It’s crowded and commercialized, but worth a visit at least once in your lifetime.
I could be talking about Waikiki, or Hawaii in general, but I’m not.
I’m talking about Yosemite National Park. And by extension, all of our precious national parks, many of which are suffering from the insatiable demands of human admirers and the consequences of climate change.
The people who know this on a most personal level are those on the front lines. I’m talking about the tour guides, the National Park Services rangers and those who make their living in and around these natural treasures.
Yosemite is still a grand, impressive place. But the drought that has been plaguing California for years is making its mark on a major resource—the Merced River.
We tourists think it’s beautiful—and it is—but our guide, Jonathan Mercer, has worked this territory for decades and knows what’s really going on. He pointed out how low the water level was. How there were more rocks than water in many areas.
“Well,” Mercer said, “this drought has gotten so bad, it’s lasted long enough, that we are starting to see. People just think we’re taking shorter showers or that we’re not watering the lawn and everything’s brown and that’s about it. But we’re seeing a lot of different effects.”
One very immediate effect is the lack of flow in the Merced. The mountain snows that normally melt and feed the river, he said, have been sparse.
“It’s affecting our friends with the rafting service. Typically, this is a place to white water raft. They would typically run, oh, about five to five-and-a-half months. And in the normal years they would still be running right now.”
During a normal season those rafting tours are offered seven days a week for most of the season. But last year, Mercer said, the water levels were so low they only had three weeks of rafting conditions instead of the usual five months. And this year it was much, much worse.
“This year they came up here and assessed it. And you could just look at it and it was the way you see it right now.
No way you can get a raft down that. They stayed for a couple of days, visiting friends, then turned around and left.”
For a small business owner, that is devastating.
And of course, that’s not all that’s being affected. Mercer said that in a normal year, even during the hottest months, the water level in the shallowest parts of the river would get no lower than a foot to two feet in depth.
“Well, last year those areas dropped to just a few inches.”
This trapped fish in the deeper pools. Fishermen got wind of the bounty in the pools and came out in droves.
“This has never been a good place for fishing, but they took so many fish out of the river last year it’s going to take a good 10, maybe 15 years until we see normal fish levels return.”
The decline in the fish population, he said, affected the bears.
“They can’t find the fish. They can’t find sources to eat, and that kind of forces them into other areas of the park where we would typically not see them.”
And this year, he said, the situation is even worse. “The water is getting very shallow and it’s not moving very fast, so the water is sitting a lot more time in the sun. This is heating up this river a pretty good amount. The river right now is probably in the mid to upper 70s and this is early for that to be happening.”
The higher temperatures put the remaining fish at risk of diseases, further affecting their numbers.
To cap it all off, that entire warm, shallow, slow-moving water makes the river “unpleasant,” Mercer said.
“This year it’s just awful. It’s full of algae, bringing a lot of bugs. Typically we don’t have a lot of bugs but this year we have flies, mosquitoes, things like that so it’s kind of affecting everybody out here.”
Yes, we had a great time taking in the beauty of the park and marveling at nature.
Yes, it was worth the visit. And Mercer says people should visit. Yosemite is worth your time.
And it confirms what many of us already know-- our natural resources are precious, priceless and under assault.
You leave such a place wanting to be a better guardian of the Earth.