A PERFECT SPRING

After such a sumptuous winter how could it not be – a perfect spring.

I came to Santa Barbara to live in September 2013, the second year of the drought.  The landscape was dry, but as a native Californian, I expected dryness. The winter rains the next two years were scanty.  Not only did the garden lawns die by intent, but landscape and street trees began suffering.  Many of the redwoods, never a good choice for this semi-arid climate, were dying. The conifers were the hardest hit.  The native ponderosa pines on Figueroa Mountain all succumbed, probably weakened by the drought and then attacked by the deadly bark beetle. To try and save street trees, the city attached green plastic reservoirs to young trees which slowly released water to the roots.

Maybe several times during the winter, enough rain would fall to feed the headwaters of various creeks.  Mission Creek with its springs high on mountain sides above the Botanic Garden came briefly to life with muddy torrents of water which rushed down the dry creek bed.  Quickly depleted, the flow stopped and by the second day, the creek became isolated pools.  By the third day, the creek disappeared all together.

poppies
California Poppies

With the return to silent stretches of dry rock, my spirits fell.  I realized again how above all the landscape features – hills, mountains, valleys, and especially the noisy, restless ocean – it is creeks I love the best, for their cheerful sounds and their ability to be a magnet for surrounding life.

 

lupine
Bush lupine

Spring in California is mostly about wildflowers, but in one of the ironies of a wet spring, grass and weeds growing tall often concealed the flowers.  Figueroa Mountain had some nice displays, particularly where lupine grew on perennial shrubs or where poppies grew on serpentine soil which inhibits the rampant growth of grass.

 

 

carizzo
It was in the semi-desert areas like Carizzo Plain, an hour and a half drive inland from San Luis Obispo, where the flowers were amazing, enough so, to gain the title — superbloom. Hills and the desert floors look as if they’d been splashed with paint.

But it is in the exuberance of the commoner plants that I saw the results of a wet winter.  The wild oats, now going to seed are waist high, and must compete for space with wild radishes and Italian thistle.

After four years of drought that tested their endurance, allowing no luxury like new growth, live oaks this spring were transformed with explosions of tender bright green leaves.  The shiny leaves concealed the coarse and somber, dark green foliage, some of which could now be shed.

live oaks
New spring growth on the live oaks

Live oaks are the most abundant native tree of Samarkand, Oak Park and most lowland locations.

 

Best of all was to see Mission Creek behaving like a real stream, not with just the episodic flow of two days that followed a rain during the preceding drought years.  My morning ritual was to look through my binoculars into the small gap between the trees where I could see the overlapping brightness of moving water. The stream had a rhythm, sometimes squeezing around rocks making music and then released, spreading out in quiet pools, before being narrowed again.  I think I could write a score with the proper notations.

 

pollen
The male flowers are heavy with pollen which will be released by the wind to fertilize some of the female flowers growing on the same tree. From the fertilized female flower comes the familiar acorn.

I imagine my father, who grew up near Oak Park, capturing tadpoles with a net, or creating a new flow by rearranging rocks. When the flow was strongest, he and his buddies, no doubt, fashioned boats and then ran along the creek edge to see how they fared.

Two weeks after the last rain in March, the flow began to shrink, imperceptivity at first.  But now in mid-April the creek has disappeared. Or, perhaps it flows beneath the surface still accessible to the roots of trees.

oxalis
Oxalis, considered a hard-to-get-rid-of weed by most gardeners, crowded roadsides after this year’s heavy rains

Speculation has already begun about next winter.  Through summer and early fall, conditions appear to be “neutral” with early signs of building El Nino conditions beginning later in the fall.  In most years, a strong El Nino brings generous rains, but not always.  Speculation, especially about future weather, is irresistible especially for weather buffs like myself.

nasturtiums
In this most luxuriant of springs no slope is unclaimed. Here, nasturtiums have naturalized a hillside.
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Looking back – WINTER AFTER ALL

When one of my friends fell on an icy path this morning and Gibraltar Dam flowed into its spillway, the first time since 2011, I decided that winter could not be ignored.

