What We Can Learn From the California Drought

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Author: Alice Cunningham| Published: February 7, 2017 

Over the past three weeks, continued rain and snow across California has, almost miraculously, lifted nearly half of the state out of drought. That’s a huge improvement from last February, when more than 95% of the state was listed as being in some form of drought. Large parts of the state have been under threat of extreme drought continuously for three consecutive years.

While those of us in California are thankful, counting on unreliable weather patterns to save us isn’t a viable approach to preparing for, or enduring, the kind of crippling drought our state has suffered through.

However, there are some very straightforward steps that can be taken to mitigate against both drought AND flood – two conditions of which California has had its share and which are linked by the extreme weather that accompanies climate change. These measures provide the most important protections that we have against drought and flood. Both are too often overlooked and taken for granted.

The first action we can take is planting trees and increasing forest cover around farmland. Trees help manage water: on average, one large tree can lift up to 100 gallons from the ground and discharge it through the air. Trees sequester carbon, clean water along streams, attract wildlife and prevent erosion through their root systems. They conserve soil by providing nutrients as their leaves and roots decay.

That takes us to our second and most important measure: healthy soil. Its holding capacity is simply remarkable: one percent of organic matter in the top six inches of soil could hold about 27,000 gallons of water per acre, according to the USDA. Increasing organic matter in topsoil increases holding capacity, making it capable of storing 20 times its own weight in water. Healthy soil makes the land itself far more resilient to drought, flood and other forms of extreme weather.

Healthy soil is full of life. Literally. Organic material, microorganisms, bacteria, arthropods, fungi, and air and water – all these things bring life to soil. This life, this fertility, makes it possible to grow plants naturally, without additional fertilizers or other inputs. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., sustainable soil management can produce up to 58 percent more food than soil managed under prevailing monoculture agricultural practices. And, the kind of healthy soil that makes this fertility possible is also porous, allowing water and air to move through it freely, a property that increases water-holding capacity, improving the land’s ability to better resist drought conditions and better work for us.


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