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Executive Summary for August 4th

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

Published on Aug. 4, 2015 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Drought Produces ‘Silent Spring’: No Birdsong

While we’ve all been wringing our hands over the people and fish affected by California’s four-year drought, songbirds have been suffering as well.

Bernie Krause, a legend in the field of soundscape ecology, has documented the near-total loss of birdsong over the past year in his home environment of Sonoma County. Although he travels the world to document the sounds of nature, Krause has also collected a 20-year record of nature sounds in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park near Glen Ellen, California.

Shockingly, he tells Fast Company, “This year – because of the drought – we experienced what was virtually a silent spring with no birdsong for the first time in living memory – even at what would have normally been the height of the season in mid-April.”

The bird species have shifted, Krause says, and several are just not there. (Click on the video clip to watch and listen to his audio documentation at the state park over several years.)

Unfortunately, the article offers no information about why this shift has occurred. But we can surmise two things: Birds that are able to migrate have left for greener pastures (literally); and among those that could not leave or could not find a better habitat, their populations have surely crashed, which is a normal event during a drought.

We can only hope that when the rains return, the birdsong will, too.

Fish and Politics: More Flow on Klamath River, Rep. Huffman Urges

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, has called on interior secretary Sally Jewell and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to provide additional water flow into the Klamath River from Trinity Lake to avoid a massive salmon loss like the one that occurred in 2002.

That year, some 68,000 Chinook salmon died in the river because of low water flows triggered by drought. The fish were killed by warm water and the resulting explosion of a parasite deadly to salmon. The die-off triggered unprecedented restrictions in salmon fishing that had lasting effects on commercial, recreational and tribal fishing.

The largest portion of the fall run of salmon is likely to begin within the next two or three weeks, and could drastically increase crowding and the spread of disease.

Humboldt County officials have joined the call for relief by asking Reclamation to release its 50,000 acre-foot allocation of water in Trinity Lake to improve flows for salmon.

“We don’t want to go through another catastrophe like the fish kill in 2002, and we will do anything we can to avoid that outcome this year,” said Thomas P. O’Rourke, chairman of the Yurok tribe.

Get to Know a New Water Acronym: WBR (Water by Rail)

Major railroad companies and shippers apparently have been talking for some time about transporting drinking water by train, much as they’ve been doing for years with crude oil. They “haven’t quite seen the economics work but it might in the future.”

So says none other than Matt Rose, chairman of BNSF (that’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe, one of the nation’s largest railroad companies, for those of you not familiar with train acronyms).

The key economic question is whether WBR (water by rail) can become as cheap as the bottled water consumers buy at the store, which is around $1.20 a gallon. Apparently that may be possible in the near future. But if that is the target price, it suggests alliances with the bottled water industry, not necessarily a desire to ease droughts. It also suggests WBR will never be priced competitively with tap water, which is generally less than a penny per gallon.

There are a host of other questions. Are enough tank cars available now to transport water, are they clean enough, or would new cars have to be built? Where will the water come from, who will give it up, and at what cost to the environment? How much water treatment will be required on the receiving end?

And another: What is the greenhouse-gas cost of moving water by rail. The article doesn’t discuss this. Delivering water by conventional means today already comes with a certain emissions cost, but it’s somewhat nominal in many cases compared to other emission sources. Adding hundreds (thousands?) of miles of diesel-powered rail transport would certainly change the emissions footprint of your drinking water.

Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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