Drought: A Photo Essay

From 2014 until the beginning of 2017  California suffered through a major drought. It was a hot topic in the news, and NWNL conducted five Spotlight Expeditions to document and bring attention to that drought and its significance.  But what exactly is a drought? What causes droughts?  What are the effects of droughts? What does a drought look like?

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Boat launch, Kinbasket Lake Reservoir, BC, Canada. 2007

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Kinbasket Lake Reservoir, BC, Canada. 2007

Basicplanet.com defines a drought as a “lengthy period of time, stretching months or even years in which time land has a decrease in water supply.” Droughts usually occur when rain doesn’t fall often enough during prolonged periods of warmer temperatures, causing high pressure winds and and reduced water content.

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Aerial  of dry river bed, Skeleton Coast National Park, Namibia. 2006

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El Molo Swamp in Mau Forest during Kenya drought of 2009

Human activity can also be the cause of drought. Deforestation, farming, excess irrigation and erosion can lead to drought. Climate change also creates drought. Rises in average global temperatures greatly effect the possibility of drought, by reducing water content in the air.

Jones_150813_CA_4202Rio Hondo River, a tributary of Los Angeles River, California. 2015

Jones_140207_CA_9687Dried up succulent in the Santa Ynez Valley, California. 2014

There are many more affects of drought than most people realize. The most obvious affect is the shortage of water. Because of this, crops and animals will die. Droughts lead to malnutrition, dehydration and deadly famines. Wildfires and dust storms are much more probable and common effects. Industries that rely on water are forced to cutback, thus forcing people into unemployment. Wars have occurred due to droughts.

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USA: California, Kettleman City, sign about effects of drought and no waterSigns posted during the California Drought,  2014 – 2016.

 

Posted by Sarah Kearns, NWNL Project Manager.

All photos © Alison M. Jones.

Global Drought Threats – New Jersey Up Next?

jones_160925_ca_5749Stanislaus National Forest at the Yosemite N.P. entryway. Trees are dying by the thousands here due to the nexus of drought, high temperatures, fires, and pine bark beetle infestation. 

By Christina Belasco, NWNL Project Manager

When Americans hear the word “drought” these days, they may instantly envision a scene of a heat-scorched, fire-ridden California. Of course this is for good reason – the California drought is entering its sixth year, and shows no sign of stopping in the southern part of the state.

NWNL has just completed its 5th CA Drought Spotlight expedition, covering 1,300 miles from the headwaters within Yosemite and Kings Canyon N.P to the Central Valley to coastal estuaries. It is clear that water consumption patterns and habits must change. NWNL witnessed the devastation of the Rey Fire, Loma Fire, Rim Fire and others that have heavily impacted California’s forests.

NWNL also witnessed homes in East Porterville that still do not have access to running water for the 3rd year straight due to groundwater depletion and lack of piping.

 

USA California, No Water No Life CA Drought Expedition # 5,Here is a “bathtub ring” typically found in California reservoirs, showing significant drops in water levels due to drought and overuse. 

Another stark example of a region filled with drought woes is Northeastern China, where climate change is causing extreme desertification, despite some governmental efforts to reduce the trend. Villages are being pushed out, and have been for decades now, as the desert continues to creep eastward at a rate of 1,300 square miles per year.

Such examples of extreme drought worsened by climate change seem like an unbelievable scenario, things that happen in far off places, other worlds. Many Americans on the East Coast could never imagine this happening in their own backyard.

 

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Usually a healthy, flowing river, the Kaweah River in Tulare County, CA is now a dried-up riverbed. 

However, green trees and rain aren’t sure signs that water supply is plentiful. In fact most people don’t treat their water as if it is a finite resource, which it is. The truth is that the effects of climate change are everywhere. They are happening here right now.

Fourteen New Jersey counties are now in a drought warning. Reservoir levels, stream flows and groundwater levels are showing signs of depletion across the state.

What can we do about this?

Besides just reducing personal water usage, NJ citizens are pressuring Governor Christie to act and pass legislation for the Water Supply Master Plan. This master plan includes recommendations for balancing the amount of used water with the amount of replenished water. This would ensure that there will be enough water for the private sector, agriculture, residents and the environment.

Websites like njwatersavers.rutgers.edu are advocating for water awareness and sustainability across the state, and have information on how to directly help.

NWNL urges East Coast citizens to think of the impacts of drought before it comes barreling towards them at full speed. Acting preventatively, and taking a can-do approach to climate change, are some of the best ways we can work together to change our unsustainable habits and save the planet for future generations.

 

 

A Cinderella Story: Las Vegas isn’t a Water Hog

Nevada: Boulder City, river bed, Lake Mead National Recreation Area
Nevada: Boulder City, river bed, Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Mention of water usage in Las Vegas prompts most people to roll their eyes in exasperation. I saw this last week during a lecture on mega-droughts presented to an audience of environmentalists. Few realized that, rather than being the “ugly sister” of wise water consumption, Las Vegas – even with all casinos, glitz and fountains galore – is Cinderella’s fairy godmother waving a wand of solutions for arid communities.

