Lessons in the Drought

A School Project Brings Home Climate Consequences

Out of the blue, I received an email from a Santa Barbara 13-year-old, who asked me my thoughts about the drought. I don’t know how he found me, maybe his teacher had a list of water conservation contractors. But the teen’s questions were really insightful, and as I answered his direct questions, I was struck how sobering the topic was. He started off with a friendly “Hello!”

“My name is Lucas; I am a 13-year-old 8th grader working on a school project regarding water conservation, specifically in the urban/suburban area of SoCal. One of the requirements of the assignment is to reach out to a professional in the field to ask a few questions. I was hoping I could ask just four questions in regard to the current California drought. In advance, thank you for your time and assistance.

“In your opinion, what is the main cause of the California drought?”

My answer: The main cause is likely geological time-frame “normal” climatic variance that is exacerbated by human-induced activities. Global climate change is always happening; I suppose the real question might be: To what extent is the global climate change affected in both magnitude and rate of change by human activities?

“Where in the state do you believe the drought effects will be more prominent?”

The drought effects will be most prominent in the following areas: A) Urban-wildland interface, where houses will burn due to uncontrollable wildland fires, B) Farms where the cost to pump increasingly marginalized water (declining and poorer quality and less available groundwater) exceeds the value of the crops that they produce, and C) Cities and towns that are reliant upon few water storage options and therefore will be less resilient to the lack of water available.

“How long do you think this drought will last?”

I don’t really care to try and guess. It’s way beyond me. Could be 500 years. Could be one more. However, the reality is that this current drought has wreaked such havoc upon the forests and other plants and ecosystems that it will take years to recover. For instance, the pine forests throughout the state are dying in record quantities and areas from bark beetle infestations. Even with a deluge from an El Niño winter, with above-average rain and snowpack, the stressed trees will continue to die for the next four years (according to an U.S. Forest Service talk I attended in Yosemite) because they have expended so much of their reserves to stay alive thus far!

“What do you think the region will look like in future years?”

This is the scary question. Unfortunately, I think that there will be large-scale ecosystem conversions where forest types and ecosystems will change from one type to another. For example, foothills of the Sierra Nevada will change from pine-dominated ecotones (a transition area between communities of plants and animals) to oak-dominated. And the Santa Barbara region will lose many of its oaks and change from oak-dominated forests and savannahs to coastal sage scrub and chaparral. There may well be less animal diversity and fewer large animals (think charismatic megafauna — or animals attractive for environmental saving) as well.

I’m not sure what Lucas’s teacher or classmates thought of my answers to his project questions, but it was a sobering exercise for me. Until now it has been expected that his generation is the one that will have to deal with what we are only just beginning to understand, but these extreme variations are happening now, in our lifetime. We are all on this rollercoaster together!

Daniel Wilson is president of Wilson Environmental Contracting, Inc.

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