LOS ANGELES – Thanks to our ultra long-rainy season, we finally said goodbye to drought conditions in California. But the reality is we’re still living with the aftermath of one of the worst droughts on record, possibly the worst in 1,200 years.
Just look to the Sierra Nevada where more than 110 million trees have died since 2010, with the biggest spike in deaths came right after the hottest and driest years of drought.
New research published in Nature Geoscience says that the spike isn’t a coincidence. That years of extreme conditions can be directly tied to a 55% increase in the number of tree deaths.
Driest Four Years in a Century
2012 to 2015 were the four driest in a century, with each year hotter than the last.
“During these extreme dry periods, trees basically run out of water,” said Roger Bales, professor of Engineering at UC Merced and co-author on the paper.
First, the earth around the deep roots of trees dried out. These roots can 30 to 50 feet deep, which typically helps trees to survive drought conditions.
Then, because they were stressed, the size of their canopies – the green foliage above – shrank and their ability to fight off pathogens suffered.
Then, the trees started to die.
Pines, which have also been hit hard by bark beetles, suffered the most. Though mature conifers like white fir and incense-cedar, perished as well.
The pattern of death was particularly present in the Southern and Central Sierra, where it started at lower altitudes and crept upwards to the usual cooler and wetter locations on the mountains.
It’s true that tree mortality and drought aren’t new in California, but according to the authors, compared to the 1987-1992 drought, while this most recent one saw about the same amount of precipitation it was 2.16 degrees Fahrenheit hotter, which meant that the trees had to use more water.
As the climate crisis progresses, rainfall patterns are expected to become more extreme and temperatures are going to increase.
A greater number of dead trees means more wildfires, decreased air quality, and a loss of habitat for insects and animals.
The authors also found that extreme conditions limited how much CO2 the remaining trees were able process, or uptake. While uptake usually occurs nearly year round, when the trees were stressed out uptake was largely limited to the spring and winter wet seasons.
The future of California’s forests in an ever-changing climate is uncertain, though the authors postulate that they could use the new data to predict how much water trees across the Sierras will need to survive droughts in the future.
Bales explained that forest managers could decide to reduce the number of trees in the forest depending on the area and the weather conditions.
“When you have fewer trees drawing water out of the ground then there’s enough to go around,” he said. “We need to manage the forest like we would agriculture or other systems that are water limited, and not have as many trees there.”
Why? Well, the new Drought Contingency Plan defines different “tiers” of shortage. The Lower Basin will not drop into a Tier One shortage next year because Lake Mead will almost certainly remain above 1,075 feet in elevation.
At the same time, Mead will likely remain under 1,090 feet. That triggers a Tier Zero shortage.
“Under Tier Zero conditions, Arizona takes a reduction of 192,000 acre-feet in its annual Colorado River entitlement,” said Suzanne Ticknor, assistant general manager at the Central Arizona Project.
Arizona’s reduced supply in Tier Zero will affect certain users of the Central Arizona Project canal system. There will be a slight reduction to some Pinal County farmers, and the pool of so-called “excess water” will be eliminated.
Regular buyers of excess water have included the United States, the Arizona Water Banking Authority and the agency that replenishes groundwater in Central Arizona, which enables new home building.
The CAP is writing a new policy for excess water if and when it returns.
Our hills have been covered in lush green plants for months.
But then there’s the not-so-silver lining: we may be primed to burn.
For now, things look good, said Jessica Gardetto, spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center. With moisture levels still high, there’s not a huge risk of fires igniting and growing out of control.
But the rains will inevitably end.
“That risk,” she said, “is going to increase when all these grasses and fuels dry out and become ready to burn.”
The last time we had similar conditions was in the spring of 2017.
“I don’t remember it being quite as lush as this year with either the flowers or the vegetation, but it was plenty green and it was just so nice to see things starting to recover,” said Ojai resident Karin Dron, sitting on the porch of her stone house.
Surrounded by bright green grass on all sides, there is little evidence — besides a few blackened trees — that one of the worst fires in state history tore through her yard just a few years ago.
