February 14, 2012
California has always been seen as the Golden Coast. It is a land of plenty that supports millions of people and has an immense and productive agricultural industry, producing almost 15% of the nation’s annual crops.
But the productiveness of California has a limit, and both its climate and human overuse can distress the land beyond repair. Desertification is the process of the loss of nutrients (top soil) to drylands, resulting in infertile land that can be easily eroded due to the lack of vegetation that would normally provide soils with the structural component to combat erosion. Vegetation is vital to dry soils, prominent in much of the California climate, because the soils can easily be carried away by wind, or on the rare occasion of rain in Southern California, water. Over farming, which depletes the soils nutrients, or overgrazing, which physically strips the soil of vegetation, are two of the most common triggers of desertification.
Desertification can be a natural process too. The United Nations Conference to Combat Desertification identifies that desertification is also due to climactic changes, where extended periods of drought or dryness can harm vegetation and leave soil dry and exposed to the elements, although some may argue that these may be anthropogenic as because of the link between global climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.
But while desertification can be a natural process, these natural processes and tendencies of Southern California are only augmented by the anthropogenic abuse of the land such as over farming and overgrazing.
California is an extremely large and diverse state with a wide range of climate patterns and weather conditions. Therefore, while some areas are lush, others are experiencing drought. This raises the issue of distribution of water in California. About 65 percent of the state receives less than 20 inches of rain fall per year, which is indicative of the scrubland biome.  While 70 percent of California’s runoff occurs north of Sacramento, 75 percent of the agricultural demands are located in the south of the state. This is why California has undergone some of the most extensive water redistribution projects, which have created conflict over water rights between Northern and Southern California. Water supply to farmers in the far south, such as those in El Cajon, CA is still not enough, despite these water redistribution projects, to support their agricultural based economy due to the increasing water demands of Northern California.
So when Southern and Central California experience the periodic droughts indicative of their climate, the desertification that would have naturally occurred is only amplified by California’s reliance on it’s agricultural industry heavily based in the south, and it’s inability to supply the amount of water necessary for this huge, over-productive, and depleting industry.
Some political and socioeconomic implications of desertification in California include increased risk of wildfire, reduced crop yields, social unrest (water wars), and potentially dust bowl conditions similar to those that plagued the Midwest in the 1930s during the Dust Bowl. This dust creates health problems, and blows in to the ocean and other already contaminated and damaged water sources, further causing contamination.
The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification is an initiative of the UN that hopes to remediate degraded soils through additions of fertilizers and growth of crops that do not require many nutrients, and also to fight the source of desertification. This undertaking has several objectives, including anticipating and/or limiting land degradation, repairing degraded land, raising awareness of desertification, and developing sustainable management practices through education. While droughts and the climate of Southern California cannot be controlled, and the water limitations of the area will remain a chronic issue, the best way to prevent further desertification is by cutting back overgrazing and overuse of the land, and practice farming and agricultural use in a sustainable way.
California takes specific measures of its own to combat desertification. It releases a Drought Contingency Plan every 5 years, and in 2008, the California DCP proposed new groundwater and surface water storage facilities, environmental restoration, and increased conservation and sustainable practices.
Other methods for combating desertification include water harvesting from new technologies that can extract water from the humidity in the air. Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, can also be a potential solution, manufactured to be more resistant to drought and require less water, but they still pose a great deal of controversy due to other environmental factors and causes.
The fact is that desertification can only truly be diminished if the practices of the people living in the area change. Too much reliance is placed on farming in areas that cannot support the overuse, and if more sustainable farming practices do not begin soon, then the land will quickly become too unstable to even use.
Justin Bogda and Kimberly Knabel are undergraduates in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences.
Many residents of Southern California are unaware of the growing threat to the California coastal sage habitat. This widespread ecosystem ranges from central to southern California. The habitat is known for its high species and soil biodiversity as it houses a wide range of organisms and diverse soil levels. This region is threatened by human and agriculture expansion and consists of diverse habitats that range from forests to woodlands to grasslands and salt marshes. Because of this variety of habitats, the soils in these regions have to be able to support the growing habitats and ensure their survival.
The eco-region of the coastal sage habitat is home to about 200 species of butterflies, the widest range of native bees in the United States, and a wide variety of other organisms that rely on this region for their home. The California legless lizard and the rosy boa are just some of the reptiles and amphibians that belong to this certain Southern California region. The Channel Islands also take part in this eco-region, but because they are isolated, they house certain rare plant and animal species that are only native to that island.
Because of anthropogenic development, native habitats in this region are threatened. Human air pollution, specifically smog, reduces production and growth in the environment. When humans introduce outside species, such as sheep, cattle, and deer, their grazing and physical presence on the land reduces the productivity and fertility of the land. Agricultural practices do not allow for healthy regrowth of the soil and plants. Only about 15% of the coastal sage habitat is intact because of the growing expansion of agricultural lands and housing. Human invasion of this land has altered the physical makeup of the region enough to affect the organisms that live on and in the soils. Invasive plants, brought in by humans, displace native species, which change the flora and fauna of the specific eco-region.
