|Folsom Lake, July 2011-January 2014 (www.nasa.gov)|
By Eric Christiansen
Over the course of the past four years, the state of California has been experiencing a drought of record proportions. In fact, the winter of 2015 is the driest winter in the Golden State’s history with the current snowpack water content reading at 1.4 inches, or 5% of the 28-inch state average.
But what are the dangers associated with such a severe drought? Water is the source of life on earth, so the list of negative effects of drought is long. Such effects include damage to agricultural production, destruction of wildlife and habitats, increased danger of bush fires and forest fires, and drop in groundwater levels as well as groundwater pollution.
Given the severity of the drought, as well as the extended period of time that it has been affecting California, agricultural production has been drastically impacted. The Central Valley of California is home to most of the state’s, and a significant amount of America’s, agriculture, specifically almonds and olives. The water required for the production for these crops currently exceeds the water available to Californian farmers, drastically reducing the crop production rates across the state. This has serious economic implications. California produces much of our country’s crops for exports, so the farming industry has taken a serious hit since the onset of this drought, as has the agricultural export profits of the nation as a whole.
California is known for experiencing devastating brush fires year after year. With groundwater gradually being depleted to dangerously low levels, brush and other low-to-the-ground plant life tend to dry up and begin to die. This creates perfect tinder for a small fire to catch and spread. This coupled with a lack of water for fire-fighting purposes poses a serious problem for California residents.
Groundwater is a primary source for drinking water, as it fills aquifers and wells. Unfortunately, as precipitation fails to adequately refill groundwater stores and offset the water being used, the groundwater level begins to drop. This causes shortages in drinking water, which can have fatal consequences. In areas nearby to the ocean, this can also cause seawater intrusion. Seawater intrusion is a problem that occurs when the groundwater level drops well below sea level and seawater begins to move into the groundwater supply. This can cause contamination of groundwater stores and make huge reserves of drinking water unsafe for human consumption.
Impact on Wildlife
Water is vital for survival of all life, not just humans, so while the above problems can severely hinder human life, they can also be devastating to other animals.
California is home to large numbers of fisheries. Many such facilities are facing problems as water becomes more and more scarce, with the risk of entire fisheries drying up and becoming unusable. Furthermore, the existence of fish in the wild is also being threatened. Specifically, salmon are being stranded while trying to swim upstream. As rivers are drying up, salmon get stuck before they are able to reach an area conducive to spawning. These fish are dying, but more significantly, they are being prevented from reproducing, which is threatening the existence of the species.
Similarly, animal migration patterns are being disrupted as they must relocate or remain stationary in order to maintain access to drinking water. This means that breeding patterns and regrowth patterns are being halted.
Bears and mountain lions are being forced to come into dangerous contact with humans as food becomes scarcer. Plant growth is diminishing, which causes drops in the population of smaller animals that bears and mountain lions eat. As this food source becomes hard to find, these predators look to new areas, namely those inhabited by humans, to find food. Black bears, a species that is in danger in California, is directly impacted by the lack of sufficient growth of their dietary staples (shoots, buds, fruits, nuts). Other endangered species that California’s drought is threatening include the tiger salamander, the giant kangaroo rat (95% of giant kangaroo rats’ habitat has been destroyed), and the San Joaquin kit fox.
California’s ecosystem is in serious danger. Animals are approaching extinction and human life is being threatened and fracking continues to drain limited water stores and pollute remaining ones. Work is being done to explore new methods of water filtration and allocation. Several desalination plants are under construction, but many fear this is not a feasible means to securing the future of drinking water.
Research and experimentation is also being done to explore the possibility of deriving clean drinking water from raw sewage, with promising results. But at the moment, California is facing a devastating drought with very real consequences. The situation on the West Coast should be an alarming wakeup call that we need to care for our environment and create a world we can continue to live in.
Eric Christiansen is a transfer student completing his sophomore year at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He is a literature major with a concentration in creative writing and, although he is not studying environmental science, his avid interest in the outdoors has drawn him to learn about the world of environmental journalism. Eric has been a New Jersey resident for nearly twenty-two years and is interested in working to maintain the local environment.