2017: A Perfect Year for Fire
“Extra precipitation in winter 2016 to 2017 helped to grow a bunch of new fuel,” said Park Williams, bio-climatologist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
“On top of there being a whole bunch of new growth … the summer of 2017 was record-breaking, or near-record-breaking, across essentially all of the western United States, in terms of temperature.”
Which meant that abundance of new growth dried out quickly and, because of a delayed rainy season, stayed dry.
Grasses were the first to lose their moisture, followed by shrubs and old growth chapparal that had gone unburned for a long time and survived years of low precipitation during the drought.
A wet winter 2017 provided fuel for fires that fall
Karin Dron watched as it consumed nearly her entire property, sparing only the home that had been there since the 1930s.
“There were a lineup of ten firetrucks on my driveway, which is about a quarter of a mile, and they were watching it burn,” she said.
More than 281 thousand acres burned and 10,000 structures were destroyed.
2019: It’s Going to Burn, Right?
On a recent trip into the San Gabriel Mountains, patrol captain Alberto Ortega took samples of shrubs to measure moisture levels, something that he now has to do year-round.
For now, they are moist.
But it won’t last. Plants are going to dry. How quickly that happens depends on how hot things get this spring and summer. And how long they stay dry depends on when our rainy season shows up.
“This is going to help us, basically at least at the beginning of the year,” Ortega said, explaining that higher moisture levels make it easier to extinguish fires when they start.
“Our fire season started extending longer and longer,” he said. “And we needed that fuel moisture sample for us to fight fire. You probably can see in the last 10-15 years, things are changing with the plants.”
Southern California’s hillsides exploded into green after this winter’s rains
Is This Climate Change?
As climate change progresses, temperatures will continue to rise, meaning greater rates of evapotranspiration that will cause plants to dry out faster.
“I think maybe the entire stretch from 2012 to 2017 could be seen as a harbinger,” said Williams, who’s written extensively about climate change on the west coast.
We could also see an increased variability in rainfall, meaning that rain could come in short intense bursts followed by long periods of dryness. That matters because when we miss out on deep sustained soakings during our wet season, recovery from dry periods is more difficult.
Another concern: indications that that the rainy season could keep showing up late.
It’s unclear how the Santa Ana winds will be impacted, though they’re not expected to worsen.
“Warming has been so extreme in California over the last century that every summer is hot and dry enough to support fire, no matter how wet this past winter was,” said Williams.
Regardless of what happens, Dron always has fire in the back of her mind.
She lost four buildings on her Ojai property during the Thomas Fire.
We are on her porch, overlooking the Ojai valley below. There is no sign of a burned-out moonscape. Thanks to the rain, we are surrounded instead, by tall, beautiful, green grasses.
“It is gorgeous and we’re loving this spring. It’s certainly a super bloom and the wildflowers are great,” she said. “But yes, we’re probably going to have to do multiple fire clearances and we’re going to have to keep doing it … and it’s a little worrisome. That’s all I can say. We really don’t know what’s coming.”
Special Elemental Report: Fire in the Neighborhood
As increasing numbers of homes are being built in the wild urban interface in Arizona, California and Colorado, the risk that forest fires pose to people and property increases, too.
SACATON – Sprouting through the cracked floor of the Sonoran Desert, tepary beans thrive in the dry heat and carry with it centuries of resilience from the indigenous Pima people of southern Arizona.
“We have our water. It’s our life. It’s our livelihood, and it’s our culture,” said Ramona Button, owner of Ramona Farms.
Ramona Button and her husband, Terry, have been farming traditional native foods on the Gila River Indian Community for more than 40 years, including the tepary bean, a staple of native dishes for centuries.
“And we’re experts in dealing with drought,” Terry Button said.
With more than 4,000 acres under cultivation, the Buttons have had to draw their nearly 20,000 acre feet of water needed every year from a variety of sources. They get water from the San Carlos Irrigation Project, ground wells and the Colorado River hundreds of miles away.
