How drought alters our experience

San Leandro Reservoir in the San Francisco Bay Area is Lowe than normal for January.

San Leandro Reservoir in the San Francisco Bay Area is lower than normal for January. Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency in California. Photo by Michael Collier.

By Michael Collier

This week I took my first extended bike ride since Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared a drought emergency in California after the driest year on record in 2013 and no relief on the horizon as we hurdle into 2014.

We all knew this was coming, and it is going to affect our experience of the outdoors in several ways.

The landscape is so dry that it irritates our breathing passages, sometimes causing severe allergies and asthma. It causes wildlife to wander more often into human settlements in search of food. And it can lead to disastrous fires.

Hold on a minute

The flip side of this emergency is that the weather is downright wonderful right now. We don’t have to go to New Zealand or Argentina to get summer weather in the winter.

The first thing I noticed on my recent ride was how many people were enjoying the outdoors — cyclists, runners and walkers alike.

As I climbed to the top of the East Bay ridge line, I was also impressed by the number of trees in full bloom — on January 22, not March 22. The mid-day sun felt like the warmth on a late-Spring day in a normal year. But these are not normal times.

The wind patterns in California’s coastal regions typically blow from west to east, thanks to a steady flow in the jet stream. But larger weather conditions interrupting that air flow north of the state are causing the wind here to blow consistently in the opposite direction — a pattern known as Santa Ana winds in Southern California or Diablo winds in the northern part of the state.

Such gusty winds are dangerous to coastal communities, as the San Francisco Bay Area saw in 1991, when neighborhoods in the East Bay hills burned to the ground in one of the worst urban wildfires in the U.S. at the time.

More fires

Since Jan. 1, there have been more than 150 wildfires across the state, according to fire officials — about six times more than normal.

The likelihood of more and more-intense fires this year is bad news for cyclists and promoters of dozens of  bike events. Riding near fires is a health danger and could cause cancellations of such events. A few years ago, I participated in a double century near Solvang (Santa Barbara County) as a fire raged in the mountains to the east. More recently, a fire on Mount Diablo closed the state park for days last summer — and even after it was reopened the mountain smelled like a barbecue.

Officials at Death Valley National Park, the most-popular venue for Spring bike tours, have ordered the park closed to bike events — not because of fire danger but to evaluate traffic safety as more motorists and more runners and cyclists compete for space on park roads.

But that and the likely ravages of continuing drought are a warning flag to outdoor-lovers.

“The climate is changing, and not for the better,” Brown said this week in his state of the state address, adding that drought is a “stark warning of things to come” for California.

Most folks who savor their experience in nature aren’t likely to become couch potatoes. One silver lining of the crazy weather this year on the West Coast — from Seattle and Portland south to San Diego — is that watching the changes will be quite engaging to us.

This flowering cherry tree in the Berkeley hills would typically be devoid of blossoms this time of year.

This flowering cherry tree in the Berkeley hills would typically be devoid of blossoms this time of year. Photo by Michael Collier

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