly as dramatic, but oh what a pain. We bought a new washer and dryer in late June and took deliver July 8th. They purred like the proverbial kitten and as with all new appliances, they use less water and less energy…when they work.

The first time I used the steam setting on the dryer it leaked water on the floor. Assuming it wasn’t properly connected, Mike contacted the appliance store who referred us to a certified repair shop. The first repair person said he needed a part (for a brand new dryer!) and would have to take the dryer to the shop because he didn’t have enough room to repair it in our home. I asked him to please leave the dryer till he received the part so that I could dry clothes on other settings. A week later, and before the part arrived, the dryer started making a loud banging noise, akin to putting a bowling ball on the fluff cycle. In addition to that awful noise it also smelled like stale smoke. Did I mention that the dryer was only a few weeks old?

A second crew came out on a Friday and took our dryer back to their shop. Meanwhile, laundry for four piled up. They promised to return it Monday, than Tuesday and by Wednesday we were mostly out of clean clothes and towels. I loaded up the dirty clothes, headed to the laundry mat, and spent three hours getting it done.

A third repair person returned and reinstalled the dryer on Thursday, turned it on and asked “does it always make that noise?”

Ah….no.

I explained that the “bowling-ball-on-the-fluff-cycle” noise was one of two reasons the dryer was in for repairs. He said he didn’t understand why they would take the machine back to the shop, but there was nothing to be done for it that day and off he went.

Are you still with me?

A fourth crew (an experienced repair tech and a tech-in-training came out and spent three more hours trying to repair the machine. They completely dismantled it, spreading out the parts in my narrow side yard, then left to buy “longer screws” assuring me that the manufacturer-installed screws were too short.

This made no sense to me, but I’m not an appliance technician. I gave them directions to the nearest Home Depot and off they went. Once they had it all put back together they insisted all was well and that the sound of the dryer was “normal”. I signed the repair order but with an asterisk and note saying that my signature did not mean it was “repaired to my satisfaction” only that it appeared to be working…for now.

Gosh it felt good to have my dryer back and in working condition.

For two loads, that is.

The appliance repair shop has now washed their hands of us and the manufacturer opened a claim. I’ve tried (twice) to email my request to the service protection plan, only to receive error messages. When I call they say “volume is high” and to please fill out the form on the web. Sigh

And then there is Slinky.

Slinky napping in the garden

Slinky napping in the garden

She is still hanging in there, but I’ve seen a recent decline. She saw our vet twice last week, which led to a diagnoses of a “very large hyperechoic cystic mass on her liver”. The better news is that it is NOT cancer, but a benign growth. She continues to eat, groom and purr, all good signs, but she’s lost more weight. She’s a tiny 5 pounds, about 2.5 kilos. She’s not in any pain and as long as she continues with a good quality of life, we are happy to have her with us. My heart is heavy when I see her tiny frame, but then she purrs in my face or crawls in my lap and I can see that for now she’s doing okay.

I know many of you live with cats or dogs, so you can relate to the angst.

Nothing magical or transformative will happen when I turn the page to September, but I still find myself craving the fresh start of a new month.

I’m grateful that Slinky is still with us. I appreciate Cal Fire crews and their tireless efforts fighting wildfires throughout the state. I’m grateful for the clean and well maintained laundry mat nearby. Having a washer and a dryer in my home is a luxury that I know others can’t afford. The same was true for me for many years and I try hard never to take it for granted.

cal fire collage

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to the cooler days of autumn, clearer skies and the days we have left with Slinky.

How is the world treating you?

Of Possible Interest:

Topographical map of San Jose/Silicon Valley

CalFire official website

Fascinating article on prototype design for the Developing World Laundry System

Saving the Rain for a Hot Summer Day

San Jose summers are hot and dry. Even without the drought, rainfall plunges by April and remains mostly dry through September. When we’re not in a drought, we average 15 inches (38 cm) of rain a year, half of the US average.

13.5 inches (34 cm) of that rain falls between November and April. The following six months averages a *total* of an inch and a half or about four centimeters.

When you hear me squeal with delight at the end of this short video, you’ll understand why. We’re back to doing what our ancestors did: saving rain water.

A local company called Rainsavers installed a rain catchment system along the side of our house. The tanks are just around the corner from my vegetable garden.

Lot sizes are small in Silicon Valley, so big tanks aren’t feasible. We looked into gray water systems, but they have  limitations. Further, they are largely promoted for watering a lawn which we no longer have, or other non-edible plants. A friend showed me her patio cisterns, and described how they worked. The pair of cisterns keep her vegetable garden watered all summer. In the end we opted for Bushman Slimline tanks. They have a small footprint so worked well in our narrow side-yard. They connected three tanks, allowing us to collect and store 390 gallons (1,476 liters) of rainwater.

rainsavers collage

Rain Catchment System: view approaching side-yard, vines camouflage tanks, tanks installed along side of house, Brad from Rainsavers

Nearly two years after my water audit, and several stops and starts later, Rainsavers installed our new system. Within two weeks, we had a series of storms. One good soaking filled all three tanks to capacity.

