Coffee, Avocados, & Drought

Climate change solutions are commonly misconstrued in the environmental movement. When discussing climate change, we often talk vaguely about solutions with comments like: “Decreasing carbon emissions will help fight the climate crisis,” and “Preventing global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees celsius will conserve biodiversity.”

These phrases are true, but they imply that there is some mysterious silver bullet solution out there that will save humanity, and all the trees, and the cute little crag dogs, and the wildflowers–but there isn’t. 

There just isn’t a single solution for climate change. 

The same goes for drought, which is a big tangled mess in climate change’s knitting basket. This is because water use is so much more complicated than the amount of water flowing out of your faucet. As individuals, we use relatively small quantities of water, but we also use electricity created by thermoelectric power, eat food (like and 🥑) that needs to be irrigated, and scroll on phones that require mined metal. 

There is no possible way for one solution to unravel all of the deeply intertwined drought-associated problems. Instead, drought prevention requires a multitude of holistic solutions. 

So, what drought solutions are you most passionate about?

📚 Information Compiled by: @funkyfrances and @savadkinscroft

🎨 Graphics by: @savadkinscroft

How Drought Affects Wildfires

The next chapter of our drought series is here: let’s talk about drought and wildfires. 🔥

Remember when Smokey Bear was SUPER popular? Like, the level of popularity where you couldn’t go outside without seeing an excessively buff bear telling you that it was your job to prevent wildfires?

Smokey Bear has a more low-key presence these days, and there’s a reason for that: As fire science progresses and fire history is explored, we’re realizing that fire isn’t always bad. And more often than not, it’s actually really good for ecosystems to experience fire.

Take lodgepole pines for example, which can be found all over the western United States. These iconic pines have serontinous cones, which means, in order for the cones to release their seeds, they first need to be burned by fire. Simply put, these trees couldn’t have babies without fire!

Fire benefits more than just lodgepole pines, and we could list the benefits of fire forever and ever. But fire has become A LOT more complicated now that our drought situation is so severe and because humans cause so many fires (not just through pyrotechnic gender reveals, but also through campfires, cigarettes, and more).

If we could sum up current wildfire science into a few words, it would be: natural fires are good and have been used by Indigenous people for thousands of years, human caused fires quickly get out of control, we should have let landscapes burn over the past 100 years, drought is making fires worse, and we need to create systemic change to our fire mitigation practices asap.

📚 Information Compiled by: @stephanie_landry_giavotella and @savadkinscroft
🎨 Graphics by: @savadkinscroft
📸 Photo: Frankie Lopez

What is a watershed (and what makes a healthy one)?

Written by Kelly Loria
Cover image by Michael Browning

Take a step outside and look around–you are currently in a watershed. Since water follows the path of least resistance as it ebbs downward from high to low areas, a watershed is any land that drains water or snow into a body of water like a stream, river, wetland, or lake.

Watersheds are defined by topographic features like mountains, and can refer to very large (like really, really big) stretches of land. For example, the Mississippi River is one of the largest watersheds within the Continental U.S. and receives water from 33 states.

Because watersheds can span across vast landscapes, water is often dirtied by feedlots, enriched with fertilizers, and contaminated by oils, trash, and anything else it can carry–which is a problem because this water becomes our drinking water, shower water, and toilet water, all of which have the potential to affect our health.

Therefore, it’s super important to keep watersheds clean–but how do we know if a watershed is healthy enough to provide clean water? The answer: a list of healthy watershed characteristics created by the Environmental Protection Agency:

  1. “Dynamic hydrologic and geomorphologic processes within their natural range of variation.” 

    At first this sounds like gibberish, but broken down, it means a little something like this: Aquatic environments evolved to handle seasonal patterns of precipitation. This means that aquatic ecosystems need small, regular floods that submerge riverside floodplains to create sandbars, channels, and diverse aquatic habitats, which provide valuable nutrients for organisms and vegetation. For a watershed to remain ecologically intact so that it can provide economically valuable commodities and services to us hooomans, it needs to receive enough water and at the right times. Once this happens, we can extract water for our own needs without causing too much harm to the watershed. 

  1. “Habitat of sufficient size and connectivity to support native aquatic and riparian species.”

    When we build dams or water diversions, we block aquatic species from traveling around as much as they once did. This is called habitat fragmentation, which makes it challenging for certain species to find food and mates, or for migratory species to find places to rest and feed along their routes. Modern updates to aquatic infrastructure, such as fish ladders that connect rivers to reservoirs with water steps, can help mediate some of this fragmentation and facilitate aquatic species travel.

  1. “Physical and chemical water quality conditions able to support healthy biological communities.”

    Water quality is assessed based on both its chemistry (i.e. how much nitrogen is in the water) and physical features (i.e. temperature). The level to which water quality is monitored and enforced varies state by state, which means that states can have a regulatory standard that is lower than what is best for maintaining healthy aquatic life. This is important because whatever happens upstream–like fertilizer use–can have really harmful impacts on aquatic ecosystems in downstream. 

What happens upstream matters. When aquatic systems receive high concentrations of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, it can cause rapid growth of algae (HABs aka Harmful Algal Blooms). Algae exists in all aquatic environments, but when they come in contact with nitrogen and phosphorus from outside of their natural habitats (like from fertilizers) they grow and grow and grow some more. When the algae eventually dies, the process of breaking down the huge amount of dead algae lowers the amount of oxygen available for other aquatic life, resulting in poor water quality. This is a huge problem for the Mississippi because it has 33 states worth of agricultural nitrogen and phosphorus to pick up before it pours into the Gulf of Mexico, which causes the infamous dead zone.  

Watersheds are very cool and are the whole reason we have water–but, not every watershed meets these EPA standards, resulting in contaminated water. That’s where you, me, and all of our friends come in. It’s our job to advocate for clean water. So, like always, contact them reps, baby!

Sources:

Drought in the Intermountain West

With record-breaking drought conditions spread across California, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and beyond, the idea of a “hot girl summer” has taken on a new meaning in the Mountain West this year.

But what exactly is drought, and why does it matter to outdoorists (and everyone)?

Drought, in its simplest definition, is the lack of precipitation, which leads to depleted water supplies. At its worst, drought can last for decades and the lack of water can affect food availability, water quality, biodiversity, wildfire risk, livestock and fisheries health, the economy, human physical and mental health, job security, recreation, and oh so much more.

The intermountain west has been hit exceptionally hard by long-term drought. Since 2000 (that’s right—this drought can legally drink, y’all!), landscapes spanning from the Rocky Mountains to the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain Ranges have been plagued with wildfires, municipal water restrictions, and conflicts over water rights. This summer, the western United States is projected to once again be hot and dry, further straining our already limited water supply.

We’re diving into the science, sociology, and policy of drought over the next few weeks with the help of climate scientists, but we also want this to be a community discussion. So, we want to know:

How has drought affected you?

Research and graphic design by: @savadkinscroft
Photography: Jana Styblova
Map: via US Drought Monitor