The Long-term Impact On California’s Drought-stressed Big Trees

Water is a necessity that is common to almost all life. Times of drought create hardship across the ecological gamut. While the conveniences of modern life can somewhat insulate us from the impact of a drought, there is actually a benefit to reaching towards a perspective of interconnectedness. We are ultimately connected with our environment, not separate from it, so damage to one area affects all others.

Last spring, Governor Brown imposed the first mandatory water restrictions in California’s history, as we entered the 4th year of drought. Economic ramifications have been far-reaching, especially for large and small-scale farmers who supply a large percentage of the nation’s food crops. It’s also spurring landscaping changes for homeowners, who are letting go of lawns and high-water landscapes in favor of drought-resistant California natives. But what’s happening from a wider ecological perspective?

Plants and wild animals are feeling the stress. Wild animals are drawn out of their native environments and into urban and suburban areas in search of water. The stress weakens plant and animal immune systems, leaving them more susceptible to disease and pest infestation.

Trees may take the longest to show symptoms. As Theron Jones, Benicia Parks Supervisor, points out, “anything that happens to a tree happens in slow motion.” Trees metabolize nutrients in a much different way than humans.

We may take the trees in our environment for granted for the beauty and shade that they provide, but trees are also responsible for creating a hospitable breathing environment for us. According to the US Department of Agriculture, “One acre of forest absorbs six tons of carbon dioxide and puts out four tons of oxygen. This is enough to meet the annual needs of 18 people.” They also improve air quality, the climate, preserve soil and support the ecosystems they are part of.

Valley Public Radio cites a shocking US Forest Service survey from April showing that in the Southern Sierra, one of the areas of the state hit hardest by the dry weather, 20 percent of the 4.1 million acres of trees were dead. Some of the most iconic trees in California, the Giant Sequoias, are showing severe signs of stress.

Closer to home, the Sequoias’ relatives, the coastal redwoods, are also suffering. Jones says, “It’s been a double hit with redwoods. They’re used to getting a lot of their water through the air. We haven’t had a lot of moisture in the air. That coupled with a loss of ground water is causing lots of stress. We’re seeing a browning or graying of the leaves—the leaves aren’t as supple and soft as usual.”

Trees in town, says Jones, are showing advanced signs and symptoms of drought stress. Benicia is home to many Monterey pines, which, in their immune-compromised state, are becoming more susceptible to pine pitch canker, a virulent and incurable fungal disease that’s transmitted between trees by beetles. 17 California counties are currently infected across the length of the state. While Monterey pines are the most susceptible, the blight has also been found in eight other species.

Although 2016 is predicted to be an El Niño year, this drought will have already changed the ecological face of our great state, and it will be years before the full effects unfold. In the face of such grave changes, it can be an instinct to bury ourselves in the many demands and distractions that make up the fabric of our lives, ignoring the struggle of life around us. So what can we do to change it?

On the practical level, take care of mature trees on your property. Make sure they stay watered—lawns and shrubs can be easily replaced but trees take much longer to mature. If you have concerns about your trees, call a certified arborist to do an inspection—they can give a detailed report and recommendation. With the coming rain, Jones says, “People need to be observant—look at the ground around tree. If the ground is raised after the rain and the tree begins to lean, call an arborist immediately.

While the greater forces at play in our climate and environment may be out of our control, we do have power over how we interact with the ecosystem we are part of. Research increasingly shows that plants and trees exhibit complex neurological responses, work together with other plants and organisms, and are even capable of exhibiting emotional responses. If the old adage, “treat people the way you want to be treated,” were expanded to “treat life the way you want to be treated,” then showing a little love and TLC to the plants and trees that surround us could do a great deal of good.

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