Seeing Green: In Drying Times

Opinion by Holly Moeller
Jan. 29, 2014, 11:59 p.m.

Shivering, the first group of students arrived at Almaden Quicksilver County Park at 8 A.M. on Saturday morning. Spoiled by a winter that, so far, has seemed more like summer, a few hadn’t even packed sweaters.

We walked slowly uphill, making observations of the plant life as we went. Throughout the day, without fail, the students noted the dryness of the sun-crisped vegetation. They pointed out the dry streambed to our left, the expanse of brown grass to our right, and the half-dead sagebrush sprinkled along the hillside. Following the driest year California has ever recorded, only the coyotebrush, as hardy as its namesake, and the live oak, with its prickly-stiff evergreen leaves, looked particularly alive.

I’m only in my fourth year as a California resident – and this is my very first January really savoring the mild winters (namely, their value to sand volleyball practice). But even I can recognize how unusual this weather pattern is.

January is usually a time of greening: the late autumn and winter bring cool, rainy days, rehydrating the landscape and rousing desiccated plant life. In Januaries past, I remember digging out my rain pants for the bike ride across campus, hunting salamanders in Jasper Ridge, and biking through falling snow on Skyline Drive.

This year, January has been the month of 70-degree noon-time volleyball breaks, friends scraping skis, snowboards, and knees over once-covered rocks in Tahoe, and, as we observed last Saturday, absolutely parched landscapes.

Indeed, it’s been so dry that on January 17, Governor Jerry Brown declared a statewide drought emergency.

Last year was the driest on record – the rainfall in 2013 in San Francisco was the lowest ever measured since record-keeping began during the 1849 Gold Rush. The first snowpack measure of the year, on January 10, revealed that our future water supply (much of which comes from Sierra Nevada meltwater) is in serious jeopardy. In the Northern Sierra, the snowpack is only 8% of normal. It’s 16% of normal in the Central Sierra and 22% in the mountain range’s southern reaches.

Meanwhile, 99% of California is “abnormally dry,” and fully two thirds of the state (especially San Francisco and the Central Valley) is in “extreme drought.”

There’s no rain to be seen in the future forecasts, either.

Governor Brown asked us all to make some voluntary cutbacks and to try to reduce our water usage by 20%. But his request hasn’t seemed to slow water usage that much: I still walk to my office over sprinkler-damped sidewalks each morning.

Then again, we suburban dwellers won’t be hardest hit.

More than three quarters of California’s freshwater supply is used for agriculture. Our breadbasket in the Central Valley is irrigated by Sierra snowmelt – and in the absence of that snowmelt, farmers will face tough choices in the coming months.

You and I will be able to afford (in dollars, and in energy) to source our food from elsewhere. But California’s farmers rely on successful harvests for their livelihood. In part, Governor Brown’s declaration should pave the way for some additional economic security for them: easing bureaucracy around water transfers, streamlining regulations, and asking the federal government for financial assistance. It will be a tough year, but most of these farmers have weathered droughts before (for example, as recently as 2009).

Still, it’s hard to avoid the frightening thought that this drought might be part of a larger pattern.

As we laid out tape measures and counted plants amid the chaparral last Saturday, a student asked me why this year has been so dry.

It’s hard to say, I told him. No matter how extreme, one year doesn’t make a trend.

Yet climate models predict that, as a result of human activity increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, California will get hotter and drier in the coming decades. This January may represent a synergy of that larger trend and some exceptional weather patterns that are siphoning off our usual – though declining – rainfall quota.

In addition, scholars of natural climate records believe California experienced plenty of droughts before we humans started chronicling rainfall. Some dry spells lasted decades and were extreme enough to be called “mega-droughts.”

What if that terrifying scenario has returned? Such an event would be unthinkable in modern California, where our utopian existence is supported by water that first fell as rain or snow hundreds of miles away – sometimes even across state lines. Threats to that water supply means reevaluating not only our swimming pools and lawn maintenance but also potentially severe blows to an agricultural economy worth $45 billion.

Never has it been more clear that questions of sustainability are also fundamentally questions of adaptability than in these trying, drying times.

Holly welcomes reader questions and comments via email at hollyvm “at”

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).

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