In May my partner, Jonny, and I drove to Ashland, Oregon for a friend’s wedding. It was a hot May, with eight days above 90 degrees and we were grateful to escape to cooler Pacific Northwest temperatures. Dry creek beds broke up fields in shades from green to yellow as we drove north through the valley. Orchards stretching endlessly away from the highway baked as California experienced its driest spring on record.
Bridges carrying us over Lake Shasta revealed a pale “bathtub ring” around the lake, in some places hundreds of feet thick as water levels drop. Lake Shasta, California’s largest reservoir, is currently holding 36% of its total capacity, which is 56% of the historical average for this time in August, according to the California Department of Water Resources.
Closer to home, things look similar. All 200,849 (100%) of Yolo County’s residents are affected by drought. 94.73% of the county is experiencing “Extreme Drought” (the remaining 5.27% are experiencing “Severe Drought”). During extreme drought conditions, the state’s second extreme drought in ten years, livestock need expensive supplemental feed; cattle and horses are sold; little pasture remains; fruit trees bud early; producers begin irrigating in the winter; fire season lasts year-round; water is inadequate for agriculture, wildlife, and urban needs; reservoirs are extremely low; and hydropower is restricted according to the National Integrated Drought Information System.
For Yolo County, who’s 2019-2020 agriculture outputs represent 711.8 million dollars, extreme drought conditions are especially hard on our farmers and farm workers. 2021’s drought conditions saw California’s agriculture industry shrink by an estimated 8,745 jobs and shoulder $1.2 billion in direct costs as fields were fallowed and growers were forced to pump more groundwater, the LA Times reports.
Additional environmental impacts of drought include losses or destruction of fish and wildlife habitat, lack of food and drinking water for wild animals, increase in disease in wild animals, migration of wildlife, increased stress on endangered species or even extinction, loss of wetlands, wind and water erosion of soils, and poor soil quality.
And although we measure rainfall and pass water restrictions by county and state, drought knows no borders. In fact, it may be more useful to put our current drought conditions and experiences in the greater context of our watershed. A watershed is an area of land that channels rainfall and snowmelt into creeks, streams, and rivers, and eventually to outflow points such as reservoirs, bays, and the ocean. The watershed is also the air we breath, animals we raise and animals we don’t, our food crops, and our communities.
BriarPatch Co-op in Grass Valley defines “local” as products coming from the Sacramento River Watershed because of the deep, central role it plays in shaping our local environments and everyday life. They made an excellent video explaining the interconnectedness of communities within the watershed.
Davis, along with most of Northern California, is a part of the Sacramento River Watershed. Within the Sacramento River Watershed is the Cache Creek Watershed, draining Clear Lake in Lake County into the Sacramento River before it flows into the Delta and beyond to the Pacific Ocean. Davis is located inside the Cache Creek Watershed that is a part of the larger Sacramento River Watershed system. Lands within the Sacramento River Watershed are diverse, with snow-covered peaks, low-lying agricultural lands, large areas of forested mountains, many small urban areas, and the Sacramento metropolitan area, the largest urban area in the watershed. Human activity, mainly 19th century gold mining and transforming grassland to agriculture, has significantly modified flows within the watershed.
In truth, my drive north this last spring was a tour through the Sacramento River Watershed, starting in the valley’s wetlands and low agricultural lands and climbing to its snowy peaks in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, although I didn’t think of it that way then. Dry creeks in Yolo County, low lake levels in Shasta County, and fresh burn scars in Siskiyou County all show the watershed as a whole is hurting.
Of course, we cannot talk about extreme drought and watershed sustainability without acknowledging the role climate change plays in amplifying the frequency and severity of drought. Climate change, like drought, is uncaring of borders and requires collaboration and cooperation to begin reversing. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities as well as poor and migrant communities feel the effects of climate change more deeply (read the EPA’s report published last year examining climate change’s effects on four socially vulnerable groups: people with low income, minorities, people aged 65 and older, and people without a high school diploma).
Watershed management and sustainability should be a collaborative effort between individuals, community organizations, and local, state, and federal agencies. Action individuals can take include water conservation at home. We can also call on state officials to listen to Indigenous voices – voices carrying expertise gained by stewarding this land for thousands of years. I urge you to read this article about the history of Indigenous water rights in California and this one about the Hoopa Valley High School Water Protectors Club in Northern California.
You can also support local organizations that take care of our watershed like the Cache Creek Conservancy and Yolo Basin Foundation, who were Round Up organizations in May and June of this year. Many of our local wineries, including Great Bear in Davis and Alexander Valley Vineyards, prioritize maintaining riparian habitat on their properties to the greater health of the watershed.
If you’re like me, confronting the scary realities of climate change causes you a lot of anxiety, stress, frustration, and dread. In fact, more than two thirds of Americans experience some climate anxiety. Since climate anxiety is characterized by feelings of loss of control, the best treatment is to take action. On an individual level, it’s therapeutic to share your worries and fears with trusted loved ones, your therapist, or by joining a support group. You can also make changes to your lifestyle consistent with your values. This may be deciding to take fewer flights, joining a protest, or increasing public awareness about climate change through advocacy.