El Corte de Madera Creek OSP

Last Thursday I went on a hike at El Corte de Madera Creek Open Space Preserve (OSP), sponsored by the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. The preserve is named for the creek; the name means place to cut wood in Spanish. There were a lot of trees when the Spanish first settled here, but the area was clear cut in the late 19th century. We saw an 1800-year-old redwood tree, an interesting rock formation, the Pacific Ocean, and California native plants.

Continue reading El Corte de Madera Creek OSP

Los Altos Weather – Dry July and No Water Conserved

This post is part of a monthly series about weather in my home town in California’s Silicon Valley, California’s drought, and what we’re doing about the drought.

As expected in the dry summer of California’s Mediterranean climate, my home town of Los Altos, California, received no rain in July, our third consecutive month with no rain. We normally receive little or no rain for two more months, and California’s drought continues. California is using more water than a year ago. Surface water deliveries have been cut back due to the drought; therefore, farmers and water suppliers have increased pumping of groundwater, increasing ground subsidence. Our local Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD) is spending $500,000 on water enforcers and is considering raising our property taxes to help pay for twin tunnels under the Delta to ship water south, where water use increased by 8% this year. The San Francisco newspaper published several suggestions for what we can do about the drought.

As shown below, we’ve had no rain (red bars) the past three months, close to normal.

No Rain in May, June, and July
No Rain in May, June, and July

The problem is that California has had below-normal rainfall for three years. In Los Altos our rainfall since January 2013 has been 31% of normal. With much less rain, we’ve had to increase irrigation so that our landscape plants have about the same amount water. However, landscaping consumes about half of California’s residential water usage. When half our suburban water usage stays the same or increases, it’s difficult to reduce water consumption by 20%, as our governor has asked.

Rainfall Since Jan. 2013 is 31% of Normal
Rainfall Since Jan. 2013 is 31% of Normal

In July our average low temperature was seven degrees above normal, continuing the trend of elevated low temperatures.

July Low Temperature 7 degrees Above Average
July Low Temperature 7 degrees Above Average

There’s been a flurry of drought-related activity in July.

On July 10, the government weather forecast for a rainy winter was downgraded, reducing expectations that the drought would be broken by a wet winter. Strong trade winds usually blow from west to east in the Pacific, causing upwelling in the western Pacific. In an El Niño year, the trade winds weaken, and there’s a greater chance of heavy rains in California. The updated forecast is for a weak El Niño, which doesn’t predict a very wet winter. If this forecast is accurate, our drought might continue into a fourth year.

On July 14, California released a report that we haven’t done well in water conservation: “though the governor asked all Californians to reduce their water consumption by 20 percent, water use actually increased by 1 percent statewide in May”.

While none of the state’s 10 hydraulic regions have conserved as much as the governor asked for, most cut back at least 5 percent in May. The biggest exception is the South Coast region, which includes the Los Angeles and San Diego areas, as well as Orange County. There, water use increased 8 percent over previous years.

The state water board approved regulations “to stop: washing down driveways and sidewalks; watering of outdoor landscapes that cause excess runoff; using a hose to wash a motor vehicle, unless the hose is fitted with a shut-off nozzle, and using potable water in a fountain or decorative water feature, unless the water is recirculated.” These are good ideas to avoid wasting water, but it remains to be seen if these measures are enough to achieve California’s goal for 20% water conservation.

On July 22, our local water agency, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, “unanimously approved the hiring of up to 10 temporary water enforcers who will be charged with investigating water waste throughout the county”. Costing $500,000, the enforcers could hired and trained by the end of August. From our rainfall chart, note that from May to September we have five consecutive months of low rainfall, less than half an inch per month. The enforcers will start four months into our dry season and one month before our wet season starts in October and water usage declines.

Per this San Francisco Chronicle editorial, the SCVWD raises funds through property taxes, and the water district is considering increasing our property taxes to help pay for twin tunnels in the Delta to move water south.

California depends on groundwater especially in times of drought. A July 2014 California Water Foundation report states “annual groundwater production in California is approximately 14 million acre-feet, providing approximately 40% of California’s water supply in normal years. In dry years, groundwater can supply 50% or more of the state’s water needs. During drought conditions, such as the 2013-14 drought, groundwater usage can be as much as 65% of the state’s water use.”