“Commingle all these water resources to ensure us to have enough water to keep this agricultural industry thriving here,” Terry Button said.
But after nearly two decades of drought in Arizona and waning water levels in the Colorado River Basin, the seven states that make up the basin, including Arizona, California and Nevada, have had to negotiate potential cuts to the water to make sure there’s enough water in Lake Powell, which straddles the Utah-Arizona line, and in Lake Mead, to supply water throughout the Southwest.
The Drought Contingency Plan, also known as the DCP, is a multistate agreement that includes Arizona. The plan aims to keep water levels in those reservoirs above critical lows, and should reservoirs dip below certain levels, state including Arizona will have to cut back on the amount each takes from the Colorado River system.
After months of negotiations on the state level, Sen. Martha McSally, a Republican, and Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat, introduced DCP legislation in the House and Senate, which Congress sent to President Trump to sign last week. Trump signed the Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act on April 16, 2019.
“This is about the livelihood and the safety of 40 million Americans,” McSally said on the Senate floor. “The Colorado River DCP Authorization Act puts sound water policy over partisan politics.”
However, before even getting to Capitol Hill, Arizona’s tribes played a critical role in the negotiation of the DCP.
“Without the community’s participation, we don’t see how the DCP can be done,” Stephen Roe Lewis, Gila River Indian Community governor, said in March before Arizona had agreed to the plan.
“We call ourselves the people of the river, O’otham. We have that generational knowledge that goes back centuries if not a millennium,” Lewis said.
If cuts are made due to drought, the Gila River Indian Community would keep a portion of their water in Lake Mead for compensation. But other tribes are contributing to the drought plan.
Chairman Dennis Patch of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, CRIT, said the community plans to provide 50,000 acre-feet of water every year from 2020 through 2022.
“The benefit for us is that we would be getting some income off it,” Patch said. “The benefit for Arizona and its users is that it would get more water.”
Water is power, and in the Colorado River Basin, tribes hold a significant amount of water claims.
Ten tribes, including the Colorado River Indian Tribes, have rights to more than 2.8 million acre-feet of water yearly from the Colorado River, according to the Tribal Water Study by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Native American communities in the basin.
But only half of that water is currently being used, the study said.
-Video by Lillian Donahue/Cronkite News
Daryl Vigil, water administrator at Jicarilla Apache Nation, who worked on the study, said it’s relatively new for local and federal lawmakers to include tribes in national water policy conversations.
“That conversation and that opportunity wasn’t available before,” Vigil said. “But now with the conclusion of this DCP and the inclusion of tribes in that dialogue, I think that sets the stage for that to happen.”
Despite facing drought, the Buttons at Ramona Farms said they are more optimistic now than decades before when water was diverted away from the Gila River Indian Community as the population grew outside the reservation.
“The hardest part was when the water was diverted to other areas up east of us. That was a part of what we called our drought also,” Ramona Button said.
The Gila River Indian Community regained its water claims in a 2004 settlement.
As the Buttons walk through their barley fields, they know none of it could be possible without the work of those who came before them, and the water that gives the desert around them life.
“Right now, we’re enjoying the opportunity and the responsibility to maintain this tradition,” Terry Button said. “To utilize the resources of the communities agricultural land, it’s water, and the people.”
DENVER – Soil erosion in the West is getting worse. And that’s creating more dust – which isn’t good for ecosystems, human health or the economy.
A study from the U.S. Geological Survey says more than 200-thousand square miles of land in the United States is more susceptible than ever to soil erosion from wind. And roughly two-thirds of that is on federally managed land in the West.
Michael Duniway, the lead author on the study, said activities that remove vegetation and disturb the soil are the most harmful. “Things like energy exploration and development can do some of that as well as off-highway vehicles,” Duniway said.
He said livestock overgrazing is another culprit, as well as droughts and wildfires. “We do know that we get more dust and wind erosion off the desert,” said Duniway, “when things are warmer and when things are drier.”
Duniway said climate models predict those conditions will only get worse. He said wind erosion is not only bad for desert ecosystems like in the Four Corners area because soil loses its nutrients to the air, but soil erosion also hurts non-desert areas.