Since humans have started to develop the land, the larger habitats are divided into smaller regions. These small habitats are more vulnerable to outside threats of animal and human predators. Humans use processes such as grazing, herbicides and burning to convert the land to their specifications. However these methods alter the soil composition, which affects the organisms that live in the soil and the organisms that rely on the soil. These unfamiliar conditions destroy the native seed beds and organisms within the soil, which negatively impacts soil productivity. Unhealthy soil leads to overall ecosystem degradation.
Because of these huge environmental impacts and risks, conservation ecology is crucial to preserve this eco-region from becoming extinct. Not only are the organisms threatened, but the diversity of the soil relies on the preservation of this coastal sage habitat. Many humans are only concerned with development and expansion, but for human society to thrive, the environment surrounding humans needs to thrive as well. With population increasing, we can’t ignore human needs, however there has to be a balance between human and environmental needs. Destroying this coastal sage habitat threatens the ecosystem services that communities depend on, such as water, oxygen from the wide range of trees, food, and other vital resources. There needs to be a bigger focus on soil preservation and protection of organisms in this region because many of them are so rare and specific to this coastal sage region. Without this eco-region, a whole group of organisms would become extinct. We might not even know the benefits of all of these organisms, and to destroy them in order to expand our agricultural land, would be a huge loss to this treasured habitat in Southern California.
Chantal Morgan and Alanna Waldman are undergraduates in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
February 8, 2012
It’s no secret that California’s relationship with water is a precarious one. Historically, the Golden State—especially its thirsty southern metropolis, Los Angeles—has grappled with the realities of an arid climate and long distances to sufficient water sources. With the development of a complex system of dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts to feed California’s inhabitants and huge agricultural sector came a dependence on the water from the Sierra snowpack, the layers of snow that typically form from December through March in the high mountains to then slowly melt over the spring and summer. But at a time when up to 60% of California’s fresh water supply comes from the Sierra snowpack, large fluctuations in seasonal snowfall are raising concerns about the stability and reliability of a system that so heavily depends on such unpredictable factors. Even in individual years when there is enough water, the erratic changes in precipitation from year to year make for an ongoing problems of water shortage and allotments for different consumers. If we continue to place the same demands on the snowpack going forward, the only way to stabilize the water supply from the Sierras will be to increase the efficiency of water usage on the consumers’ end.
The size fluctuations of California’s snowpack have been drastic in recent years. Following several years of drought, the Sierras received record amounts of snow during the 2010-2011 winter season, leading the state’s two largest reservoirs to nearly reach capacity. Many farmers and water managers rejoiced; for the first time in a while it appeared that California would have ample water for the entire year. But as of January 2012, snow at high Sierra peaks is disturbingly thin: data collection is painting a picture of snowpack water content of at 23% of the normal season total. While reservoirs still hold a large amount of water from the 2011 season, this water cannot fill the place of the gradual summertime snow melt that is responsible for replenishing the water supply and sustaining the state through the drier months. Water suppliers have requested 4 million acre-feet of water this year, and the Department of Water Resources has estimated that it will be able to supply 60% of this amount—down from the 80% promised last year.
Scientists are attributing the wild fluctuations in snowfall to the La Niña phenomenon, in which cooler than normal surface water temperatures in the Pacific cause changes in global weather patterns, resulting in dry conditions in California. While this phenomenon is occurs naturally every few years, some researchers are concerned that increased frequency and intensity of La Niña and shifting weather patterns could be evidence of climate change. Warmer winters in the future could mean precipitation falling as water instead of snow, something that California’s current water infrastructure of dams and reservoirs is not designed to handle and could mean potential flooding. Irregularity in mountain snowfall—whether extremely high or low—also poses threats to California ecosystems, as they may not be able to deal with such drastic changes precipitation.
Whether the city populations and farmers want to hear it or not, though, the truth of the matter is that California’s natural water systems were never designed to support this many people, and that there will be years when the Sierras simply cannot provide the water citizens would ideally like. Aqueducts from the Eastern Sierras pump in 430 million gallons of water per day to Los Angeles alone. Better water management will mean certain sacrifices from all players, but wise consumption of water and preservation of surpluses for the future will be key in permitting California to thrive.
Brittany Cheng and Kali Staniec are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
California is currently experiencing a water crisis. Many believe that the state is safe after Governor Brown officially declared the three-year drought to be over on March 30, 2011. The reality is simple—California is not safe and the water issue has not gone away.
History has shown that California easily slips back and forth between times of water scarcity and water abundance. California has been able to cope with these drought patterns before, but as time progresses California will not be able to quench the thirst of citizens who overuse water resources. Thus, the government and citizens alike must begin taking steps to prepare for years of little rainfall, because who knows if there will be enough water in the future.