A July 27 article in the San Francisco Chronicle highlights groundwater overdrafts in California’s Central Valley. “The ground is sinking because farmers and water agencies throughout the Central Valley are pumping groundwater heavily from far beneath the Earth’s surface to make up for the lack of rain. The problems caused by this sinkage are many, with no easy fix in sight.” Parts of the Central Valley have sunk three feet in the past five years. In 1977, the U. S. Geological Survey found one part of the Central Valley had subsided 28 feet between 1928 and 1977, so overdrafts and subsidence have been going on for decades.

This San Francisco Chronicle article has many suggestions for dealing with the drought.

There are plenty of things that could be done — and should have been done long ago:  

   » Measure and manage all groundwater pumping and use.  

   » Accelerate programs to meter all urban water users.  

   » Implement conservation-tiered pricing to reward efficiency improvements and penalize gross waste.  

   » Require utilities to redesign rates if they are postponing water conservation and efficiency programs because revenues might drop.  

   » Lose the lawn. It is time for green lawns to be permanently replaced by beautiful, but water-conserving, gardens.  

   » Reward water users who have already made great strides at conserving; expand efforts to reach their less-water-savvy neighbors.

   » Accelerate allocation of the state’s emergency drought funds, with priority given to the most proven and cost-effective strategies for saving water: programs for farmers and urban residents to install efficient irrigation systems; incentives to get homeowners to permanently replace lawns, inefficient toilets, showerheads and washing machines; and policies that expand wastewater and storm water use.

   » Encourage residents to engage with local water agencies; to follow their actions and to vote.  

Next year might be wet, but it could just as well be dry. Even in wet years, we have serious unresolved water problems. If we fail to act, we will be at risk of waking up, turning on the tap, and getting nothing but air.

Two local groups sponsored public presentations toward implementing two suggestions: losing the lawn and expanding wastewater use. The California Native Plant Society (CNPS) sponsored a talk on losing a lawn, and GreenTown Los Altos (GTLA) sponsored a talk on expanding wastewater use. Click on the presentation links to view the video of the presentations.

On a personal note, our home has no lawn, and our yard is landscaped with water-conserving, California-native plants. I volunteer for CNPS and GTLA, and I produced the two videos from audio recordings and the presentation slides.

Black Mountain Trail

Last Monday I joined fellow members of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) to hike up Black Mountain, a ridge that separates the Santa Clara Valley from the San Andreas Fault. I had hiked the San Andreas Fault earlier, so this hike offered views and hiking with people who know about California native plants.

This map shows both hikes. The blue squares show the first part of the San Andreas Fault hike, from the Monte Bello trailhead to Stevens Canyon. The straight valley between those two points marks the San Andreas Fault, and the trail follows the fault.

Black Mountain Map
Black Mountain Map

Black Mountain is the ridge just north of the San Andreas Fault. Monday’s hike, shown with red balloons, started at the Rhus Ridge trailhead and proceeded to the Black Mountain summit. We took the Black Mountain Trail, hiking 5.1 miles each way, with a 2,400 foot elevation gain. The CNPS members knew all sorts of California native plants and happily shared their knowledge, so I learned a lot.

The initial 3.5 miles of the hike is through woodland. This ribes menziesii, canyon gooseberry, has thorns, fine hairs on the edges of its leaves, and small red flowers.

ribes menziesii
ribes menziesii

This pedicularis densiflora, indian warrior, has dark red flowers.

pedicularis densiflora
pedicularis densiflora

This trillium chloropetalum, common trillium, has a dark burgundy flower emerging from the middle of three broad leaves. A very striking combination!

trillium chloropetalum
trillium chloropetalum

This young rattlesnake, with only one rattle, was lying on a bank beside the trail. The rattlesnake kills by injecting venom from its fangs. It then swallows its prey whole.

rattlesnake
rattlesnake

This piperia elegans, elegant rein orchid, is growing on this dry hillside.

piperia elegans
piperia elegans

The last 1.5 miles in on a dirt road up a ridge line. This trail is steeper, sunny and hot. You just keep going, to get it over with.