“Accelerated erosion by wind off the desert can transport dust into the Rocky Mountains,” said Duniway, “and that landing on the snowpack can cause a decrease in annual water flows for the Colorado River basin which is a large deal, considering the importance of the Colorado River for agriculture and city uses in the West.”
What’s more, he said, the dust caused by erosion can lead to a host of human health problems as well as economic and ecological consequences.
He said we should look to how we responded to the Dust Bowl era, when policymakers relied on scientific research and consequently implemented better conservation practices.
This article was first published by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.
TUCSON – Arizona no longer is dealing with extreme drought in the far northeastern part of the state, thanks to ample fall and winter precipitation, making this season’s snowpack one of the most abundant in awhile, the Arizona Department of Resources reports.
In addition, it said, soil beneath the snow is saturated, which means there should be significant spring runoff to partially replenish the streams, rivers and reservoirs on which the West depends.
Researchers at the University of Arizona are working to find better ways to track snowpack in Arizona and across the U.S. The team has been collecting snowpack data since 1981, and they now can map changes in snow mass across the country over the past 35 years onto grids that are 2.5 square miles.
Professor Xubin Zeng, who leads this work, said the results will change how people track snowpack in the future to better deal with diminished water sources in the warming and drying West.
“Before, we only have good measurements of our specific points, say your own backyard,” Zeng said. “Now if you want to tell your neighbors what is snowpack change for your neighborhood and adjacent areas, you don’t know because your backyard could be different from your neighbor’s. Not for your backyard but for your neighborhood and surrounding areas, and we can do that for every neighborhood in the U.S.”
There are tens of thousands of volunteers across the country measuring snowpack. Zeng said he and his fellow researchers have combined that information with government measurements to create a consistent data set that can give greater detail on snowpack than historical ways of measuring snow. All this information is used to map the snowpack on every inch of land in the U.S., which has not been done before.
Zeng’s team has discovered that although snowpack in the eastern U.S. is doing well, it has diminished across the West. In fact, it has declined so much that if all that snowpack was combined together, it would be about the size of South Carolina.
Snow water equivalent, or SWE, describes how much water is in snowpack. Declining SWE is strongly correlated with long-term climate change. Climate Signals, a science information project of the nonprofit Climate Nexus, said human-caused global warming is the main cause for reduced snow cover.
According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, this winter has been the wettest on record for the contiguous U.S. Precipitation amounts have increased lately, and it has been colder in many parts of the country.
Video by Jodi Guerrero/Cronkite News
What’s at Stake
Snow mass directly impacts the Colorado River, which provides seven Western states with water and power. There’s ongoing planning among Colorado River Basin states to control water use to try to prevent dramatic cutbacks in water deliveries from Lake Mead.
“Less snowpack means less water through the Colorado River, that means less water for Arizona,” Zeng said.
Declining snowpack also directly affects the economy, Zeng said, because a bad snow year means winter sports – a multibillion-dollar business nationwide – takes a hit.
How Tracking Snow has Changed
University of Arizona associate research scientist Patrick Broxton said they often use new technology, including drones, to measure snow.
“We just thought it (drones) would be a good way to measure snow depth because they’re using it for similar types of purposes,” he said.
The UA researchers are passionate about their studies because their findings could help predict changes in the water cycle and climate change.
NASA is working with them to send a satellite into space. The satellite will track snow measurements across the entire U.S.
In about a year, the researchers hope to finish their research so other scientists can use their data.
LOS ANGELES – Here’s some feel-good SoCal water news: We’re finally free of drought conditions.
Even though former Gov. Jerry Brown declared the drought emergency over in 2017, things had still been exceptionally dry, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska.
Per its latest map, released this Thursday, that’s finally changed.
“The big story out west is the seemingly never ending parade of Pacific storms that are certainly erasing the drought and dryness concerns in the short term,” said Eric Luebehusen, meteorologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and author of this week’s drought map.
