Dry lands: Wrapping our heads around California’s ecological future

A mere three years ago, every headline about California from the Times to Buzzfeed was screaming about the droughtpocalypse.

Then we had a semi-normal precipitation year, in 2015-16. We learned to use a little less water. And after that, a historically wet winter (2016-17) changed us from worrying about empty reservoirs to scrambling to stop dams from bursting.

Now, we’re deep into another epically dry winter. On February 19, Los Angeles passed 365 days without significant rainfall. The snowpack in the Sierra is as bad as or worse than in 2015—which was supposed to be a once-in-a-few-centuries event. And it has been not only dry but exceptionally hot. The Bay Area has seen day after day of blazing sunshine—and this coming on the heels of a hot autumn where the air was choked with the smoke of massive wildfires for weeks on end. The water-watchers on Twitter and in government are starting to fret. They are running out of superlatives to describe the type of non-winter we are having.

Meanwhile, the general buzz amongst the populace seems to be something along the lines of, “Wow, isn’t this weird and kinda scary?” But water-saving habits have started to slip in some locations. The snow machines are chugging away at Squaw. The almond orchards are still blooming across the Central Valley.

The fact is that, as a state, it seems like we still haven’t come to grips with the new hydrological and ecological realities we are dealing with. We’re living paycheck to paycheck, water-wise. Our anxiety levels ebb and flow in inverse proportion to the rivers that fill our reservoirs. But what we really need is action on a much larger scale—an adjustment of our water priorities from the level of the household to the megafarm.

Being a nature lover gives one a special perspective on the true dimensions of what is happening. I’ve spent a little time every summer in the High Sierra almost every year since I was 14. I have seen the drying out of the high peaks, the melting snows, the tree saplings at nearly 13,000 feet (high above the old timberline), and the changes to species distributions. In the last few years, I’ve watched as the giant trees of the Southern Sierra snow forest have died en masse, cramming the mountainsides and valleys with rust-colored corpses. There are now an estimated 100 million dead trees in the state. Among the worst hit are the sugar pines, largest pine tree in the world. In my childhood summers, the silhouettes of their thick trunks and pendulous five-pound cones marked the gateway to the mountains, and the beginning of a dark and seemingly endless forest. In the future, they may become a rarity.

The ecological cost has already been a tragedy for tree-huggers, but larger human costs are in the offing. It is likely that vast wildfires will occur in the next few years, and the blazes of 2017 will begin to seem like the first episode of a new normal.

Not all of this is purely due to water scarcity. It’s also about rising temperatures that have allowed bark beetles to run wild, and about a century of fire suppression. But that’s sort of my point: lack of moisture is just one prong of the environmental shifts under way in California. Even without human-caused climate change, we are probably unprepared for the types of megadroughts that have occurred in the past. The fact that the world is now hotter, and that we’ve been mismanaging our resources for a solid 160 years, is making the new normal that much harder to adjust to.

There’s always a starting point for creating change. I think a statewide consciousness about water and the environmental transformations happening around us is, for most of us, a good first step.

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