By Douglas W. Motley
Lingering, record-setting drought in California has left the state scrambling to provide water for its nearly 40 million residents and its thirsty agricultural sector. However, humans are not the only ones suffering.
The historic dry spell is reshaping the habitats of much of the state’s wildlife, forcing animals to search further for water and leaving some vulnerable to starvation. “Animals are going to have to get by with less and adapt,” said Jason Holley, supervising wildlife biologist at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in an article published in the June 1 issue of Time Magazine.
Holley’s warning echoes remarks made by Mick Hill in his May 26, 2022, column (Mick’s View) in The Alpine Mountaineer, in which he aptly points out that the creeks and streams are drying out and that trees are, once again, succumbing to the ravages of the bark beetle.
“The drought is showing up as the second major cause of death of the ponderosa pines and oaks. Those tall trees require enormous amounts of water from below, coming up from the aquifer, and from above, percolating into the soil down to their tap roots to survive,” Hill said, adding that he has noticed a lack of tree frogs chirping along Seeley Creek and mountain quail that normally run rampant in our forest this time of the year.
According to Holley, the ongoing drought has affected all of California’s vast diversity of wildlife in different ways, and the most at risk species tend to be smaller ones that can’t pick up and move to other habitats. He notes that small animals living in marshes are also struggling to adapt as state water officials force homeowners to let their lawns and gardens dry out and die. “Squirrels and hummingbirds are far from endangered but, in California, their numbers may dwindle,” he said.
U.S. Forest Service Regional Threatened and Endangered Species Coordinator Patricia Kruger points out that the death of some 12 million trees in California forests as a result of the drought has also damaged living conditions for small animals that live in woody areas and depend on plant byproducts like acorns; they have also seen their food supplies dwindle. Though the majority of affected species tends to be small, Kruger said, large animals like bears and deer could soon face their own set of problems. “For one thing, species large and small have been forced to share watering holes that would have once been separate, increasing the potential for the spread of disease.”
The governor of California was standing in a patch of dry, brown grass as he made this proclamation: “We’re in a new era. The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day, that’s going to be a thing of the past. We’re in a historic drought, and that demands unprecedented action,” he said. Only, it wasn’t Gov. Gavin Newsom; it was former Governor Jerry Brown, and the year was 2015. Seven years later, California is once again facing urgent calls for cutbacks as heat waves, record dryness and climate change converge to create a critically short supply of water.
In 2016, when then Gov. Brown lifted the last statewide drought emergency, he also issued an executive order vowing to make water conservation a way of life in California. The state subsequently responded to the call by maintaining daily per capita water use of around 90 gallons for the next several years, according to state data. However, Californians have been slipping and used about 18 percent more water in April of this year compared with the same month in 2020, the year the current drought began.
Jay Lund, co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis, says California has made some progress when it comes to implementing regulations and better managing of groundwater, but the state is still a long way from achieving sustainability.
“For the forests, we’re kind of stuck. It would take many millions of acre-feet of water to turn things around. There are some environmental impacts that we just have to adapt to that we’re not going to be able to push back the clock on, and that’s true for forests,” Lund said, adding, “We have to find a way to prepare ourselves for the aridification, essentially, of much of California’s natural landscape.”