Southern California’s demand for water is rarely met with sufficient supply. Many regulations and laws have been implemented in the past couple of years in response to Southern California drought conditions, but different counties have different laws. The overall goal is the same: consume less water and penalize those who waste it. In 2009, Orange County faced a severe drought that spawned a series of regulations that helped the county through tough times. The city of Santa Ana raised its water rates three times within a two-year span in order to make people think twice before leaving faucet running or taking a long shower. Yorba Linda, Anaheim, Placentia, and other cities within the Yorba Linda water district even restricted residents from watering their lawns between 9am and 6pm.
A system of fines and penalties is common amongst different regions of Southern California. Los Angeles restricted its water usage to twice a week in 2009. The citywide restriction was imposed after Mayor Villaregosa called the drought “a crisis that we have not seen in decades.” A tiered system was also instituted, and residents were charged based on their water usage. The two tiers were based on water usage in cubic feet, where the base rate for Tier I was $2.92 per 100 cubic feet and $2.98 for Tier II. Residents that abused their water consumption, wasting more than the average for Tier II usage, were heavily fined and penalized. Some believe these strict regulations helped California escape from its three-year drought. Regardless, though, conservation is still an issue.
Citizens cannot leave it up to the government to save them from this water crisis. Government restrictions are not enough; instead, people must take it upon themselves to ration the amount of water they use on a day-to-day basis. The average California household consumes between one half-acre foot to one acre-foot of water each year, which is somewhere between 163,000 and 326,000 gallons! A family may consume 300 gallons per person each day if they are not water conscious, while those who are more aware may consume as little as 50 gallons per person each day. It is simply not enough for some to conserve water while others do not, especially when all it takes is turning the water off as you brush your teeth or purchasing more drought resistant plants.
The severity of outside factors on the California water crisis is increasing over time. Issues like population growth and global warming only complicate the water debate and intensify concerns over future water levels. As the population grows, Californians must monitor current water usage to ensure people in the future do not go thirsty. Nature itself must be taken into consideration, because issues such as global warming attribute to inconsistent precipitation levels that can strain water reserves. In order to solve this issue, one must think of the broader impact water has on the state. Water is not just necessary for life but an integral part of the economy and politics as well. Without taking proper precautions, California leaves itself susceptible to a mega-drought where citizens may be facing a modern American Dust Bowl.
Connor Schroeder and Albert Perez are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
This year climate change has really taken its toll on the snowpack in the Sierras. Because of the warming of the earth, the mountains are receiving more rain instead of snow causing a disruption in the water distribution. Furthermore, the area is experiencing an earlier snowmelt and decreased snowpack, which has negative effects on the water supply available for later.
This winter is one of the driest on record, with only 37% of the snow pack that the Sierras had last year. With a majority of the season gone, many are worried about the consequences of the low snow pack. Because of the decrease in snow, there is not the same availability of water that 25 million Californians depend on. However, people are not the only ones that are worried about the lack of water supply. Many endangered plants and animals are feeling the impact as well.
The snow pack in the Sierras is essential to the ecosystems it supplies water for. It regulates the water supply that the plants and animals in the region depend on. Considered a global biodiversity hotspot, the Sierra Nevada Mountains support approximately five hundred seventy vertebrate species, many of which do not exist elsewhere. Of the vast amount of life in this region, several endangered and threatened species make their home in the Sierras, including twenty-six endemic species.
Many of these endangered plants and animals are suffering due to the loss of snowpack. The snowpack provides essential functions for species such as the American Pika, Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, yellow-legged frog, and various fish species. Amphibians in particular are at risk, as over half of the thirty amphibian native species have declined. For example, the yellow-legged frog, now confined to seven percent of its range, relies on the snowpack to prevent their ponds from freezing in the winter and drying in the summer. Similarly, Yosemite toads require the snow to melt in the spring so that they can lay their eggs and inhabit the pools.
Other examples include the bighorn sheep, which rely on the mountain meadow habitat that is being destroyed due to heightened tree lines and increased drought. Reduced snowpack has caused many species’ range to decrease, as seen with the American Pika. Because the Pika cannot tolerate the warming temperatures and rely on snowpack for insulation, they are being pushed up the slope of the mountains until they will no longer have a place to go.
Although there has been a slight improvement in the snowfall in the Sierras as the winter has progressed, the situation does not seem to be subsiding. As time goes on more species will become threatened or endangered due in part if not entirely to the reduced snowpack. The issue of snowfall in the Sierras is a result of warming temperatures, making climate change a significant concern in this area. The situation in the Sierras is only one example of the negative impact climate change has on the environment. We must take measures to reduce the impact of climate change if we want to limit the harmful consequences it has on plants, animals, and humans.
Judy Fong and Juliana Duran are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.