flooded
Mission Creek at flood stage

I hadn’t considered writing about Santa Barbara in the winter thinking that the season had been mostly passed by in these years of drought.  Then yesterday, December 23, we had a storm that was worthy of qualifying as a winter storm in every way.  The day began with a thin cloud cover which built during the morning to promising layers of clouds and brief gusts of wind, which by noon led to rain.  After slacking off in a way that I had become used to during these dry years, the rain built again as if to defy my pessimism.  By mid-afternoon the rain built to a real gully-washer.  I was lucky enough to be in my car so I could enjoy splashing through flows of water at every intersection and best of all, seeing Mission Creek coursing down its creek bed after so many months of being bone dry.

From the sound of my bamboo wind chimes during the night, I knew the storm had passed to the east and the wind had shifted to the north as it does along the coast after a rain storm.  The cold wind continues today pushing around remnant clouds, now empty of their contents.

Cachuma
Cachuma Lake filling up.  From a low of 7% of normal, the reservoir in April is almost half full.  With the reservoir below capacity, and groundwater depleted, it will take a few more good years to bring us out of drought

I know storm must follow storm to make the creek a winter feature and the soil be soaked enough to start recharging the depleted water table.  Lake Cachuma which lies in the valley between our mountains, the Santa Ynez, and the higher range to the east, is the reservoir which holds our water supply.  At present, it’s almost no lake at all, having shrunk to less than 7% of its capacity. Vultures have taken to roosting on the rim of the dam.

December ended with the rainfall slightly above normal. 

river
An atmospheric river arrives on the California coast

January was another matter altogether thanks to massive storms brought across the Pacific by an atmospheric river — a new word in my weather lexicon. An atmospheric river can be several thousand miles long to a few hundred miles wide. Drawing up moisture from near the Hawaiian Islands, the warm air can transport large amounts of rain.  It’s what we once called the “Pineapple Express.’

The atmospheric rivers produced five days of good rains.  At the end of January, rainfall for the month was 8.96 inches rather than a normal 2.86 inches.  Even the lawns, most of which were allowed to go brown over the summer and fall, were green again.

High surf
High surf is often part of a storm system

The rains continued intermittently until Friday, February 17. The papers were advertising that the biggest storm of the season was on its way.  Over the years, I have learned to be suspicious of such a build-up which often leads to disappointment.  I believe in sneaker storms – the ones which arrive with little or no advance warning.  That may be the old days before sophisticated weather-measuring equipment and computers, which can put together predictive models, eliminated much of the guesswork.

landslide
Landslide at Cliff Drive and Las Positas

At 5 AM heavy rain was falling, serious, confident rain.  By mid-morning the velocity of the rain continued to increase.  Coarse and dense raindrops were being driven by gale winds from the south-east.  By early afternoon, the rain had slackened enough to allow me to drive down to the Mission Creek just below us.  Others had already gathered.  Some of us stood on the bridge itself which was trembling with the force of the volume of water pouring a few feet beneath.  On the opposite side of the bridge where the stream bed is narrowed by rock walls, boulders were being slammed together.  The percussive, booming sounds resembled thunder.  Some people, unnerved by the violence, hurried back to their cars.  As a fan of such drama, I stayed put.

pines
One of two historic stone pines on Anapamu brought down by the storm

The storm finally moved on leaving 5-inches of rain downtown and heavier amounts on the mountain slopes.  Mission Creek up Mission Canyon left its stream bed and temporarily carved out a new route.  Further engorged by a cargo of mud, the stream poured over the old Indian Dam.

The gift for me was that Mission Creek became a real stream, a winter stream which flowed for weeks on end, not just for a day or two after a rain.

indian dam
Flood water flowing over Indian Dam in the Botanic Garden

Now it’s early April and the creek has ceased to flow.  It survived for few more days as isolated pools, until it disappeared altogether.  I like to think that it continues to flow underground bringing moisture to the roots of the sycamores and to the other streamside plants.

 

Rattlesnake Creek, a tributary of Mission Creek in flood conditions.
Credit: Ray Ford
(Please note the material following the video is not part of this presentation.)