This still-growing Nevada city is coping better than California with drought conditions, despite differences in the sources of their water supplies. Las Vegas draws from Lake Mead, the Colorado River reservoir dammed by Hoover Dam and known for the recreation it affords. California’s water users depend on aqueduct delivery of surface water (including the Colorado River) and groundwater reserves.   But, nevertheless, their droughts elicit the same fears of the economic consequences of not having enough water.

USA: Southern California, CA Drought Spotlight 3-Rte 66 Expedition, Parker Dam (hydrodam across Colorado River that also siphons water for Colorado Aquaduct to Los Angeles for Metropolitan Water District), signage
USA: Southern California, Parker Dam (hydrodam across Colorado River that siphons water for Colorado Aqueduct to Los Angeles via the Metropolitan Water District)

Californians – and all those never thought of Las Vegas as being an environmental trendsetter – would do well to take heed of what’s happening in Las Vegas. The Economist Magazine (August 8, 2015, p 23-24) neatly summarized the ways southern Nevada has preemptively and quite successfully addressed water availability issues.

Las Vegas has banned front lawns. Now xeri-scaping with cactus, yucca plants and interesting desert rocks has become fashionable.

USA California, Santa Barbara, Firescape Garden by firestation on Stanwood

Examples of xeri-scaping.

 

Las Vegas golf courses are now watered sparingly by “brown water.”  New dramatic views of desert scenery offer intriguing contrasts beyond the greens.

Example of a golf course with only greens irrigated.
A golf course after 4 years of drought with only its greens irrigated.

Facing the reality of desert resources, Las Vegas now treats and recycles water used in homes, pools and fountains back to Lake Mead. Furthermore, if homeowners use more than their allotted amounts of water (per a tiered scale), they are charged at higher rates. Yet California’s arcane regulations discourage and in some places dis-allows scaled water-pricing incentives so as to reduce water consumption.

Perhaps Las Vegas is ahead of California because the Colorado River Basin is entering its 16th year of drought and California is only in its 5th year of record-breaking drought. Things aren’t always what we think. Solutions can come from surprising sources.

El Nino, despite its attendant floods and mudslides, may replenish California’s surface water resources; but geology teaches us it will be many years or decades before its groundwater resources will be restored. Additionally, history teaches us that El Nino is often followed by that drought-maker, La Nina. So – as fairy tales teach us – the frog may become a prince and the casino’s scullery maid may become  stewardship’s “Belle of the Ball.” California, look towards Las Vegas!

USA: Southern California, road sign on local 15 on north side of Mohave River
USA: Southern California, road sign on local 15 on north side of Mohave River

For another comparison of  states’ differing management of groundwater and Colorado River water, read this blog post by Meg Wilcox (of Ceres) for National Geographic (Sept 25, 2015) on Arizona’s tight water management of large-scale vegetable farms versus that of California. Wilcox quotes one Arizona farmer as saying: “We track water like we do financial statements.”

Blog Post by Alison M. Jones, Director of No Water No Life.

Drought and Flooding increases CA Levees risk of failure

USA: California, Sherman Island, on north shore of Sacramento Delta, levee
California, Sherman Island, on north shore of Sacramento Delta, levee

Almost 5 years of drought, now combined with recent rainfall-induced flooding, has weakened California’s levees. Culprits are soil cracking that allows water seepage, soil-strength reduction, land subsidence and erosion, all of which NWNL observed on its California Spotlight expeditions in 2014 and 2015. Fifty-five percent of California’s levee systems are now in danger of failing in the event of a flood or an earthquake. If the levees fail, water quality could be compromised for over 23 million people.

Levees are sand and clay earthen embankments which regulate water levels and protect dry land from floods. More research, risk science, community education and stakeholder collaboration are crucial to improving levee resilience.

Related article in Science Magazine: https://grgusyd.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/vahedifard-et-al-2015_ca-drought-levees_science.pdf

USA: California, Arbuckle, irrigation drainage ditch, levee
California, Arbuckle, irrigation drainage ditch, levee

Freshwater supports all terrestrial biodiversity

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NWNL Hydro-graphics are created by Jenna Petrone.

Will there be enough water when the cranes return?

Will there be enough water for these Greater Sandhill Cranes when they return to the San Francisco Bay Delta this fall?

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With the state’s snowpack down to 5% of average, the lowest ever recorded, Governor Brown has mandated a 25% water use reduction. This is the first time an involuntary water reduction mandate has been imposed. Although the means to meet this mandate has been left up to the local water districts, Brown’s executive directive includes some public assistance to replace 50 million square feet of lawns statewide with drought tolerant planting as well as reducing water use on golf courses, cemeteries and large institutions. There will also be a short-term rebate program to “provide monetary incentives for the replacement of inefficient household devices.”

It is important to note the inclusion of concerns for “degraded habitat for many fish and wildlife species, increase wildfire risk, and the threat of saltwater contamination to fresh water supplies in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta” in his declaration. The Fresno Bee reported today that 50.2% of water use in California is by the environment, 40.9% by agriculture and 8.9% by residents and businesses. Although the 25% reduction is directed only at residential and business uses, water that goes to agriculture will now be closely monitored and evaluated for future plan making. This is an important step.

