Tag Archives: California

How an effective drought reshapes an urban bird community (a thesis seminar)

A few years ago we began what we hoped would be a long-term study of how urban water policy and water use by people affects the diversity and distribution of other species that share the city’s habitats with us. The “city” in question is the Fresno-Clovis metro area in California’s Central Valley, and the “we” in question refers to the multidisciplinary team I pulled together to successfully compete for one of the Urban Long-Term Research Area (ULTRA) – Exploratory Award grants given by National Science Foundation and US Forest Service. That grant was how my research directly benefited from President Obama’s stimulus package in his first term, and the relatively small two-year award came with a great deal of (eventually dashed) hope that there would be money to actually grow it into a real long-term research network.

We had a unique opportunity in Fresno-Clovis to study how human water use in cities influences biodiversity in a “found experiment” since the City of Fresno had just begun installing water meters in this quite large arid southwestern city. We were able to survey the city for birds, plants, and human perceptions of water before water metering went into effect in 2013, and stretch our NSF grant dollars to continue studying them in the years after. It has been fascinating to watch this urban ecosystem change over these years, and grapple with the challenge of tracking how people’s choices have changed and how biodiversity is changing in response to what people do in their yards and throughout the city. Our challenge became further complicated by another unplanned perturbation of water in this system: the onset and deepening of the drought over California in these recent years. The NSF grant funded a number of graduate thesis projects (and undergraduate students helping with the research) at Fresno State, and their work has opened up new questions for us to pursue, even as we look for other ways to fund the work for the long-term.

Today I am back in Fresno (having recently moved to North Carolina State University to join a new interdisciplinary faculty cluster for Leadership in Public Science, in case you missed that news) for the culmination of another Masters thesis from this project. My student Stephanie Slonka will defend her thesis today, where she has conducted the first detailed analysis of how bird species diversity and abundance have changed in Fresno-Clovis over recent years by comparing data from bird census (from the Fresno Bird Count) and habitat surveys from several years before water metering went into effect and more recent post-metering years. The increased cost of metered water combined with the drought (and calls from the California Governor) has caused people to reduce the amount of water they poured into their yards, creating a more “effective drought” with much less water available in the landscape. Meanwhile, the bird community in Fresno has also changed significantly, showing lower number of species and smaller overall population in recent post-meter/drought years compared to the pre-metering period. What does this mean? If you want an answer to that, you can come to the Fresno State campus today to hear Stephanie defend her thesis where she explores these dynamics.



A thesis defense is a landmark event both for the student and the advisor, and I am proud to see another student achieve this today. Stephanie’s thesis exit seminar will happen at 4:30PM today, in Science II, room 110. Here is her seminar flyer with further details if you wish to attend.

[scribd id=331854044]

Winter song

I love these wintry days in the Central Valley when its dirty brown air has been washed out by the infrequent (but not this winter, gracias El Niño) rain and wrung out to dry with cottonball clouds hanging as if on invisible clotheslines across an impossibly blue sky. Days like this I can even see snow on the mountains of the Sierra Nevada from my office window, pulling my gaze away from the computer screen to wander off daydreaming…

View from my office window, drawing me away from my screen to the snow-frosted mountaintops of the Sierra Nevadas in the distance. This iPhone's camera doesn't do justice to what my eye sees...you may have to squint into the middle distance to glimpse the mountains underneath the floating clouds.

View from my office window, drawing me away from my screen to the snow-frosted mountaintops of the Sierra Nevadas in the distance. This iPhone’s camera doesn’t do justice to what my eye sees…you may have to squint into the middle distance to glimpse the mountains underneath the floating clouds.