We stopped for lunch on a limestone outcropping at the summit. Lupines grow at the summit, especially in the limestone rocks.

upine on limestone outcropping at Black Mt. summit
lupine on limestone outcropping at Black Mountain summit

This view west from Black Mountain has a hazy Pacific Ocean beyond the hills. In person, we were able to see the ocean through the gap in the hills, but this photo doesn’t have enough contrast. The San Andreas Fault is in the valley below Black Mountain.

view west from Black Mountain
view west from Black Mountain

Hiking down the ridge line from the summit, we’re rewarded with views of the San Francisco Bay. The aircraft hangers at Moffett Field show up as a large, light-colored object on this side of the bay, with the cities of Los Altos and Mountain View in between. When monitoring rainfall, I use records from Moffett Field.

hiking down the ridgeline from the summit
hiking down the ridge line from the summit

Black Mountain and this ridge form part of the headwaters of Permanente Creek. In the photo below, the barren mountaintop is the Lehigh Cement Plant. The limestone in these mountains contains calcium, the primary component of cement. Permanente Creek is in the canyon below this ridge. Permanente Creek flows to the right of the Lehigh plant and out to the bay.

headwaters of Permanente Creek
headwaters of Permanente Creek

This patch of toxicoscordion fremontii, Fremont’s star lily, grows on the south side of the road. I saw this lily last week at Rancho Canada del Oro in San Jose.

toxicoscordion fremontii
toxicoscordion fremontii

Back in the woodland we spotted this ring-necked snake on the trail, so we carefully placed it off the trail where it wouldn’t get stepped on. Notice the red belly and red ring around its neck.

ring-necked snake
ring-necked snake

The hike to Black Mountain offers bay and ocean views, California native plants, and wildlife — all at the edge of Silicon Valley. The 10-mile hike with a 2400-foot elevation gain took most of the day. Pack a lunch, and carry 2 liters of water. The parking lot at the trailhead is small, so start early. Hiking in a group is wonderful — you see and appreciate so much more because different people will spot something and point it out to the others. With the wildflowers, spring is a great time to go take a hike.

After the Wildfire, +8 months

On March 14, we returned to the Rancho Cañada del Oro Open Space Preserve eight months after the wildfire. Our hike was led by the Santa Clara Valley Chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS-SCV), in cooperation with the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, to see how the fire impacted the landscape, how it will recover, and what fire follower plants are present.

The fire and this hike were in a preserve where going off-trail is normally prohibited. Please help protect the preserve by staying on the trails unless you are part of a docent-led hike like this one.

In the two months since our last hike, we got some rain at the end of February, but it’s been a very dry winter for California.

As usual, we started the hike at the corner of the burn area, which stretches up the hill.

corner of the burn area
corner of the burn area

In mid-March wildflowers are starting to bloom, with the February rain and warm winter. The lupinous bicolor, bicolor lupine, has blue and white flowers. All plants in this post are California native plants.

lupinus bicolor
lupinus bicolor

Eschscholzia californica, California poppy, is California’s state flower.

Eschscholzia californica
Eschscholzia californica

As in January, we saw Dudleya setchellii, Santa Clara dudley.

Dudleya setchellii
Dudleya setchellii

Two kinds of lupine here that haven’t bloomed yet.

lupinus
lupinus

Near the top of the ridge, this chaparral area on the south side of the ridge was covered with shrubs before the wildfire. Chlorogalum pomeridianum, soap plant, has sprouted.

chlorogalum pomeridianum
chlorogalum pomeridianum

We found mimulus, monkey flower, in the same area.

mimulus
mimulus

Salvia mellifera, black sage, appears to be resprouting.

salvia mellifera
salvia mellifera

Outside the burn area, we found sisyrinchium bellum, blue-eyed grass, in bloom. In the burn area, we only found small individuals that weren’t in bloom yet.

sisyrinchium bellum
sisyrinchium bellum

We found these in a burn area at the top of the ridge. Other folks on the hike identified this and many other plants, but I forgot the name. Arvind K. and Jean S. identified this as a zigadenus fremontii, Fremont star lily. But the name changed recently, and Judy F. has the current name toxicoscordion fremontii.

toxicoscordion fremontii
toxicoscordion fremontii

This symphoricarpos mollis, snowberry, was also in the burn area at the top of the ridge.

symphoricarpos mollis
symphoricarpos mollis

We hiked back on the north side of the ridge, out of the burn area. Some ferns. On the left, adiantum capillus-veneris, maidenhair, has fine black branches. Polypodium is in the middle. Dryopteris arguta, wood fern, is on the right.

dryopteris arguta, polypodium californicum, adiantum capillus-ve
dryopteris arguta, polypodium californicum, adiantum capillus-ve

And last but not least, dodecatheon, shooting stars are blooming. These summer-dormant plants add a leaf for every year of age. They start blooming at about seven years old, so it’s a real treat to see them in bloom.

dodecatheon pulchellum
dodecatheon
dodecatheon pulchellum
dodecatheon

Seeing all the wildflowers was a real treat, especially the shooting stars!

