THE BLOG
03/13/2013 05:05 pm ET Updated May 13, 2013

Yanopah Takes the Plunge

This is the story of Yanopah, a tiny water molecule who has been travelling the world's waterways for millions of years. Yanopah has seen it all. She has spent thousands of years at the depth of dark oceans, hibernated in icecaps and glaciers, traveled down streams and rivers, and taken long holidays in groundwater aquifers.2013-03-08-VernalFall.jpg

Yanopah's favorite place in the global water cycle is Vernal Fall in the Sierra Nevada. Here the Merced River drops into the Yosemite Valley in a spectacular plunge of almost 100 meters. On average, water molecules only get to visit this place once every five million years, but Yanopah has been lucky. She often commutes between the Pacific Ocean currents and the watersheds of the West Coast, and has had the chance to take the big plunge at Vernal Fall every few hundred years.

When we met on a summer day a few years ago, Yanopah had already had an eventful day. Woken up by the warm Californian sun on a snow field on Mount Lyell, she had slowly trundled over boulders to the cold waters of Lake Washburn, leisurely sauntered through Little Yosemite Valley, hurtled herself over the spectacular Nevada Fall, and enjoyed a short rest in the clear waters of Emerald Pool before taking the plunge down the majestic Vernal Fall.

Hiking up a slippery trail, I met Yanopah in the mist which envelopes Vernal Fall day and night. Still giddy from the big jump, she told me how she looked forward to her journey down the Merced River -- hurtling cheerfully down to Happy Isles, meandering through the majestic floodplain of the Yosemite Valley, gushing down the lonesome Merced Canyon, and meeting old friends and fellow travelers in the mighty San Joaquin River. She would explore the endless wetlands of the river delta until she would finally meet the San Francisco Bay and float into the Pacific Ocean through the sun-baked Golden Gate.

Yanopah was excited to meet the Paiute and Miwok communities again, who lived along the river and had given her -- and the water fall -- her name (which in their language means "little cloud"). She looked forward to seeing the rich flora and fauna along the river banks -- the black bears, limestone salamanders, and large flocks of birds who travel the great Pacific Flyway. "There is nothing like the buzz of millions of water molecules enjoying a wild river ride as they give life to a whole watershed," the little droplet told me.

Yanopah slipped away before I could respond, gliding back to the bustling river below us. I wished her well, but couldn't help worrying for our little river traveler. The Merced is still a healthy river as it makes its way through the Yosemite Valley and the canyon that bears its name. Yet the native communities who lived along its banks have been driven off or assimilated, and most of the salmon and trout which used to spawn here can no longer make their seasonal journey upstream.

Once the Merced reaches the Central Valley, Yanopah will meet an altered landscape. Her journey will grind to a sudden halt in Lake McClure, the 30 kilometer-long reservoir of the Exchequer Dam. She will feel water temperatures raise to an uncomfortable level, will gasp for oxygen, and feel the sting of mercury still washed into the river and reservoir from abandoned gold mines. After she has cleared Exchequer Dam, she will bump up against three more dams before she reaches the sickly remnants of the San Joaquin River.

Where wetlands once teemed, Yanopah will find rich pastures, farms and orchards, sleepy towns and busy highways. She will notice that the millions of birds which traveled through the area every year have mostly been replaced by tourists who flock to the reservoirs on their yearly wheeled migration. And she may hear that irrigation bureaucrats are trying to peel back the legal protection for parts of the river so they can expand the Lake McClure reservoir further into the Merced Canyon.

Yanopah may eventually reach the sea on her trip through the maze of dams, diversions and canals that make up the Central Valley, one of the world's most fragmented watersheds. But most of her fellow travelers will not be so lucky. They will be sucked up and straightened out, sprinkled and consumed. They will end up in the cheese and chicken wings, the cantaloupes and ketch-up bottles that export the Merced's water riches to the rest of the nation and the world every day.

I hope Yanopah will manage to weather the risks of pollution, damming and diversion with which we clog the arteries of our planet. I take another look at the millions of water molecules that form the gushing curtain of Vernal Fall. And as I continue my hike up the misty trail, I give my thanks to Yanopah and her companions for sustaining me, our rivers and our planet.

This text is part of the project, Every River Has a Story.