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Brown Is the New Green in California's Drought

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I was at a skate park in San Jose last week after my son pleaded with me to take him. As he and a friend put on their knee and elbow guards, I began to set myself up to work under an umbrella -- when a squirrel jumped onto the patio near my feet.


I was startled and gave a shout in the hope it would leave me alone. No way. I stomped my foot and stood up. He just looked at me. Finally, in one of my decidedly less-than-finer moments -- I opened my water bottle and threw the contents in his direction, hoping it would scare him away.

But to my surprise, he came closer -- right to the water to lap it up. He lapped and approached, lapped and approached, following the line of water to just inches from my feet, and every now and then looking up at me as I looked down at him.

That's when my frustration at being distracted from my work broke down. Poor thing, I thought. Of course, he (or she) wants water. It was brutally hot. The land all around us was brown and dry, no water in sight. A fire, in fact, broke out shortly after.

California, as has been widely reported, is in a severe drought -- one of the worst on record, and bad enough to prompt Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency early this year.

In the Bay Area where I live, there are signs in parks that say, "Brown is the New Green" -- explaining why bushes have not been watered. Workers are out on the side of roadways, cutting down tall grass to reduce the risk of spreading wildfires. And plants, even those on display at gardening stores, are as droopy as my dog after a mid-day hike.

But these are the relatively insignificant impacts of California's three-year-long drought. Much more significant is the impact on the Central Valley's agricultural communities, which stand to lose $1.7 billion and 14,500 jobs, according to recent research from the University of California, Davis, Center for Watershed Sciences.

The state's firefighting agency, Cal Fire, has already responded to more than 2,500 wildfires in 2014 -- a huge increase for this time of year, as CNN reported last week.

Tourism in many parts of the state is suffering -- as low water levels have forced the closure or cancellation of white-water rafting tours, swimming lagoons, fishing tournaments,and an annual yachting race, according to The Los Angeles Times.

And baby salmon have been so threatened by low water levels and increased predators in the warming Sacramento River that the state took the extraordinary measure of shipping them by barge and truck to the Pacific Ocean in hopes of saving their lives.

California is not the only state experiencing conditions like these. Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon and parts of Idaho are also seeing severe drought. But California is distinct in that it is confronted with severe drought throughout the state -- and the highest "exceptional" level of drought across one-third of its vast lands.

There has been some debate about whether climate change has contributed to all this. A March 2014 opinion piece in The New York Times argued no -- while research published in the journal, Nature, a month later unequivocally concluded yes.

But for those who are facing worsening air quality, having to sell off livestock, move elsewhere in search of work or any of the other implications of the west's increasingly severe drought conditions, the only truly pressing question is what now?

While the state continues to take many actions to manage scarce water resources, there are also hundreds of ways residents can reduce their use of water both in and out of the home. For example, Save Our Water and Water Use It Wisely offer simple suggestions, such as:

  • Water early in the morning or later in the evening when temperatures are cooler.
  • Plant mulch around bushes to keep the soil cool.
  • Use a broom instead of a hose to clean driveways and sidewalks.

More significantly, California is one of 15 states to have completed a comprehensive climate change adaptation plan designed to reduce the state's vulnerability to global warming. One of its recommendations: Reduce water use by 20 percent per capita.

It is a goal that will surely require not only conservation but great innovation in the years ahead. Stay tuned.

This post originally appeared on Moms Clean Air Force.

LISA BENNETT is the director of A Better Climate and coauthor of Ecoliterate. She blogs at LisaPBennett.Follow her on Twitter @LisaPBennett.

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