Snowpack, the wetness of the snow and the moisture levels in vegetation and (sometimes) soil are all considered when drawing it up.
The series of atmospheric rivers delivered a major respite from the dryness. And unlike a few years ago, the precipitation we’ve been getting has been enough to make a serious difference in our water picture.
If you want to feel extra good, take a look at the Sierra Nevadas, where we get a large portion of our water.
The latest snowpack measurement shows that 113 inches of snow have fallen (153 percent of average), and most importantly, it’s very wet.
Reservoirs statewide are doing well, too.
“It looks like overall the water picture is looking pretty good,” said Michael Anderson, climatologist with the California Department of Water Resources.
But is anything ever really forever?
“Our seasonal and long range forecasting skill is pretty weak,” he said, so “given the wild year-to-year variability that California sees, there just really isn’t any way to know what comes next.”
Scientists have been saying for years that climate change could bring increased variability between extreme dry and extreme wet periods. For all we know, next year could be the start of a long term drought.
In addition, the past five years have been California’s hottest on record, and according to the latest climate assessment we could see temperatures rise between 5.6 and 8.8 degrees across the state by 2100. More heat means a greater loss of soil moisture and rising snow lines, something we’re already seeing.
PHOENIX – Historically, a wet winter in California meant a mild fire season. But a new study in the journal “PNAS” suggests moisture supplied by the jet stream may no longer be enough.
The heavy California wet seasons of 2016 and 2017 brought flooding to the drought-stressed state but failed to dampen its disastrous wildfire season.
Regional climate trends suggest one troubling reason: Since 1904, winter moisture brought by the North Pacific jet stream has mitigated wildfires less and less; since 1977, it appears to exert no influence at all.
Co-author Valerie Trouet of University of Arizona used tree ring data to reconstruct the jet stream and fire activity.
“That kind of combination of a wet winter and a severe fire season, we don’t see that prior to the 20th century. All of the big fire years happened after dry winters, not after wet winters.”
The timing suggests fire suppression practices and climate change as partial explanations.
Before the advent of 20th century fire suppression strategies, said Trouet, fires occurred in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and in California every 5-10 years, clearing out the brush but only scarring the trees.
“It’s very difficult to find any fire scars at all in the 20th century. We’ve been very, very effective in putting out fires and, as a result, the underbrush is no longer killed by small fire,” she said.
Even with a wet winter, those fuels can dry by fire season and fuel larger, hotter and harder-to-control blazes.
That cycle could worsen if, as experts predict, climate change drives up temperatures in the region.
DURANGO, Colo. – Amber Blake has one burning question this week as an assistant city manager in Durango.
And that is where to put all the snow.
As the drifts pile up around parking meters and crowd out cars, workers need to find new places to store it all. On downtown streets, workers have started to pile snow between oncoming lanes of traffic.
“In certain areas, the snow is almost as tall as a small adult,” Blake said.
Assistant state climatologist Becky Bolinger calls conditions, “a stark difference from what we saw last year.”
The San Juan Mountains saw one inch more of precipitation compared to average for February 2019. Snowpack is well above average in the region. But there’s still cause for concern. Soils beneath the snow are still bone dry from drought. That means spring runoff will first seep into the soil. There could be less runoff water available to fill up the reservoirs.
And after a severe 2018 drought, thirsty reservoirs need water. The largest in the region, McPhee, is just 7 percent full.
“The check is in the mail. But we haven’t put it in the bank account yet,” Bolinger said.
Despite the lag in water storage, the picture feels more hopeful for agricultural producers like Brian Wilson, who grows hay in Montezuma County. In 2018 he grew about 3 tons, down from about 4 tons in an average year.
“Production was down, but the price [of hay] was better so the bottom line was about the same,” Wilson said.
Dryland farmers had it worse in 2018. With little moisture from the sky, many crops died. Willson hasn’t submitted seed and fertilizer orders yet for spring planting. Right now he’s feeling optimistic. But he won’t have a full picture of what water he can use until well after he’s planted his fields.
