Executive Summary for October 27th

For an overview of the latest news on the California drought, we’ve organized the most recent developments in a curated summary.

Published on Oct. 27, 2015 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

‘Pop-Up’ Wetlands Help Waterfowl Survive Drought

An interesting cooperative effort is under way using small bits of water to provide islands of habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds currently migrating through the Central Valley on the Pacific Flyway.

Drawing on data from disparate sources, a team of conservation groups collated historical bird observations to produce a map to predict where birds are likely to be, but where water is currently scarce. Rice farmers in these areas were paid an incentive fee to flood small areas with water to provide waterfowl habitat.

The partnership uses NASA satellite imagery combined with citizen observations of bird presence as reported to the Audubon Society’s eBird database. Point Blue Conservation Science interpreted the resulting data, and The Nature Conservancy provided incentive funds to farmers.

Since spring 2014, Audubon reports, the program has created nearly 25,000 acres of these “pop-up” wetlands on rice fields. And the birds are using them: About 30 times more shorebirds forage on these fields than when they are flooded solely according to the agricultural cycle – a cycle that is often ill-timed for bird migration.

“It’s especially heartening going out to the fields with the farmers and seeing abundant wildlife in an agricultural setting,” says Mark Reynolds of The Nature Conservancy.

Highest Waterfall in Southern California Closed

Upper Big Falls in the San Bernardino National Forest has been closed because of drought. Not because it dried up, surprisingly. But because people couldn’t stop injuring themselves in it.

The attraction is recognized as the highest-elevation continuously flowing waterfall in Southern California.

Water flow through the falls had become so low and narrow that many visitors were attempting to walk or jump across the water. Not surprisingly, many seriously injured themselves and had to be rescued.

As many as 300,000 people visit the attraction every year, according to the Riverside Press-Enterprise newspaper. Injuries are nothing new. There were about 10 rescues a season prior to 1990, when alcohol was banned in the area. Since then, rescues plunged to just three to five per season.

Big increase this year: Since March, the local fire department has made 45 rescues and given medical aid to 57 people. A dozen rescues involved at least two people. Helicopters have been summoned 32 times.

And injuries are not limited to the typical class of risk-taking young men. Even middle-aged moms have been hurt, suggesting the temptation to play in the falls is significant amid California’s long, hot and continuing drought.

So now, the falls will be closed to all public access for a year, while the U.S. Forest Service studies how it might take new measures to protect people from their own worst impulses.

Signs now warn visitors to stay away. Violators could be slapped with $5,000 fines.

“It bothers me that it’s closed to good people,” Chris Grehl, a visitor from New York, told the newspaper. “Now I can’t see it because some people decided to hurt themselves.”

L.A. Turns Off Its Fountains

The city of Los Angeles has turned off most of its indulgent civic water fountains, which have splashed in public spaces for decades thanks to an abundance of water harvested and diverted from other places.

L.A. has been criticized for these fountains for decades. Opponents have labeled them a slap in the face for the communities that lost water to the city’s audacious water grabs.

Perhaps most brazen of all, one of the fountains was created as a memorial to William Mulholland, the man behind L.A.’s greatest water schemes. This fountain has been an object of both celebration and scorn, including several acts of vandalism and one attempt in 1976 to dynamite it with an exploding arrow.

As recently as 18 months ago, the criticism was still rolling in.

“But here on the ground, as it were, there is no water shortage at all,” Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam wrote in February 2014. “Water fountains flow freely, everywhere. Children are frolicking on the interactive ‘splash pad’ in downtown’s multi-tiered Grand Park … When I asked people how they were adjusting to the drought, I drew blank stares.”

Not all the fountains have been silenced. That splash pad at Grand Park still flows. But a dozen others have been drained.

The water savings are mostly symbolic, Doug Smith writes in the L.A. Times. But that’s the kind of symbolism that matters in a drought.

“The divergent fates of the civic waterworks,” Smith says, “reflect the tension between the symbolic and the practical in the battle against drought.”

Top image: Waterfowl such as this hooded merganser are benefiting from a program to create “pop-up” wetlands on small tracts of farmland that might otherwise be dry because of the California drought.

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