Last week I described how the Albion River had gone dry at the confluence of its two main branches. Well, in the last few days I've walked west from the Macdonald Ranch, and sadly I have to report that the Albion is a dry gravel bar as it meets tidewater. You can smell the impact as well. In the past, when fresh water mixed with the upper reaches of tidewater near Duckpond Gulch only a vague aroma of salt water lingered in the air. Now, with no fresh water flowing into the lower Albion, the river carries the pungent smell of an overused seaside arcade.
The forecast for the foreseeable future is for nothing but sunshine. If this drought continues it will, of course, wreak havoc on autumn salmon runs up all of our coastal streams. Even on rivers that may still possess flowing waters salmon will have little or no chance. The California drought between 1987 and 1992 produced stream temperatures as high as 84 degrees on the Klamath River, to the north of us. Salmon cannot survive beyond 75 degrees Fahrenheit and their eggs can't make it above 54-55 degrees. The Sacramento River, at the height of that drought in 1991 saw only 127 adult salmon recorded in the mighty river.
Other studies on prolonged drought show the following effect on the tidewater itself: A salt water only stream will convert from a pelagic (water-column) to a benthic (bottom-dwelling) system. In other words, fish and shrimp will dwindle in population and so, too, will critters like the birds who feed off them. In freshwater of deprived, drought stricken streams, expect to see the death or collapse of trees close to the river bank. That has already happened here on the Macdonald Ranch, with large second growth redwoods simply toppling over on sunbathed, wind free days. Some of this can be attributed to more and more water being drawn from the Albion nearer to its source in the environs of Comptche. Even without the recent drought years, the Albion has been noticeably lower in the last twenty-five to thirty years. The river used to run high enough all year so that water seeped through into the adjacent river bottom lands. Our family farmed a very large garden within a few feet of the river's bank for a century without needing to do more than a very occasional watering of crops from carrots to corn. Beginning in the mid 1990s that same bottom land next to the Albion River has progressively dried up so that it became non-tillable several years before the current drought. The only plausible conclusion: overuse of water upstream. Anybody old enough to remember the sparsely populated areas around Surprise Valley and Docker Hill Road, just west of Comptche, should take a look at the population explosion there now. Of course, there has been no substantive land use planning in this inland part of Mendocino County, no regulation of water diversion let alone any sort of monitoring of water use or overuse.
Last week's piece contained a historical error about past California droughts. I stated that my father and uncles dug deep holes in the bottom land in 1927. The actual year was 1924, the third straight year of a drought that parched all California. 1927, no doubt, was on my mind because I have been reading Bill Bryson's book centered on that year. Paradoxically, the spring of 1927 brought rainfall of truly Biblical proportions to the U.S., culminating in flooding that spread over the entire Mississippi Valley. Bryson points out the little known fact (even in its day) that Charles Lindbergh flew his Spirit of St. Louis from San Diego to New York in the midst of these horrific storms, in the process becoming the first pilot to fly over the Rocky Mts. at night.
* Postscript to the Billy Ray Doak saga, first reported here in the June 25th edition: Billy Ray Doak Jr.'s retrial has been pushed back to September 10th at the Ten Mile Courthouse in Fort Bragg. Interested readers can partake of Billy's letter to the editor in the AVA's online files to see how he claims his girlfriend's ring finger was nearly shot off.