california drought leaves yosemite high and dry

Having spent summers and a few winters in Yosemite National Park in California, it’s fairly easy for me to imagine taking a walk through any section of sequoia tree forest. The warm summer sun is kept at bay by the friendly giants that rise hundreds of feet into the sky, dispersing that fresh wilderness scent throughout the air that cleanses the respiratory tract. Twigs crack beneath my feet as I come to a stop. Pulling out my camera, the scene is picture perfect. This is the definition of serenity. No flash necessary, and on I go with my nature journey through the wooded city.

Pause the story.

There’s more than meets the eye here. The trees, in fact, are dying, according to the National Park Service. Why?

California is dry. And it has been for years. The situation got so bad that in 2015 California state officials announced cutbacks to farmers’ water rights for the first time since 1977.

For some time now, drought has been the term to describe the situation in the Golden State. According to the California Water Science Center (CWSC), a drought is a period of drier-than-normal conditions that results in water-related problems. When the dry period and water-related problems persist, the result is a drought.

Now, the long-term health of one of California’s prime natural jewels is at risk.

Yosemite Public Affairs Officer Jamie Richards has worked in Yosemite less than a year, but understands the potential gravity of the situation at hand. Richards said there are varying figures on when the drought actually began, with some studies and indications showing that the drought has been in effect for over 10 years.

“There are more narrowly defined terms of the drought that say it started about 5 years ago,” Richards said in a phone interview. “The trend has been going for over 10 years.”

California officially declared a state of drought five years ago. The lack of rain and snow in the Sierra Nevada region, which includes Yosemite, has had a dramatic impact on area trees. There is one tree species that has been hit particularly hard by the dry conditions.

“The drought has had a dramatic impact on our pine forest,” Richards said. “When you drive into Yosemite national park today, even from a few years ago, you’re going to see a dramatic change in the landscape around you.”

According to Richards, that change is the thousands of dead and dying trees throughout California’s Stanislaus National Forest. Yes, that includes Yosemite. Even the healthier pine trees are showing signs of stress. Like all life forms known to man, trees depend on water for survival. Drought conditions lead to a decrease in available water for the trees. With less water, the trees are unable to produce the amount of sap it needs to keep itself healthy in the spring, Richards said.

Natural phenomena rarely occur in a vacuum with no impact on surrounding life and conditions. According to Richards, the lack of available water for Yosemite’s pine trees led to another situation.

“There is a natural relationship between the pine-bark beetle and the pine trees, and they are natural symbiotic species that have always coexisted together,” Richards said.

The situation is this. Yosemite’s pine trees are producing less sap in the Spring because of the lack of available water.

“That means in the spring when the tree would normally produce sap and push out a lot of the pine-bark beetle larvae and beetles that were in the bark, the sap can no longer do that,” Richards said. The pine-bark beetles aren’t just over welcoming their winter stay in the pine bark, their overpopulation is literally killing the trees, according to Richards.

Another species reliant on tall trees in the Pika, a small mammal that looks to be a cross between a squirrel and guinea-pig, has been affected by the drier conditions. Their preferred habitat is a cold climate and higher elevation. Pika in and around Yosemite now must continue to go higher in order to find the habitat required for survival, Richards said, feeding an overall increase in concern among park and forest officials about species migration. On a larger scale, the loss of millions of trees across the Western United States is leading to habitat loss, according to Richards.  

With habitat loss comes migration.

If and when the effects of the drought will be reversed is not yet known, and may not be for some time. Richards said she couldn’t speculate on how long it could take for the negative effects of the drought to reverse, or what other species have been impacted, citing the fact that there is a sizeable amount of research currently being done to answer that very question.

“There are scientists that come and use our national parks as laboratories, and I don’t think the research has really come out to tell us [if there has been irreversible damage] yet,” Richards said.

It appears that only the passing of time will reveal the answer.

It’s possible that positive changes could be coming. Optimist’s will look to the increase in rain and snow for Winter 2016 as an indication that the conditions are improving. According to the Los Angeles Times, snowpack this year was at near normal levels on April 1, before decreasing to 35 percent of normal by the end of May.

Snowpack in the Sierra is essential to the ecosystem as a whole. According to the CWSC, about one-third of the water used by California’s cities and farms comes from snowpack through runoff, or melting. The CWSC also noted that a warmer spring season melts the snowpack faster than in the past, in turn creating a false sense of “water security.” This helps explain the sharp decline in snowpack between April and the end of May.

The most alarming aspect of that loss is the potential for the snowpack to disappear entirely if it continues to melt at such a high rate.

Without quality snowpack, the ground doesn’t get the water it needs to sustain life, Richards said, which in turn puts stress on the regional ecology and the wildlife that depends on snowpack as a water source.

Even with the dry conditions, not to mention a sharp increase in the risk of wildfire, visitation to Yosemite hasn’t taken a hit.

“This year, 2016, has seen our highest visitation in our parks history,” Richards said. “Over 5M people came to Yosemite for 2016.”

That trend should only continue its upward trajectory. At worst, it looks like the number of visitors would merely plateau. As the effects of the drought are still up in the air, the statistics show people are keen to take advantage of Yosemite’s natural wonder and beauty.

Perhaps because Yosemite won’t ever be the same. Or perhaps because it is, after all, Yosemite.