By Alison M. Jones, Director of No Water No Life ®
and Professional Photographer
As published by American Rivers in “The River Blog”-April 11, 2014
The phone rang. That snowy Saturday I was editing photos of Ethiopia’s Omo River. “Alison, you must cover California’s drought for No Water No Life®. It’s beyond regional. US and Asian markets depend on that produce.” I envisioned photographs of a three-year drought: monotones of white salt on sand.
Within 24 hours however, I connected California’s plight with our project’s case-study watersheds. Management solutions for California could help other watersheds. So, escaping an
unusually wet East Coast winter, I packed cameras and
sunglasses to document an arid valley 3,000 miles away. I didn’t expect to enjoy it.
On the plane, I read The Mountains of California written by John Muir 120 years ago. “Every glacier in the world is smaller than it once was. All the world is growing warmer….”1
What would he say today? Surface area of Sierra Nevada glaciers
is 55% less,2 and development still increases along rivers below. Rivers? Oh, actually, the Central Valley now has fewer rivers and more canals.
Then unexpectedly, with expedition advice from American Rivers, my story grew beyond the desolation of drought to include hope. Droughts come and go in California. They may get worse.
But there are mitigating solutions. Restoration of streams,
riparian zones and wetlands matter as much as reduced
As American pelicans paddled through Mendota Pool, I read that wetlands hold 10 to 1,000 times the living matter in nearby dry land. At dusk, a great-horned owl hunted above as I framed reflections in San Luis NWR. What a relief from miles of empty concrete canals! I thanked the sedge grasses rubbing my ankles for absorbing pollutants from nearby crop fields, hog farms and dairy-cattle pens.
An insect hatch sounded like rain on my windshield. I wished for higher levees to better view Pacific Flyway waterfowl in the bottomlands. Someday I hope to see Aleutian crackling geese and the tule elk now protected in San Joaquin NWR.
In 2006 Jared Diamond, Paul Ehrlich, Sandra Postel, Peter Raven, Edward O. Wilson et al. told the Supreme Court: “More than a source of water and fish, the nation’s rivers, lakes, and wetlands store flood waters and reduce economic devastation due to flooding. They recharge groundwater, filter pollutants, and purify drinking water. And they provide the habitats that sustain a diversity of species, which themselves perform important ecological functions.”3
Despite such support, more than 90% of California’s historic riparian and wetlands habitats are gone (U.S. Fish and Wildlife). Today, the San Joaquin’s riparian habitat is scant. But these traces of willows, shrubs and grasses support the highest diversity of wildlife in the Central Valley. Wood ducks, river otters, warblers, eagles, spawning salmon and formerly California bear follow these wooded highways for safety, food and spawning.
The drought brought me here. I saw trickles lead to less water, not more. Nature seems turned inside out. Yet American Rivers, other stewards, scientists, stakeholders and policymakers are working together to address needs of natural and human communities. Just as John Muir wrote in 1885 about accumulating snowflakes in the Sierra, grassroots efforts can affect policy: “Come, we are feeble; let us help one another. We are many, and together we will be strong. Marching in close, deep ranks, let us … set the landscapes free.”4
1 Muir, John. The Mountains of California. New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1985, Page 15. (Originally published: New York: Century, 1894.)
2 Basagic, Hassan. “Twentieth Century Glacier Change in the Sierra Nevada.”
3 Jason Rylander, et al. “Supreme Court Amici Curiae,” Nos 04-1034; 04-1384 regarding John A. Rapanos, et ux., et al., v. USA and June Carabell, et al., v. USACE and US EPA. Jan 12, 2006.
4 Muir, John. The Mountains of California. New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1985, Page 12. (Originally published: New York: Century, 1894.)