The current dry spell in California is not just affecting the state’s human population; California’s varied wildlife are endangered by what scientists fear could be the beginning of a “mega drought.” By examining tree rings and other natural indicators, scientists have realized that the dry weather of the past few years is not the driest California has ever been; in fact, the area’s history has been marked by multiple droughts that have lasted, not years, but centuries.
Droughts of a few decades have been scattered throughout California’s history, say these experts; but ten years without rain is not the most extreme weather that the state has experienced. The last two mega droughts happened about a thousand years ago, the first lasting 240 years, the second, about 180 years. In this pre-industrial time, man was not responsible for these climatic changes; but these days, industrialization may be playing a key role in the absence of water.
The agriculture industry is at the heart of California’s economy, but also at the root of its water problems. If the current drought were to last, farmers would be the first to suffer, due to the enormous agricultural demands for water in the state. Many who are environmentally aware recognize that the current techniques of farming that are used to produce the food that is grown in California and shipped across the nation may be at fault. While man cannot control the weather, farming techniques could be altered to conserve what little water there is. Monoculture (the way American agriculture plants a single crop over a large area to make it easier to plant, spray and harvest) strips the soil and uses a lot more water than pre-industrial techniques (i.e. permaculture, where a variety of plants are planted closely together and fields are allowed to lie fallow). Whatever the cause, it’s not just farmers and consumers who will be affected by the current lack of rain. The possibility of a mega drought poses a threat to California wildlife, many species of which are already endangered.
California wetlands host millions of migratory birds as they fly south for the winter, and some of these birds even spend the winter in California itself, rather than moving on to Mexico’s sunny climes. These birds are already under stress as 90 percent of California’s wetlands have been demolished in recent years, leaving fewer places for these birds to land. Without winter rains feeding the remaining wetlands, the migrating birds don’t have anywhere to stop.
The Nature Conservancy has paired up with California rice farmers to solve this pressing problem, helping them pay to keep their winter fields flooded, providing “pop up wetlands” for the desperate wildlife. So far the program has been very successful, offering a few, small rest stops for the tired birds.
Other water systems are also threatened by the drought and California legislators are picking up the slack. Fishing of most California streams was banned this week in an attempt to alleviate some of the stress put on California’s fish population, particularly that of the salmon. California residents and anglers seem to be mostly understanding of the new laws, recognizing the danger of the drought and how it will affect wildlife in generations to come.
It remains to be seen what other animals will be affected by the drought, especially if the dry period continues in the coming years. California’s endangered Tiger Salamander and many other amphibious wildlife are sure to suffer if a true mega drought is on the horizon. At the least, California lawmakers and environmentalists seem poised to try to save as many of these species and delicate ecosystems as possible.
By Lauren Martin