The other cool thing about these tanks is the overflow. Most rainwater becomes run-off, further jeopardizing our diminishing ground water. Any overflow from these tanks helps replenish the county aquifers instead.

Here’s the timeline for reducing our outdoor water usage:

June, 2013: Removed lawn in sidewalk strip, replaced with gravel and raised planting bed

May, 2014: San Jose Water Company Audit

December, 2014: Sheet mulch half of the lawn in the back garden

May, 2015: The Fairy Garden Goes Native

Summer, 2015: We stop watering the lawn

November, 2015: The last of the lawn is history. California natives move in.

February, 2016: Rain water catchment system installed.

Hanging our Hat on El Niño

tree reflecting in rain on deck
We had a string of storms last week, a welcome relief for our drought-parched state. The heavier-than-normal rain is due to the temporary change in water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean near the equator, simply known as El Niño.

While most of California welcomes the much-anticipated rain, other parts of the world are experiencing drought, above-average temperatures, and heavy flooding. I’m amazed that the increase in ocean temperatures by just a few degrees affects the entire globe. So while I celebrate this wonderful rain, I wish it didn’t come at such a cost.

I drove over the hill this week to the nearby mountain town of Felton. It’s a 45 minute drive on a winding road. The drive is pretty but sometimes treacherous as you make your way through the winding Santa Cruz mountains. I’m a nervous driver to begin with, so I drove slowly in the rain and fog, hugging the right lane all the way there. When I returned about an hour later, a large tree had fallen across three of the four lanes of highway. Traffic on my return journey moved at a crawl, while the opposing traffic was at a dead stop for miles/kilometers. Amazingly no one was hurt but I had a hard time shaking off the fact that I had driven past that same tree about an hour before.

By the time I exited the freeway,  I’d passed the aftermath of two auto accidents, multiple emergency vehicles and the fallen tree. I was so happy to get home.

El Niño conditions will persist through at least March of this year.  While I celebrate the arrival of the much-needed rain, I’m also tempering my enthusiasm with a healthy dose of caution.

What’s your weather up to?

Related:

How will we know when the drought is over? It’s complicated.

Severe El Nino puts the world in “uncharted territory.”

San Jose Weather Forecast

Fallen tree blocks traffic for five hours.

Quenching a Thirst

California’s drought is taking its toll on thirsty wildlife. Many sources of fresh water are depleted.  Birds and mammals are struggling to quench their thirst.

So while I’m happy to let my lawn die while at the same time watering trees with my bath water, I’m choosing to share some of our fresh water with the critters that need it most.

Our small, re-circulating water fountain continues to flow.

new water fountain

This thing weighs a ton. It took all three men in the house to move it from the car to the back patio

water fountain closeup

New fountain closeup (the copper fairy is a gift from Boomdee)

We have a bird bath hanging from a branch of a maple tree

water wiggler in fountain

Bird bath and water wiggler. The wiggler keeps the water fresh and discourages mosquitoes

and the newest addition: a pair of dog food bowls.

squirrel drinking water

Quenching his thirst at the water bowl

Last week I spotted a squirrel on the patio umbrella, sipping from a rivulet of water formed by the morning dew. I filled a plastic bowl with water and wedged it into the rock wall. Within minutes the squirrel was having a drink.

squirrel on umbrella

Squirrel drinking from a small rivulet of water

A few days later, a mourning dove swooped in for a drink from our bird bath. They’re large birds, so she couldn’t land on the small bird bath and instead sent the bird bath swinging and sloshing water.

Over the weekend I bought two, heavy-duty dog watering bowls and placed them outdoors on the hutch. The bowls are sturdy enough that they can’t tip over, but accessible to larger birds, opossums and squirrels. As you can see, above, the squirrels found them immediately.

As we draw to the end of another long, hot summer, I’ve become acutely aware of the value of every last drop.

Nothing in all Nature is more certain than the fact that no single thing or event can stand alone. It is attached to all that has gone before it, and it will remain attached to all that will follow it. It was born of some cause, and so it must be followed by some effect in an endless chain. – Julian P. Johnson

If you live in California, I would like to issue a small challenge: The next time you stop to quench your own thirst, think about sharing a bowl of water with the creatures in our midst.

Resources:

Then and Now: California’s depleted reservoirs

Wildcare: Live well with wildlife

Water Wiggler: attracts birds while keeping mosquitoes at bay