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.