When you’ve lived much of your life in snow country, grossly swelling snow banks are no big deal. Certainly nothing to worry about.
Last week, surrounded by snow banks towering 12 to 14 feet high and growing, I began to worry.
I was visiting our daughter and her family in California and accompanied them up to ski country for President’s Day Weekend (some called it Not My President’s Day weekend). The snow appeared at the 6,000-foot level and farther up we entered a world of white passageways cut through towering mountains of snow.
I have never seen snow like that. Driveways into chalets were tunnel-like with snow banks more than twice the height of our car. Snow blocked the view from my bedroom window, located on the second floor.
Throughout the village, tractor snow blowers wheezed diesel exhaust as they chewed and spit streams of snow to keep the passages clear.
On President’s Day Monday ski families scampered to pack up their gear and get down the mountains in case the highway closed. The forecast called for as much as another five feet to fall over 24 hours.
That area, Sugar Bowl ski resort near Truckee, California, gets an average of 500 inches of snow a year. That’s roughly 42 feet, or 13 metres. By Feb. 20, the day we left, it had received about 360 inches (30 feet) with much more expected.
Haliburton County gets an average of roughly 280 centimetres (nine feet) of snow each year. We are close to that this winter with about 250 centimetres up to the start of this week.
Walking the snow-drowned village was scary. Street signs had disappeared beneath the snow. It was difficult to tell directions and easy to become lost in the maze of snow passageways.
The deep snow was welcome news for Californians. The state has just been through its most severe drought in modern history. A drought state of emergency was declared by the governor in January 2014. Water use was restricted by 25 per cent and as much as 50 per cent in some places.
The Sierra Nevada mountains supply 30 per cent of California’s water, so this year’s heavy snowfalls are being cheered by more people than just the skiers. But there is another part of the story, one that should cause everyone to pause the cheering and think about the future.
When the mountain snowpack melts, much of the water it produces will flow out to the Pacific Ocean, never to help quench California’s thirst.
The state has not built any new reservoir infrastructure in 35 years. This winter’s drought-ending rains have replenished existing reservoirs, some of which are full and have begun dumping water.
The huge Lake Oroville reservoir in northern California was drained partially when its dam threatened to give way and flood populated areas. Two hundred thousand people were evacuated from the area but were allowed to return when the dam was reinforced.
So California is throwing out water while waiting for the next severe drought. And more droughts will occur. They are a recurring feature of California’s climate, but appear to becoming more severe.
Major droughts have occurred in 1929-1934, 1976-1977, 1987-1992, 2007-2009 and 2012-2016.
These dry periods hurt people, and the economy. They suck huge sums of money out of government, change ecosystems and wildlife patterns and are devastating to agriculture and the people who work in food production.
More than one-third of the United States’ vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruit and nuts are grown in California. The state’s farm sales were $54 billion in 2014, a significant industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people.
To keep that going, the state must have water. And more reservoirs are needed to store that precious mountain snowmelt and other water from being wasted.
After the weekend ski trip we returned to the San Francisco Bay area and watched the rain wash down the hillsides and pour into the ocean, causing flash flooding in some areas.
As I watched I wondered: If I lived here would I want $30 billion spent on wall to hold back people seeking a better life, or more infrastructure to better manage water, which is the source of all life?