After the Wildfire, +6 months

Last Saturday a California Native Plant Society group returned to the Rancho Cañada del Oro Open Space Preserve to see and document how plants are recovering six months after a wildfire last July. We visited the area last November, and we planned to return in January, after the rains started, to see the regrowth. However, we’ve had very little rain since then, very unusual for our Mediterranean climate, with its mild, wet winters.

The fire and this hike were in a preserve where going off-trail is normally prohibited. Please help protect the preserve by staying on the trails unless you are part of a docent-led hike like this one.

Saturday was a beautiful day for a hike, with a high temperature in the low 70s. The path of our hike is shown by the black line on the map below. Hiking in a clockwise loop, we started at the road where the fire started (in the middle of the map), walked uphill to the half-burnt oak tree, to the west to climb the ridge outside the fire zone, and then returning on the Mayfair Ranch Trail.

January 2014 hike at Rancho Canada del Oro
January 25, 2014 hike at Rancho Canada del Oro

We hiked across the burn area to the half-burnt oak tree. This coast live oak looked the same as in November.

across the burn area to the half-burnt oak
across the burn area to the half-burnt oak

Near the oak tree we found a young sisyrinchium bellum (California blue-eyed grass). Despite the name, this California native is a member of the iris family. It has tiny, beautiful blue flowers in the spring. I now have new respect for its drought-tolerant qualities! The bunchgrass is doing well without water.

sisyrinchium bellum and bunchgrass
sisyrinchium bellum and bunchgrass

The epilobium canum (California fuschia) continues to grow in the draw near the oak tree.

epilobium canum and bunchgrass
epilobium canum in the draw

The burnt oak on the ridgeline near the gate has sprouts around a stump, and the sprouts near the cut are about the same.

burnt oak on ridgeline has new shoots at stump
burnt oak on ridgeline has new shoots at stump

Last but not least, we saw some Dudleya abramsii ssp. setchellii, Santa Clara Valley dudleya. This stonecrop lives only in this part of the valley, and it is endangered per the US Fish and Wildlife Service. As you can see, the Santa Clara Valley dudleya lives in the cracks of serpentine rocks, requiring excellent drainage.

dudleya abramsii ssp. setchellii
Dudleya abramsii ssp. setchellii
dudleya abramsii ssp. setchellii
Dudleya abramsii ssp. setchellii

With scant winter rains, we saw few new plants in January that we didn’t see in November.  The sisyrinchium bellum is new, and it does grow in the winter. The good news is that the plants we saw in November are still alive.

New Year’s Day at Año Nuevo Park

We joined the annual New Year’s Day hike led by our California Native Plant Society (CNPS) chapter at Año Nuevo State Park, which is named for Punta Año Nuevo, the point sighted by a Spanish explorer on January 3, 1603. Año Nuevo means new year in Spanish, so it’s quite appropriate to hike there on New Year’s Day.

We went for the natural beauty, the company, California native plants, and a chance to see the elephant seals that winter in the park. The central California coast has its best weather in the winter, without the coastal fog of summer. The high temperature on New Year’s Day was in the mid-60s.

A friend of my wife’s was on the hike, and she suggested that we go on the elephant seal tour, which she said was fantastic. As our CNPS hike started, I ran off to try to purchase tickets for the elephant seal tour. They still had tickets for the 10:30 tour! We informed a CNPS hike leader and said we’d catch up with them after our tour.

For the elephant seal tour we hiked two miles to a point near Ano Nuevo Island, shown below. Four hundred years ago, the island was joined to the mainland, but now there’s a channel between them. Elephant seals are lying on the beach.

Ano Nuevo Island and elephant seals
Ano Nuevo Island and elephant seals

In the 1800s, elephant seals were slaughtered for their blubber, which was used for lamp oil. By 1892, we killed every elephant seal in California. Less than 200 elephant seals on a remote Mexican island survived. Mexico and then the United States banned hunting in the early 1900s, and those elephant seals spread back to California. Genetic testing reveals that the entire population descended from only three males so some inbreeding issues might still arise.

In this photo, three (small, black) pups are surrounded by larger, white females. The pups nurse for about 28 days, growing from 75 pounds to 250-300 pounds. During the last few days of nursing, the female comes into estrus and mates. The female leaves the pup and swims off, weaning the pup from mother’s milk. The young elephant seal, now called a weaner, learned how to swim, molts, and swims off by end of April.

pups surrounded by females
pups surrounded by females

Male elephant seals are black, have long noses (like an elephant, hence their name), and can weigh nearly 5,000 pounds.

male elephant seal
male elephant seal

In the video below, he’s covering his back with sand.

