California’s population is larger than all of Canada’s combined, and according to the California Department of Water Resources, its agriculture irrigates 9.6 million acres of land using roughly 34 million acre-feet of water. But what happens when there’s no water?
2014 is the third year in a row that southern California has been in a drought. Along with the warming climate, the lack of water has been significantly impacting plant life, students within the University and local businesses.
According to Carla D’Antonio, a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, the pattern of rainfall during the current drought has been extremely unusual. Last year and the year before, she said, the amount of rain leveled to roughly 48 percent. This year, the percentage went down to 33.
“This is the third year [where rain has] been substantially below average. This year is the worst of the three, even though we had that big rain in early March,” D’Antonio said.
In order to “understand the whole story” of what rain shortages actually entail, D’Antonio said people must examine the intervals between rainfall events instead of simply peering at averages of mean annual precipitation across the years. For example, currently the San Marcos Pass has received about 12 inches of rain, according to D’Antonio. However, rain being delivered at a rate of one inch every other week for the past three months is a “very different kind of wetter situation” than if the rain came all at once.
“That’s what been so unusual for the past few years. We’ve had long dry years between our rainfall events,” D’Antonio said.
D’Antonio characterized the lack of rain between last March and this February as “really extreme.” She said even though Southern California is up to a third of normal rainfall for the rain year, almost all of that came in late February and March.
“All of the fall was very dry. The middle of winter, January — which is usually our wettest month — was very dry, and last spring was very dry too,” D’Antonio said.
Because of the intense dryness, plant life took a major hit. D’Antonio said it is unusual, if not remarkable, for certain plant species to still continue surviving despite the conditions.
“These plants underwent a really extraordinary drought,” D’Antonio said. “To go that long without any substantial rain is really extraordinary.”
A number of plant species are withering away, however. Manzanita, California Lilac and Coast Live Oaks are among some of the most iconic plants in the Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez landscape that have begun to die out due to the lack of water on the mountainside, according to D’Antonio.
“There are whole stems just dying on the mountainside right now. I don’t know … if some of those will pull through, but there’ll definitely be a big loss of some of those species,” D’Antonio said. “If the drought continues like this, we’re really going to have lots of mortality of the native woody plants of the mountainside.”
In response to the drought, UCSB has implemented a number of water conserving measures. According to statistics and information from the UCSB Utility and Energy Services, UCSB has implemented over $16 million in energy conservation projects over the past four years. A 2012-2013 Annual Utility and Energy Report indicated that potable, in other words drinkable, water use has increased for the second consecutive year but has been reduced in usage per square foot by over 16 percent in the past 10 years.
Meanwhile, other buildings on campus have begun measures to decrease water usage. One such building includes Bren Hall in the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, which currently uses reclaimed water in toilets. In fact, it was this water conservation method that gave Henry Morse, a second-year biology major and Resident Advisor for the Environmental Hall in Santa Rosa Hall, more ideas and information about how to promote water conservation in his own hall.
According to Morse, the university’s methods are an indication of a change in water usage tactics that need to spread out and be known by the students.
“It’s about … getting aware about ways on campus that systems are being changed so more water is conserved,” Morse said.
Morse said he has been trying to encourage his residents to conserve as much water as possible during this drought. To do so, Morse put up passives, a type of poster that explains water conversation methods and reasoning, on his floor. The poster includes information and ideas such as “taking a shorter shower” and “turning off the shower when you’re lathering up.”
“The classic ‘brown flush down, and yellow let it mellow.’ Just stuff like that tries to make it kind of funny because people think about it instead of it just being a PSA,” Morse said.
Earlier in the school year, the Environmental Hall consisted of a “no paper towel” policy in the bathroom, but when Winter Quarter began, that policy was revoked.
“Student Health said that it was unsanitary because it promoted people to not wash their hands. I haven’t seen the numbers on that, but I think it’s kind of a bullshit excuse because unless they have actual responses from students, how can they make assumptions that people aren’t going to wash their hands?” Morse said.
Morse said he believed the “no paper towel” policy was saving a lot of water, and now that paper towels are back, the floor has “kind of gone in a negative direction.”
Regarding campus-wide efforts, Morse said not much has been done because “it is more of the administration that controls where the water goes.” According to Morse, the responsibility of water conservation is left solely on the individual user, not a group of users. However, he said larger-scale, promotional events would be very helpful.
“The big thing is on an individual level, but there haven’t been a lot of movements on campus towards saving water, so that needs to be the next step,” Morse said.
Agricultural businesses in the area have also started to feel the heat from the drought. Angeline Foshay, for instance, is a first-year environmental studies and global studies double major whose family operates a 1,500 acre ranch and a 45 acre vineyard in San Luis Obispo County.
According to Foshay, wine businesses seriously suffer from droughts because water is essential to preventing problems of early growth in the vineyards.
“As of right now, everything is budding early because the heat is causing everything to happen earlier,” Foshay said. “Harvests are going to be earlier. They’re not going to be able to finish correctly.”
Along with the difficult growing conditions, Foshay said, the drought has caused a shortage in a wide array of necessary farm items. For her family, their cattle ranch has seen a decrease in food supplies to feed their animals.
“The thing is, hay will be in really high demand,” Foshay said. “Prices will be jacked up, so there’s not going to be enough hay for everyone, especially because of people like the Hearst [Ranch], who have thousands of acres feeding thousands of cattle. There’s just not enough to go around because there’s not enough grass because of the drought.”
According to Foshay, a lot of agricultural work deals with adapting to nature and finding ways to work around the changing climates. However, in many cases, adapting means throwing out more funds, which Foshay said can be very dangerous for many farming companies.
“It’s an adaptability of schedule with nature,” Foshay said. “When you’re doing something involved with nature, there are always risks, and this is one of the risks associated with it. You just have to shell out more money, which is really detrimental to a lot of farming.”
In light of the overall changes brought about by the drought, D’Antonio said the campus community as well as the surrounding community throught[[throughout]] the county and the state will need to start making difficult decisions regarding their water usage and distribution. In a way, however, D’Antonio said the drought could be a helpful one since it will push people to think more about their level of water usage, learn to not take water for granted and understand that people “need to make some sacrifices in order to survive.”
“We might need to sacrifice watering the lawns. Particular trees might die. We just might need to make some tough decisions,” D’Antonio said. “I don’t think that’s necessarily bad [to] remind people that we live in a finite world where resources are finite, so maybe everybody can individually evaluate how they can help to reduce water use.”