If you’ve been following the news at all, you know that California is in the throes of one of the worst droughts of the last hundred years. If you haven’t been following the news, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but your grocery bills are going to go up considerably this year because all the farmers in the Central Valley are either without water entirely, or having to pay a lot more to grow the food you hope to eat. We could have a lively debate about whether it is more important for people to have groceries or for a subspecies of smelt to have water, but I have other things on my mind at the moment, specifically rain.
California’s rainy season typically runs from November through April. In one of Wallace Stegner’s novels, Angle of Repose, the heroine is an Eastern girl transplanted by marriage to California, and one of the numerous troubles she has adjusting to the West is the absolute absence of precipitation from May to October. There are rare exceptions: I once had to leave home on June 8th for a business trip, and I had to keep my truck in four-wheel drive all the way down the mountain because it was snowing so hard. But such things are anomalies.
Well, we had an anomaly the other night. In fact, we had a damn downpour the other night, roughly two inches in a matter of hours. The guy who built our house knew what he was doing: he situated it well; he had the pad graded very cleverly, so that water flows away from the house; he had drainage cuts dug into the side of the hill behind the house. All of things have always worked in the past, and they worked the other night, but…
But one of the side effects of the drought is that I haven’t given a moment’s thought to the drainage cuts for almost four years, and at the height of the storm (my bed time) one of them was clearly having trouble performing its duty and diverting the unprecedented downpour. So instead of curling up with Graham Greene (The Quiet American) or Will and Ariel Durante (The Renaissance), I was outside with a shovel and in a pair of waterproof boots that I quickly discovered are no longer waterproof, doing manly things and being a manly man.
No troubles (other than my back the next morning); I got it done and the next day I used the tractor to improve and expand on my handiwork, so we had no damage to our property other than my driveway which tries constantly to run away to new and exciting destinations at lower elevations.
Others were not so lucky. Darleen had to go into town two days later and she was so stunned by what she saw that she came back and took me for a drive to survey some of the damage.
There are only three roads in and out of this valley, and during the height of the storm, while I was being a manly man and for many hours after, all three of them were completely closed by mudslides. But “mudslide” isn’t an accurate description because what comes down the mountains isn’t just mud. It includes boulders ranging in size from basketball to small refrigerator. Some of the dirt side roads that lead to small ranches and little subdivisions simply don’t exist anymore. A local vineyard has also ceased to exist, with mud and boulders an honest two feet deep over about sixty percent of it. (Don’t weep for the owner; he had let the thing go to seed, so it’s no loss.) A horse breeder who also puts on horse shows in his arena lost his primary pasture, but he’s both smart and lucky, because he was using that pasture as a buffer between him and the main road. The main road, needless to say, was still closed when we went for our drive. A newly installed parking lot at a local B&B has ceased to exist; you can’t even tell there was ever any asphalt there at all.
On the sides of the really steep slopes, deep vertical cuts had opened up, and what they will become can only be determined by Mama Nature, but if we get another anomaly—excuse me, I meant monsoon—it will set up the potential for ever greater runoff and ever more mud and boulders and ever more destruction.
For those of you who live in more sheltered conditions, protected from the more surprising effects of the elements, let me quote a local heavy equipment operator who was interviewed on the news. He lives in a canyon about ten miles from my house, and he told the reporter that his bulldozer was washed about a mile downstream, while a backhoe got washed almost two miles away. Think about the weight and mass of those things; it gives you an idea of the force of a wall of mud and rock.
Yet we still desperately need rain.