Lake Tahoe is a bellwether for the Truckee River. When it drops below its rim, tough times are on the way. As of this post, Tahoe’s dropped 7″ below its rim. A Facebook post from David Bobzien of a photo taken by Steve Tietze underscores the lack of rain and snow. As Tahoe continues to drop it foretells how serious this drought could be. If it persists throughout the winter, Tahoe may not even rise to its rim portending a summer of a practically dry Truckee River. We all need to take this 14 year and continuing drought seriously.
If you’ve been up in the mountains around Reno skiing or driving “over the hill”, you’ve noticed that there isn’t much snow. Despite the “big” storm in December that brought rain to Reno and some flooding to southern California, there is a poor snowpack that hasn’t seen any real snow or rain added in January – one of the months when you expect frequent storms in California and western Nevada.
Jeff Delong’s front page story in today’s RGJ, “Instead of Sierra snow, January stays ‘bone dry'”, focusses our attention on the super dry conditions that appear to be repeating similar weather from last year and the year before. Nevertheless, the article fails to mention the elephant in the room – climate change. Is the evidence beginning to point to a drying and warming due to factors other than natural variation in precipitation? Should we be alarmed? Or more to the point, why aren’t we alarmed?
The article quotes National Weather Service meteorologist, Scott McGuire saying, “January was bone dry.” Of course, it is only January 20th, things could turn around. The article concludes with another quote by McGuire saying, “Things can change pretty quickly and it only takes a handful of big storms. … All we can do is keep our fingers crossed for an active February and March.”
And so goes the planning for climate change induced drying out of the west.
I’m not picking on Scott McGuire either. He’s simply saying what all of us are thinking, “It better rain and snow soon or we are all in trouble.” He’s also implying what we all hope – that it has always rained and snowed in the past when we needed it to, right? So, mother nature, please get on with it.
And, sometimes in the past we have had large storms in February which did change conditions in the mountains dramatically. I remember in 1969 a very rainy and snowy February which saw huge piles of snow on Slide Mountain which buried the ski lift following a pretty dry winter up to that point. And, again, in 1986 we saw a late February flood in Reno from rains that went on day after day for more than a week after another less than stellar snow year. Will there be a big series of storms in February or March that will fill Lake Tahoe and send all thoughts of drought out of our minds?
We can only hope.
As if you hadn’t already noticed, it was warm in 2014 – the year that just slipped into history 10 days ago. Two stories summarized the findings of recent scientific analyses of the state of the climate in 2014. One focusing on California is found in SFGATE.COM and another focusing on Nevada and Reno is found in RGJ.COM.
Briefly, scientists are reporting that 2014 average temperatures in California were 4 degrees (fahrenheit) higher that the 20th century average and that 7 of the 10 hottest years in the Golden State have occurred since 1994. As goes California, so goes Nevada where 2014 average temperatures were 3.6 degrees higher than the 20th century average. Reno saw average temperatures 1 degree warmer than the record set in 2012. Warm temperatures coupled with drought are a bad combination for both states now facing a long dryer-than-normal period of more than 14 years.
The U.S. also saw its 18th consecutive year where average temperatures exceeded the average temperatures for the 20th century.
The revelations about the high temperatures should be alarming, but mostly the reports about the warm (and continually warming) temperatures here and elsewhere in the northern, northern hemisphere are ignored by most. Certainly too many legislators and governors openly scoff at the reports and ignore calls to slow down the trend by limiting greenhouse gases. Government scientists who undertake the studies that underpin the reports of warming are frequently pooh poohed by talking heads from Fox to PBS. Scientists have looked at ways to reduce greenhouse gases and slow or (unlikely now) reverse the warming.
How does warming effect the Lake-Tahoe-Truckee-River-Pyramid-Lake system? For one thing, it increases evaporation – significant since the Truckee River includes 2 large lakes which collectively evaporate several hundred thousand acre-feet of water each year. Warming temperatures also increase the amount of water plants need in everything from urban landscaping to farming potentially reducing recharge to groundwater and lowering flows in streams. We are very likely already seeing effects from warming in increases in evaporation and evapotranspiration loss.
As I’ve mentioned before, we are still hoping for a miracle series of large Pacific storm systems to save us from the drought. If, however, the drought is of our own making – however unwittingly – that may be a false hope.
Related articles across the web
Wildlife live along the Truckee River all the way out to Pyramid Lake. Bears have even wandered down the river to Pyramid Lake communities several years back. Didn’t see anything quite so exotic this weekend, but it is always a delight to find wild animals along the Truckee.
This sleek and resourceful predator lives along the river and is frequently seen throughout the Truckee Meadows.
The North American Mink is found in most areas of the continent except the desert southwest to Texas. This one was foraging along the Truckee River near Rock Park.
Deer are pretty common along the river, too. This guy was lounging at University Farm along with his 2 buddies and several doe.
Winter is a special time to see waterfowl that the rest of the year you’d only see in northern Alaska or Canada. Here is a male Common Goldeneye floating on the Truckee above Idlewild Park.
Wildlife viewing along the river is always good in the winter. Get out there and enjoy the river.
Ever see a small dark bird bouncing on rocks then diving into the water in the Truckee? Most likely you’ve spied an American Dipper called by some a water ouzel. Dippers are quick to disappear on their dives and can reappear elsewhere in the stream with amazing speed.
Today we took a walk along the river at Idlewild Park and were happy to spend some time watching a dipper doing its bouncing dance along the rocks (and ice) in the river. Dippers have been known to nest under bridges in downtown Reno. They are commonly seen also at Mayberry Park. They can be found year round, but easier to see, I think, in the winter. Here is a short video showing their typical behavior.
The snow pack for the Truckee River and Lake Tahoe is below normal for the end of December– again. The Reno Gazette-Journal reported the Truckee River basin snowpack at 67% and the Lake Tahoe snowpack at 44% of “normal”. December and January are usually the heavy lifters when it comes to providing the bulk of the moisture collected in the Sierra Nevada. What the rest of the winter has in store for us remains an unknown.
Scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the University of Minnesota reported December 4, 2014 that the current California Drought is the worst in 1,200 years (at least). The scientists analyzed growth rings on Blue Oaks growing in California to reach that conclusion and implicate human-caused climate change as the reason. While droughts have always occurred, the current one is worse because of both increased temperature as well as decreased precipitation.
Forbes published yesterday an article “No doubt it’s a climate-change drought, scientists say” quoting Jonathan Overpeck with the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona saying, “Of course everyone knows California’s drought has been for three years, rain so far has been helpful, there’s a snowpack in the Sierra Nevada’s that is about 50 percent of normal thanks to recent precipitation, but that hasn’t stopped the drought. The drought is still going to be the story at the end of the year, I think.” He went on to say, ““To frame the drought we should be mentioning that much of the southwest and west has been in drought now for nearly 15 years, since 1999…”
While many in Nevada (and California) are hopeful that this year will see a turn-around and we’ll see above normal winter snows by the 1st of April, the last 15 years should give us pause for expecting that the drought will simply end and everything will return to “normal” in the long-run. Climate change is the new dragon in the room.