Pilgrimage to Sierra Snow Melt

September 14, 2010 § 2 Comments

A lake forms from snowmelt. As we speak.

Spending time in the Sierra Nevadas this past weekend, I feel as if I’ve glimpsed just a bit of the creation of the world. Geological formations change my sense of scale. Ten thousand years seems like a blink of an eye. The subtle work of freezing water makes rocks cleft in two. Plant roots extend cell by cell into granite crevices, pebbles become soil. Snow on distant peaks melts in the sun, rivulets of snowmelt carve rock before our eyes. As water, wind, and plants unravel the mountain tops, the mountains grow from below.

We chose a campground alongside a creek at the bottom of a canyon at the base of Tioga Pass. I had visited the same location in late July this year and vowed to return. At that time, I was reminded everytime I dipped into the creek and nearly passed out from hypothermia, of exactly where streams come from– melting ice. But the landscape all around had been lush and green, meadows were drenched in water, and flowers I’d only seen in pictures or in nurseries, bloomed everywhere.

Just ninety days later, the meadows had become brown and the streams that had run through them now resembled gravel paths. There was little snow left on the mountain peaks. Frost had withered many plants. In the place of flowers which had been in brilliant bloom last month, were ripened fruit and exploded seed pods.

Despite all these changes, I noticed that the creek in the campsite was exactly as in July: the amount of water was no more, no less. I made the connection to the fact that the lakes abovestream were all dammed, and engineers might be regulating the flow of the creek. Following that came the realization that the canyon we were camping in is part of the extended watershed of the Los Angeles Metropolitan area. After passing through our campground, our creek would be diverted into a pipe. It would join with the water of several other Mono Basin creeks in the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

The very creekwater we were listening to, playing in, and even bathing in, was the same water that would soon appear from the tap in my Los Angeles house!

Roughly half of Los Angeles’ water comes from the Los Angeles Aqueduct. If half of that came from the Mono Basin, it seems reasonable (given that one third of the Mono Basin portion is supplied by our creek) to estimate that one twelfth of the water that comes out of the tap in my house comes from the creek we camped at.

After making the connection between the creek and the tap in my house, the whole water cycle suddenly seemed incredibly intimate, even disturbingly so. I found myself studying things that fellow campers had left behind: bits of trash that ended up in the streambed. I wondered if I should pick those things up. But there were so many little things! I stared at the foamy white globs of toothpaste that I spit out of my mouth after brushing my teeth, though at a distance from the stream, and wondered why I hadn’t bought biodegradable toothpaste. When I rinsed some dishes in the creek, my son made a comment about how microorganisms that feed on those food scraps might get zapped by chlorination, but that the byproducts they produce would remain in our water.

Suddenly all the alpine lakes and streams we’d visited seemed a direct line to my tap.

And though I’m back at home now, I remember our campground every time I turn on the faucet….

The water from our creek would once have flowed into Mono Lake. Now, however, it is diverted into a pipe which leads it to my Los Angeles tap nearly four hundred miles away.

§ 2 Responses to Pilgrimage to Sierra Snow Melt

  • Chris Austin says:

    Just to note: LA DWP’s diversions from the Mono Basin are restricted and rather minimal until Mono Lake reaches it’s court determined level, which is still many years off.

    • Joe Linton says:

      @Chris Austin – It’s true that the diversions are restricted – due to a whole lot of work by environmentalists – but there’s still a lot of Mono basin water being diverted to Los Angeles. I couldn’t find the exact number for just the Mono Basic, but, according to Dorothy Green’s Managing Water (p.225) “Between a third and 40% of the water that historically was sent down the aqueducts is now being held to restore Mono Lake, to restore the Owens River and some of its adjacent wetlands, and … air quality… and groundwater… as ordered by courts.” Furher, Green goes on to state that LADWP expects an annual average of 321,000 acre-feet of water from Owens/Mono, of its historic 500,000 acre-feet.

      All that to say that L.A. is still getting a great deal of water from the Eastern Sierras, and still impacting those places (and others)… and that we need to use that water wisely and respectfully.

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