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That California continues to struggle with years of unprecedented heat and drought will be a surprise to no one: we’ve all seen the photos of Lake Oroville, the second largest reservoir in the state, looking like a nearly-drained bathtub at 256 feet below its full capacity, or 36-foot-wide General Sherman, one of the icons of Sequoia National Park, wrapped in fire blankets, as the massive KNP fire complex crept forward.
Now there’s data to support fears that this blistering year was especially bad: the California Department of Water Resources released a report detailing the average precipitation from weather stations all around the state. It shows that 2021 was California’s second driest year on record based on precipitation. (The driest year was 1924, when less than a million people lived in the state, and most of its major water infrastructure had yet to be built).
While snowpack measured on April 1 in the Sierra-Cascades (an indicator of expected water supply for the year) was 60% of average, streamflow in major watersheds was on par with 2014, when snowpack had been 25% of average. Explains the report: “Prolonged warm and dry conditions create a moisture deficit…reducing runoff and efficiency.”
What does that mean for California hikers—especially those thru-hiking the PCT? As Pacific Crest Trail Association director Scott Wilkinson said in an interview with SFGate in August: “It’s gotten to the point where it’s almost impossible to thru-hike every point of the trail.” Timothy Olson, the ultrarunner who sprinted his way to the fastest known time for the PCT this year at 51 days, 16 hours, and 55 minutes, had to reroute twice, due to the Bobcat and Lionhead fires.
Aside from guaranteed wildfire interruptions and untenable breathing conditions due to smoke, nearly record-breaking droughts will continue to make water sources less available. If predictions for another typical La Niña year play out, California could be headed for a bone-dry 2022. For a region of the PCT already known for its epic dry stretches, droughts like the one this year could make whole sections of the trail impossible to thru-hike altogether in the very near future.