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To kill a hummingbird: It is just an inkling of damage Californians’ caviler attitude toward water use will do
mono pass
Just a small patch of snow remained at Mono Pass (elevation 12,045 feet) last week. Usually mid-July typically has significantly more snow on the pass.

It was, without a doubt, a simple pleasure.

I was stretched out on a smooth rock outcropping along the fourth Tyee Lake at 11,200 feet east of Bishop.

A steady breeze powered a soothing sound as ripples of water sloshed ever so gently against the shore. It was the same breeze sending slightly grayish thumper clouds flowing eastward across rugged crags soaring hundreds of feet above guarding the high Sierra basin.

I was at the turnaround point of a 5.75-mile hike started some 2,262 feet lower.

There was not a soul in sight. Over the course of the hike I would encounter less than a dozen people. The assortment of humanity included trail runners that topped me both in age and obviously the fitness scale given my somewhat slowpoke hiking pace.

In the mixture was a woman with a Labrador retriever and a Chihuahua who ended up just hitting the first lake some 1,100 feet below.

Dogs on high Sierra trails tend to be as mellow as their human hiking partners with smiles plastered on their faces, tails ragging seemingly non-stop, and exceedingly good manners as they pass by.

The Chihuahua was a first for me. It goes without saying there were literally a hundred or so spots on the trail where rock or granite posed obstacles to clear that were easily as tall as the dog was long. Hiking poles were a must for me to clear such outcroppings on the trail whether I was going up or down. Yet here was a Chihuahua that seemed to clear them with ease. Realizing a Chihuahua can smoke you hiking certainly keeps one humble.

As I enjoyed my prolonged break on the shores of the fourth lake after devouring the decidedly anti-Euell Gibbons trail lunch consisting of two small bags of Cheez-Its, I was on somewhat of a lazy summer afternoon trance staring across the water watching the clouds pass overhead.

Usually my Sierra nirvana is a high pass or a peak soaring above the tree line. But this time around my series of five day hikes strung together I was taken in by nature’s natural reservoirs.

The signs of drought were clear.

After 12 seasons of hiking in the eastern Sierra in Inyo and Mono counties encountering snow as the days of summer deepened above 11,000 feet along trails snaking across passes situated ideally to shelter the white stuff accumulated during the winter wasn’t unusual.

Places such as Paiute Pass at 11,423 feet east of Bishop can still have substantial snow covering steep trails approaching passes even days after the Fourth of July fades away. Two years ago, iced over snow in mid-July proved too much for me to conquer even with crampons attached to my hiking boots on an 80-degree day wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt.

There is something incredibly decadent about losing your footing in upwards of a foot of snow working on your tan while covered with 100 sun protection factor and sliding 90  or so feet downhill before stopping your unexpected descent with hiking poles. You might get a few scratches but it is worth the ability to experience a quick chilly cool down while in a full throttle summer sweat on a day that just 140 miles away as the crow flies Manteca is sweltering in 105-degree heat.

Although Paiute Pass wasn’t on my itinerary this time around, there were several repeat destinations such as Kearsarge Pass at 11,700 feet east of Independence as well as Duck Pass at 10,700 feet south of Mammoth Pass. In mid-July it isn’t rare for either to be ringed with mountainsides still marked with large patches of snow or to have several inches of snow covering the higher reaches of the trail.

This year such snow was as rare as pockets of political harmony among those steering hard left and hard right. Even the protected rocky notch that is the inhospitable Mono Pass at 12,045 feet had only one small anemic stretch of snow along the trail while high elevation meadows had wilted into hues of yellow and brown more typical of mid-September.

Spend a week in the high Sierra and you can usually come across evidence of a summer rainstorm, the remnants of a hail storm delivered by the fury of a thunder and lightning episode, or get pelted in a sudden downpour or caressed by sprinkles.

This time around the best the skies delivered were thunder and lightning events that — if they created any moisture at all —  generated small raindrops few and far between that seemed to evaporate just as they slightly tickled your arms and face or did little more than kick up dust if they made it to earth.

There were still small  ice masses and small cirque glaciers whose numbers in the Sierra as of a 2015 study were placed in excess of 1,700 at elevations 10,400 feet and above. But as far as snow was concerned it looked more like late August than mid-July.

Manmade reservoirs — primarily the handiwork of the Los Angeles water robber barons of the early 20th century — nestled in the Sierra are starting to slip away but not to the degree of larger reservoirs such as at Folsom, Shasta or New Melones.

But the most part those lakes in the high Sierra created by nature are still filled to the brim although water feeding them and the creeks that carry what is clearly liquid gold these days to lower lakes and to a dwindling degree to the clutches of Los Angeles Water and Power Department catch basins such as Agnew Lake and Grant Lake is nearing a trickle

The water is what snow melted either weeks or months ago that made its way into hidden small passes amid granite and for now is continuing to keep natural lakes filled.

Such lakes at the higher elevations will still be an oasis amid the deepening drought for perhaps a few more weeks or even a month before the remaining traces of this past winter storms seeps out of rocky chambers with the flow slowing down to either a mere trickle or disappearing altogether.

Contemplating what the coming months hold for the basin surrounding me on Thursday as I let my 65-year-old feet enjoy a rare 20 minutes of not holding up my 170 pound frame during what ended up being a four hour hike was a tad of a downer.

The drought will have serious consequences. We as a whole are ill-prepared opting as a society led by a government with an attention span of a 3 year-old that eschews long-range change because a previous drought — ironically one never that ended less than three years ago — became a non-issue when the rain and snow returned.

Such thoughts were snapped by a sudden humming sound. I turned my head slightly.

Hovering a mere two feet away, if that, was a hummingbird.

It was staring me down as it incessantly flapped its wings.

This lasted for about seven seconds before it made a slight movement toward my reflective sunglasses causing me to jerk my head slightly. It then took off in search of insects and nectar.

While it wasn’t exactly a moment of omen status, it underscored the reality that we all seem to forget.

Water is essential for life. And that goes beyond just our own lives or that of the human species.

There is a lot more to life than feeding the unquenchable thirst we create by buzz cuts needed for manicured lawns that serve little purpose in most cases than a visual trophy of sorts of our status or foolishly squandering water hosing down concrete that will be dusty again within hours or even minutes.

Our faucets may not run dry this year but the natural ones providing the lifeline to hundreds of  species of animals, birds, and fish in California will.

What water we use carelessly today doesn’t just jeopardize our tomorrow if the current drought ends up tacking on more years. It also sucks away the lifeblood of habitats for creatures such as hummingbirds.

We need to start thinking about tomorrow every time we use water.

Your 20-minute shower today could be the death knell of high Sierra hummingbirds a year from now.



This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at