Opening the floodgates

Opening the Floodgates

When the state of California faces a challenge, the CSU community is the first to step up and spring into action. This has been evident during times of crisis such as fires, earthquakes and most recently with the pandemic. The drought is no different. With a concerted effort, CSU faculty, students and alumni are working on numerous solutions to this ongoing issue. Here are a few of the ways the CSU is keeping the state's glass half-full.


Birds search for food in a wetland area.

“When asked about the most important environmental issue facing the state, one in four Californians named water supply and drought.”

–Public Policy Institute of California

Leave It to Beavers

In addition to being voted “most adorable" in their class, beavers actually help create nature-based solutions for drought and fire management. Emily Fairfax, Ph.D., assistant professor of environmental science and resource management at California State University Channel Islands, has been using satellite data to compare landscapes with numerous beaver dams to those without dams during times of drought. What she found was quite remarkable.

“What I saw in those studies was that the beaver-dammed areas essentially didn't feel the drought," she explains. “It was just the same greenness year after year. This was in 2013 to 2016, when there were record-breaking droughts going on."

The beaver dams store water and act almost like a drip system, keeping plants green and lush. Dr. Fairfax's findings led to her next branch of research: determining whether or not beavers can also help maintain these wetland riparian ecosystems during fire season.

“My next study, called Smokey the Beaver, looked at five different fires," she says. “I saw that if you had beaver dams in a creek, the riparian zone burned three times less than if you didn't have beaver dams. With two streams that were right next to each other—one with beavers on it, the other one just a simple stream—the beaver-dammed one hardly burned at all, while in the undammed streams, the fire ripped through that landscape."

For Fairfax, next steps include continuing to provide data that supports the success of drought and fire mitigation via beaver dam behavior so the state can invest in the method. Secondly, she'd like to see a policy change that would allow the relocation of beavers in California.

“When you do have what's called a 'nuisance beaver,' when they move into San José or San Diego and it's not a good habitat for them and it's not good for the people, your only option is either deal with it in place or to kill the beaver," she says. “There's no option to live-trap that beaver and move it into the Los Padres National Forest, where there are a lot of streams that used to have beavers but don't right now and that could support them."

Fairfax is also conducting a field-based study with CSUCI students at a beaver complex on the Salinas River in San Luis Obispo County. “We've been taking photos and collecting data and doing remote sensing for the last year and a half," Fairfax says. “We saw it through the summertime drought and it just stayed so bright green and it's full of beavers. They just had babies, and now it looks like they're expanding out, so they're making that patch of greenery larger."

Emily Fairfax, Ph.D., assistant professor of environmental science and resource management at CSUCI, conducts research on how beaver dams create green areas that hold water and don’t burn during wildfires. 
 

CSUCI's Emily Fairfax, Ph.D., conducts research on how beaver dams create green areas that hold water and don’t burn during wildfires.


Recharging the Source

If you look at an aquifer as a bank account and groundwater as funds, California has been overdrawn for a long time. In an average year, the state relies on groundwater for 38 percent of its total water supply. During a drought, water is pumped out of the aquifer, which has led to subsidence, the gradual sinking of land.

“You can see instances of 20 feet of drop in ground surface since the 1970s due to subsidence," says Cordie Qualle, interim director of the California Water Institute (CWI) at California State University, Fresno. “If you start with $100 in your bank account and you have a $70 emergency, you can float that, right? What happens when you're at $30 and you have another $70 emergency? We're getting to the point where we've overdrawn and it's getting dangerous."

Faculty and student researchers at Fresno State are looking into innovative methods to approach groundwater recharge, a practice in which surface water saturates the soil and is then sent down to refill the aquifer.

“What we're looking at is a different way of doing that, which we call subsurface artificial groundwater recharge," Qualle explains. “We take a perforated pipe, put it in the ground and then force water into that pipe, which then goes down through the soil. We're trying to find out if this is an efficient and effective way of recharging water on a bigger scale, here in the San Joaquin Valley."

Cordie Qualle, interim director of the California Water Institute, works alongside a Fresno State student on a groundwater refr

Cordie Qualle, interim director of the California Water Institute, works alongside a Fresno State student on a groundwater refresh project.


Elevating the Water IQ

You see them as you drive down the interstate and leave the urban sprawl in the rearview mirror: small communities that pop up “in the middle of nowhere" among rows of crops such as grapes, fruit trees, almonds and pistachios. In large part, these are the towns that feed the nation, a place farmworkers and their families call home. The Central Valley produces a quarter of the food in the U.S. Often not connected to a municipal water district, these underrepresented, low-income communities count on wells for their water. But as groundwater is increasingly pumped out to meet needs, their wells are susceptible to going dry.

“My mantra is 'elevate the water IQ of the community,'" says Laura Ramos, programs manager at CWI. “There are a lot of misconceptions, so we've developed a water bootcamp to educate people on topics such as hydrology, surface water rights, dams, wells and regulations. Fresno State students serve as teachers and help develop the curriculum."

CWI is involved in a number of projects, including creating a shared vision for water in the San Joaquin Valley and conducting studies on whether it's feasible for small communities around Fresno to connect to a municipal water district.

The organization is also making sure San Joaquin Valley residents affected by drought know there are resources available to them, free of charge. The outreach effort—for which The Office of Community and Economic Development at Fresno State serves as the designated partnership secretariat—focuses on hard-to-reach communities.

“We placed ads in local churches and distributed flyers at flea markets, food banks and rural clinics," Ramos says.

Phase two will focus on unifying data that pinpoints the main areas where wells are running dry. “We want to identify these resources so we're not replicating data that's already out there," Ramos says. “We don't want to keep doing this every year. So how do we create systems and financing to make sure we don't?"

Laura Ramos, programs manager at The California Water Institute at Fresno State, works on projects that help small and disadvant

Laura Ramos, programs manager at The California Water Institute at Fresno State, works on projects that help small and disadvantaged communities attain sustainable access to drinking water.


CSULB Beach Transfer Transition Center staff at a bowling social.

The well that Lindsay, California, residents Neil and Jacquie Walker depended on for water recently went dry. The California Water Institute works with Self-Help Enterprises, an organization that provided the Walkers with a tank and hauled water, to connect residents in need of related resources.



What you can do

Reading about the drought can be overwhelming, but there are simple, everyday steps you can take to help. Here are just a few.

  • Turn water off when brushing teeth.
  • Only run the dishwasher when it's full.
  • Take shorter showers.
  • Consider using native plants in your landscaping.
  • Water your lawn early in the morning or later at night.
  • Use a broom to clean driveways instead of water.
  • Recycle indoor water to use on plants.
  • Adopt a tradition of Meatless Mondays.

See other ways the CSU is helping to change the way California manages water

STORY: MICHELLE MCCARTHY

PHOTOGRAPHY: Patrick Record

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