Still, the extra moisture in the soil will mean better grazing for rancher Matt Isgar’s cattle. He has a different problem as he looks to recover from last year’s disappointing season. A more productive 2019 will mean he’ll need more workers.
“It’s kind of hard after drought year. You typically don’t have all the same help you had because they didn’t work as much on a drought year,” Isgar said. “So now you have to get it geared backed up and try to get help back on track.”
Around town in Durango, Blake has her eyes on another logistics problem. She said the city’s nearly run through the $47,000 budgeted for snow removal this year. Blake says the city will a have to ask the Durango Council to approve more money for additional snow removal.
“We’ll do what we can to get that snow hauled away,” Blake said. “But it’s winter, and as my kid said, ‘Mom, you know, everybody just needs to learn how to love the snow.’”
WASHINGTON – Clayton Honyumptewa says the Powamuya ceremony will be observed this weekend as usual on parts of the Hopi reservation, but the planting that traditionally follows the ceremony might not come until May.
The delay is just another example of the effects of climate change that have left dams dry, water scarce – and pushed planting from March to April and then to May, leaving little time for crops to grow.
“Sometimes they don’t even mature because it already gets cold in September,” said Honyumptewa, director for the Hopi Department of Natural Resources. “It’s been really rough on the farmers.”
It’s been really tough on tribes across the country, officials told a House panel looking at the effects of climate change on Native America. Honyumptewa was not there, but stories like his were repeated in testimony Tuesday by tribal leaders from Alaska, Washington and Arizona.
Video report by Micah Bledsoe/Cronkite News
An Inupiaq witness testified that melting glaciers are leading to erosion that threatens rural villages on the Bering Strait, and a representative of the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington said the tribe’s treaty-protected fishing has dried up, while rising seas endanger nearby communities.
Tohono O’odham Nation Vice Chairman Verlon Jose told the House Natural Resources subcommittee climate change has affected everything from farming and livestock to housing and infrastructure.
“We have been able to live off the land, with the land, and with the environmental conditions that it has,” Jose said. But the decades-long drought in Arizona has brought extreme heat and reduced groundwater and surface water needed by crops and livestock.
“As climate change has begun to disrupt both our traditional and modern ways of living, we have had to figure out ways to cope with these changes,” Jose said in his testimony.
The testimony came a day after the president of the National Congress for American Indians urged lawmakers in his annual State of Indian Nations address to take steps toward reversing climate change.
“The science is settled. The evidence? Undeniable. Our world is gravely ill, human beings are the cause, and only we can administer the cure,” said Jefferson Keel, the president. “Climate change threatens our wellbeing, places, and ways of life in every conceivable way.”
Honyumptewa said he sees it among Hopi ranchers, who cannot afford to properly feed and water their livestock because of scarce resources on the reservation. As a result, livestock and crops have both diminished.
“Some people wholly rely on that. I mean, that’s their livelihood, (their) income for a year,” Honyumptewa said.
Jose said climate change has blunted the tribes’ efforts to get members to return to a healthier, traditional diet as those foods have been “drastically impacted by significant changes in the average temperature that alters the phenology, or the seasonal life cycle, of traditional plants.”
“Our members go out to gather traditional foods and find that many are blooming out of season or not blooming at all as a result of climate change,” he said.
At the hearing, witnesses asked Congress for a seat at the table as the government grapples with climate change, and insisted indigenous experience and expertise should be part of any solutions atimed at reversing it effects.
“We as a community can use best practices, going back to our traditional ways as well as bridging the modern social lifestyles to address climate change,” Jose said.
And while some areas of the Hopi tribe are preparing for the Powamuya ceremony to inspire a successful growing season, Honyumptewa said the drought has made it harder to keep cultural norms alive.
“We need rain, we need water to do that. Rain, snow, all our ceremonies are geared to that,” he said.
“Hopi prophecy is all coming true. Climate change, the California wildfires, they were all predicted by Hopi elders telling us this is what’s going to happen,” Honyumptewa said. “It’s Koyaanisqatsi – a crazy world.”