As new research concerning the relationship of drought and climate change continues, San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District General Manager Heather Dyer has set a goal to help local water agency leaders and the public better understand the region’s extended drought and importance of water conservation.

According to Dyer, the drought being experienced in the American Southwest is now classified as a megadrought as the region has been in a state of drought ⎯ less supply than demand for water ⎯for multiple decades.

Dyer, who has a background as an endangered species biologist, presented information on the relationship of climate change and drought to the SBVMWD Board during a policy workshop on May 14.

“My goal is to give a sense of understanding through a science presentation to the board and public to break down elements of climate change and what it means to our water supply,” Dyer said.

“One of the things I’m trying to focus on is there’s a lot of new research related to climate change and weather change. They’re not the same but linked,” Dyer added. “Climate change is the driver of weather change. It is what drives the moisture cycle all around the globe.”

Carbon dioxide

Drought, itself is influenced by several factors, not just rain. These include moisture in the soil, moisture in vegetation, runoff and groundwater.

Dyer shared that recent research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suggests that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels also drive climate change and influence drought.

The study sampled and charted historic atmospheric carbon levels by drilling and testing ice cores to gather CO2 content data from atmosphere sampled trapped in ice frozen at different periods in Earth’s history. CO2 levels were sampled from Antarctica ice that dated back 800,000 years.

When graphed the CO2 levels show an EKG-like line of alternating highs and lows with peaks at approximately every 100,000 years.

“Research is showing that warm periods also correlate with high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” Dyer said.

Dyer pointed out that, in the past 800,000 years, the highest CO2 level was about 100 parts per million below current levels.

CO2, as a greenhouse gas, absorbs heat and holds it within the atmosphere, which accounts for the warming of global temperatures, Dyer explained.

“We expect that as CO2 levels continue growing higher it will increase extremes [in our weather patterns],” Dyer said. “The drivers of our weather are changing. Higher highs, lower lows, increased flooding, longer duration of flooding ⎯ everything’s going to become more intense.”

Megadrought

Scientists date the current drought back to 2000, making it two decades old and a megadrought.

According to tree ring studies (trees grow thick rings during years of plentiful water and thin rings during dry years), the last megadrought was in the 1580s and lasted about 200 years.

“We are in the next longest drought,” Dyer said. “We cannot take for granted that it’s going to rain. We have to think seriously of our future water supply and keep looking for ways to conserve and recycle water, recharging our groundwater basin, even if it’s not raining.”

“We may have big rain years, but when you think about how many entities are drawing from the basin every year, it’s hard to refill after five years of people drawing from the basin,” Dyer said of the drought’s continued existence following one or two years of good rain years.

Conservation partnerships

“Water managers should be concerned about climate change because it’s what influences our water supply and precipitation,” Dyer said. “Water doesn’t disappear it becomes different forms and moves to other places.”

As a water manager herself, Dyer is leading SBVMWD into several programs aimed at protecting water sources and increased water conservation.

The district has initiated a new partnership with the San Bernardino National Forest in a collaborative effort to protect and improve the health of the forest, home of the San Bernardino Valley Basin’s headwaters.

According to Dyer, a healthy forest with healthy trees and soil are important to clean headwaters and runoff. When forest floors are covered in ash from wildfires headwaters and rain runoff becomes contaminated and difficult for water agencies to capture and clean.

A major aim for the water district’s partnership with the forest service is to collect data and funding for forest management and fire prevention programs.

One of the partnership’s first collaborative efforts is an aerial photography program to document valuable information on what’s needed to improve and maintain the San Bernardino National Forest’s health.

SBVMWD has also worked in partnership with neighboring water districts, government agencies and mining companies in the creation of the Santa Ana River Wash Plan, part of which gains approval for several projects aimed at improving water conservation capabilities within the wash.

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