This elephant seal has a deep scar around his neck. He had a toilet seat stuck around his neck.

Elephant seal with scar around neck
Elephant seal with scar around neck

Several years ago, rangers found him and removed the toilet seat, but the scar still remains. Here’s the toilet seat and a photo of the elephant seal.

toilet seat and photo
toilet seat and photo

A later post will show how male elephant seals battle for dominance over the harem.

As we walked through sand dunes, our docent showed us this midden, where native Americans dumped shells after eating. The shrubs are lupinus arboreus, yellow bush lupine, a California native plant. (A nearby lupine had yellow flowers.) The midden and lupines are in a restricted area where only elephant-seal tours can go; we later learned that our CNPS group didn’t see lupines.

midden flaked by lupines
midden flaked by lupines

After the tour we walked back on a long, narrow beach with steep bluffs. Two very high tides preceded our tour. Our docent said that some pups had been born on the narrow beach and they might have been washed to sea by the high tides. Young pups haven’t learned to swim yet, so they would drown. We saw no marine mammals on the beach. 😦 We went up the stairs at the end of the beach and joined our CNPS group.

Humans nearly hunted the northern elephant seal to extinction, but the population is recovering after they were protected. We still need to be careful about how we dispose of garbage such as plastics and toilet seats.

After the Wildfire, +4 months

In California, where we get little rain between April and October, wildfire is all too common. On Saturday a California Native Plant Society (CNPS) group hiked in the hills south of San Jose, California, to look at a 40-acre area that burned in July 2013. To document nature’s renewal after the fire, we photographed the burn area before the rains, and we’ll return in the winter and spring to see the changes after the rain, to see how well the plants recover.

This relief map, a screenshot from Lightroom 5, shows the area where we hiked. My camera has a built-in GPS. The numbers indicate how many photos I took in that spot, but I’ll use the numbers to show where the photos were taken. The burn area started at the yellow marker, number 18. The brown lines on the relief map indicate equal elevation, so we can see that the hike started at the bottom of the hill.

Rancho Canada del Oro map
Rancho Canada del Oro map

The fire was within the Rancho Cañada del Oro Open Space Preserve. 2013 has been very dry — it’s rained only 2″ in 2013 and 3/4″ of rain since the July fire.

Marker 18 shows the bottom corner of the burn. The fire burned the grassland up the hill to the oak trees at the top.

Rancho Canada del Oro burn area
Rancho Canada del Oro burn area

This charred clump of fescue, a cool-season grass, is sprouting new shoots in the fall.

fescue shoots after the burn
fescue shoots after the burn

We hiked west to marker 15 and then hiked north up the hill to the trees.

up the draw to half-burnt oak
up the draw to half-burnt oak

The white flowers in the foreground are hemizonia congesta, hayfield tarweed, a California native plant. The tarweed in the photo below was just outside the burn area.

hemizonia congesta
hemizonia congesta

Here’s a closer view of the half-burnt oak, marker 12. Note that the leaves facing the hillside are brown while the leaves facing away form the hillside are still green.

half-burnt oak
half-burnt oak

This epilobium canum (California fuschia) is growing in the ravine just below the oak tree. A California native plant, it blooms in the summer. These fuschias are more healthy than the ones at home that we water every two weeks! Perhaps there was considerable water runoff into the ravine from fire fighting.

epilobium canum
epilobium canum

A patch of asclepias fascicularis, narrowleaf milkweed, is growing on the other side of the ravine from the oak tree. The narrowleaf milkweed is the sole food source of the monarch butterfly.

asclepias fascicularis
asclepias fascicularis

We hiked back down the hill and then around the hill to a gate on the ridgeline at the top of the burn, marker 11. The hillside was too steep for the group to hike directly up the hill.

This quercus agrifolia, coast live oak, located at the gate, lost its leaves in the fire, but a small green shoot has emerged just below the cut. Also a California native plant, the coast live oak is evergreen. It’s dormant in the summer, which helps it survive the dry California summer.

burnt coast live oak with shoot
burnt coast live oak with shoot

From this oak, the half-burnt oak is down the bare hillside in the bottom left.

half-burnt oak from ridgetop
half-burnt oak from ridgetop

We hiked out to marker 10 to see the burn area from the top of the ridge. Look at the yellow grassland and the green oak woodland to imagine how the burn area looked before the fire.

looking at the burn area
looking at the burn area

We’ll return in January after the plants get some rain.