Everyone needs to use water wisely so that we may have enough water to drink, enough water for wildlife and their habitat, as well as enough to grow our food. The farmers in the Central Valley have already been hit hard with spartan allocations for the year. Produce prices will inevitably rise due to the higher cost of water, and the effect of the California drought will be felt across the country. It all comes down to the availability of water. Let’s all conserve. There is no more water, and what we have we are using up.

* Posted from San Francisco by Barbara Folger, NWNL Project Coordinator.

Finding Wetlands in a Drought

Lesser yellowlegs, San Luis NWR
Lesser yellowlegs, San Luis NWR

By Alison M. Jones, Director of No Water No Life ®
and Professional Photographer
As published by American Rivers in “The River Blog”-April 11, 2014

The phone rang.  That snowy Saturday I was editing photos of Ethiopia’s Omo River.  “Alison, you must cover California’s drought for No Water No Life®.  It’s beyond regional. US and Asian markets depend on that produce.” I envisioned photographs of a three-year drought:  monotones of white salt on sand.

San Joaquin River, Modesto
San Joaquin River, Modesto

Within 24 hours however, I connected California’s plight with our project’s case-study watersheds. Management solutions for California could help other watersheds. So, escaping an
unusually wet East Coast winter, I packed cameras and
sunglasses to document an arid valley 3,000 miles away. I didn’t expect to enjoy it.

On the plane, I read The Mountains of California written by John Muir 120 years ago.  “Every glacier in the world is smaller than it once was.  All the world is growing warmer….”1

What would he say today?  Surface area of Sierra Nevada glaciers
is 55% less,2 and development still increases along rivers below. Rivers? Oh, actually, the Central Valley now has fewer rivers and more canals.

Then unexpectedly, with expedition advice from American Rivers, my story grew beyond the desolation of drought to include hope.  Droughts come and go in California.  They may get worse.
But there are mitigating solutions. Restoration of streams,
riparian zones and wetlands matter as much as reduced
water consumption.

American Pelicans, Mendota Pool
American Pelicans, Mendota Pool

As American pelicans paddled through Mendota Pool, I read that wetlands hold 10 to 1,000 times the living matter in nearby dry land.  At dusk, a great-horned owl hunted above as I framed reflections in San Luis NWR.  What a relief from miles of empty concrete canals!  I thanked the sedge grasses rubbing my ankles for absorbing pollutants from nearby crop fields, hog farms and dairy-cattle pens.

Red-winged blackbird, San Luis NWR
Red-winged blackbird, San Luis NWR

An insect hatch sounded like rain on my windshield. I wished for higher levees to better view Pacific Flyway waterfowl in the bottomlands. Someday I hope to see Aleutian crackling geese and the tule elk now protected in San Joaquin NWR.

In 2006 Jared Diamond, Paul Ehrlich, Sandra Postel, Peter Raven, Edward O. Wilson et al. told the Supreme Court:  “More than a source of water and fish, the nation’s rivers, lakes, and wetlands store flood waters and reduce economic devastation due to flooding. They recharge groundwater, filter pollutants, and purify drinking water. And they provide the habitats that sustain a diversity of species, which themselves perform important ecological functions.”3

American egret, San Luis NWR
American egret, San Luis NWR

Despite such support, more than 90% of California’s historic riparian and wetlands habitats are gone (U.S. Fish and Wildlife). Today, the San Joaquin’s riparian habitat is scant.  But these traces of willows, shrubs and grasses support the highest diversity of wildlife in the Central Valley.   Wood ducks, river otters, warblers, eagles, spawning salmon and formerly California bear follow these wooded highways for safety, food and spawning.

Lesser scaup, California Aqueduct, Los Banos
Lesser scaup, California Aqueduct, Los Banos

The drought brought me here.  I saw trickles lead to less water, not more.  Nature seems turned inside out.  Yet American Rivers, other stewards, scientists, stakeholders and policymakers are working together to address needs of natural and human communities.  Just as John Muir wrote in 1885 about accumulating snowflakes in the Sierra, grassroots efforts can affect policy: “Come, we are feeble; let us help one another.  We are many, and together we will be strong.  Marching in close, deep ranks, let us … set the landscapes free.”4

Coots and Northern shovelers, San Luis NWR
Coots and Northern shovelers, San Luis NWR

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1 Muir, John.  The Mountains of California.  New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1985, Page 15.  (Originally published: New York: Century, 1894.)

2 Basagic, Hassan.  “Twentieth Century Glacier Change in the Sierra Nevada.”

3 Jason Rylander, et al. “Supreme Court Amici Curiae,” Nos 04-1034; 04-1384 regarding John A. Rapanos, et ux., et al., v. USA and June Carabell, et al., v. USACE and US EPA. Jan 12, 2006.

4 Muir, John.  The Mountains of California.  New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1985, Page 12.  (Originally published: New York: Century, 1894.)