Science

Ecosystems and rural communities bear brunt of drought

Drought, human-induced climate change, invasive species and a “legacy” of environmental problems are permanently changing California’s landscape and increasingly endangering some communities and ecosystems, a panel of experts recently told water officials.

Invasive species and decades of disruption from massive land and water developments are partly responsible for a continued decline in native California species, experts told the California Water Commission on Nov. 16. Rural communities, many of whom are lower-income and dependent on privately owned sources, are also disproportionately battling water pollution and scarcity amid recurring cycles of drought, experts say.

While droughts in California date back to prehistoric times, the state’s water problems today reflect decades of decisions, said Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis.

“Many of our current environmental problems are really legacies,” he said. We are witnessing “the dynamics of past effects and past changes that are playing out and our inability – both in terms of regulatory policy and economics, and practically in some cases with some invasive species – to mitigate that playing out of legacy effects. control.”

Groundwater and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta are also among the sectors most vulnerable to dry spells, said Lund, who stressed that while cities and agriculture are relatively prepared and well insulated from the effects of drought, irrigated agriculture shrink by half a year. million to 2 million acres to be sustainable.

About 5.5 million of California’s nearly 40 million residents live in rural counties, which make up more than half of the state’s landmass. While urban areas like Los Angeles have mandatory drought restrictions to ease pressure on state reservoirs, many rural residents who rely on groundwater wells are without water. Compounding the problem is water affordability and a lack of safe drinking water, particularly in the Central Valley and Central Coast.

“We know that these challenges disproportionately impact low-income communities and Latinos,” said Justine Massey, policy manager and attorney for the Community Water Center. “People who rely on private wells are particularly affected, as they often don’t know if their water is safe to drink as there is no other entity that does water testing. They may approach water levels and their well will stop working.”

While state legislation such as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is intended to regulate water availability and will help alleviate water scarcity in an increasingly arid California, thousands of people and fragile ecosystems will fall between the cracks.

A 2020 study commissioned by the Water Foundation found that, according to SGMA’s minimum water threshold plans, between 4,000 and 12,000 wells will completely or partially dry out by 2040, in the San Joaquin Valley alone — leaving about 46,000 to 127,000 Californians the lose access to their power. water supply.

“We’re urging all decision makers involved to look at the worst-case scenarios and really plan for that, because that’s what we’re going through so far — worst case after worst case after worst case,” said Massey. “And the people most affected are those who have contributed the least to the problem.”

Climate change is increasingly recognized as a “threat multiplier” that will accelerate and exacerbate instability and insecurity around the world. In drought-stricken California, as groundwater levels drop due to less rainfall and over-pumping, concentrations of contaminants in the water increase, Massey said.

The current and future health of California’s ecosystems is also at stake.

Mild, short-term effects of drought can lead to reduced plant growth, but when dry spells are longer and harsher and groundwater depletion is more severe, widespread habitat and species mortality can occur, said Melissa M. Rohde, director of Rohde Environmental Consulting, LLC .

“When demand for groundwater is high, groundwater can quickly become inaccessible to plant roots and rivers because these ecosystems rely on shallow groundwater,” she said.

Rhode referenced Nature Conservancy’s Shallow Groundwater Estimation Tool, which found that 44% of ecosystems statewide have been impacted by a significant, long-term drop in groundwater between 1985 and 2019. Over two decades, she said.

Under SGMA, 87% of ecosystems and 40% of wells that rely on groundwater exist outside legislation, Rhode said, and “one of the biggest disturbing aspects of this is that … these ecosystems are often the last refuges for federal and stands for threatened and endangered species. They are very important biological hotspots, and if we don’t do what we can to protect them under SGMA, we won’t protect our most vulnerable species.”

Drought and extreme heat, fueled by climate change, have also added to the pressure Chinook salmon on the verge of extinction.

The fish — which once swam up the Sacramento River to spawn in the cold water before the completion of the Shasta Dam in 1945 — have struggled to survive even with government intervention. Last year, the water flowing out of the Shasta Dam was so warm that most of the eggs and smolts died.

Wildfires, drought and bark beetle infestations also destroy the forests of the southern Sierra Nevadawhich could have serious consequences for protected species such as spotted owls and Pacific fishermen that rely on mature treetops for habitat.

But refusing to accept these changes is futile, Lund said. “Resistance is futile. We are getting a future that will be different,” and learning how to reconcile our ecosystems with human activity will be an ongoing challenge. “How do you deal with your native species when everything else changes, is going to be a big puzzle to all our agencies and all the people trying to do this,” he said.

So what can we do about it? For ecosystems, it’s critical to integrate them into water policies, identify ecological oases and manage groundwater to ensure species can access it during droughts, Rhode said.

As for rural communities, Lund suggested looking at how and why urban and agricultural areas have responded more effectively to drought: their missions are focused; they have reliable sources of funding; they have organized authority and expertise; and they are accountable to voters, regulators, and taxpayers.

“The state has a responsibility to ensure that the need for drinking water is protected and not dismissed as a cost or set aside as something too difficult or inconvenient to address,” Massey said.

“Climate change is testing and exceeding our limits and our normal flexibility,” she added. “The margin of error is getting tighter. That margin of error is already extremely thin, and what is at stake is Californians’ access to a life-giving resource.

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