Such days I imagine were the norm in this valley a century ago, before our vehicles and agricultural industry started filling up the air with so many of our effluents as to turn this beautiful air into some of the least breathable in the nation, a murky brown veil hiding the mountains on most days of the year. Yet the people keep coming to fill up this valley, remaking it in our own industrial image, flattening the topography and bending the natural and ancient rhythms of this land and atmosphere to our will. Days like this remind me of those rhythms, of what once was, what might have been, and what could be again in this beautiful place, even as the vision of those mountains seems to melt away the grimy sealed glass pane on my office window out of which I goggle at that impossibly blue sky like a goldfish trapped in a bowl.

Urban conifers against that impossibly blue winter sky. There be Great Horned Owls in some of these trees...

Urban conifers against that impossibly blue winter sky. There be Great Horned Owls in some of these trees…

That window glass is not thick enough to keep out the occasional soft hooting of the young Great Horned Owls hidden in the branches of those conifers, where they were raised a summer ago. And this morning, as I stepped out onto the external staircase, I was startled by the liquid burbling notes of a song that is common throughout the spring and summer around here, but shouldn’t be so loud so early in the year. A House Finch was sitting high up in one of the trees singing his heart out against a background humming with the urban noises of building atmospheric devices and traffic in the distance, and roaring with an occasional airplane flying over.

Looking out east from his high perch, I wonder if the House Finch noticed the snow on the mountains, or heard the chirping of the winter migrants in the trees nearby, but even if he did, these weren’t enough to dissuade him from following whatever internal hormonal clock was telling him it was time to start singing to attract a mate. Already, and it isn’t even the middle of January yet. Global warming, is it, or just the local warming effect from the urban heat island? No matter, this boy is already serenading the ladies about the bountiful spring to come.

Meanwhile, the chipping sounds you hear at the end of the sound clip above might well be the mild panic setting into the heart of the migrant Yellow-Rumped Warbler foraging in the branches nearby, perhaps wondering if it was time to leave its winter ground already even though the air felt cold and the clouds spoke of more rain to come.

Its been a topsy turvy winter (or a few) in California, and living in these disconnected urban landscapes beneath the gaze of those parched snow-covered mountains must be discombobulating even to the wild creatures trying to make this ever stranger land their home. I know the feeling well.

On exploring the familiar and not taking nearby places for granted

Yosemite Tree MilkyWay

The Milky Way fights the rising dawn behind an ancient tree in Yosemite National Park. Photo credit: Shawn Reeder.

Nightfall in Yosemite! One of those images I wish I had made, to go with my recent post riffing off of Meera’s post on Asimov’s Nightfall

This image is one of thousands from Yosemite National Park seen through the lens of Shawn Reeder over a 2-year period, which he has stitched together into a remarkable time-lapse video showcasing that iconic national park in a range of light:

[vimeo 40802206]
Yosemite Range of Light from Shawn Reeder on Vimeo.

Watching videos like this one, or even images similar to ones in the video, I am filled with a mixture of wonder and longing and regret. That last for the fact that I’ve been living within a couple of hours’ drive away from Yosemite, but haven’t managed to really see as much of the place as I would like to, as I really should. For we live close enough to Yosemite that on those rare winter/spring days when rain has washed out the valley’s dirty air and strung it up to dry in the clear morning light, I can even see the tops of the park’s mountains right from our campus.

We go there periodically, of course, Kaberi and I with our girls, and often with friends visiting from out of town, because one of the ways to sell Fresno to outsiders is to tell them how close we are to Yosemite (and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks too)! So we visit every once in a while, have even camped out for several days on end, loving every minute of every trip there, and always coming back wondering why we don’t go more often! After all, back in college where I was into rock climbing, I dreamt of climbing in Yosemite while poring over pictures of El Capitan and Half Dome in books borrowed from the American Center Library in Bombay. Yet, now that I live so near the place, rock climbing itself has receded into a distant memory! Alas and alack!

So why don’t we go there more often?

Oh, we have our excuses: the exigencies of life on the tenure track at a teaching heavy institution, with young children, children too young at first for serious outdoor outings, then too busy with school and extra-curricular activities to find the time for even day-trips, and also, sometimes, often, the financial constraints of a single-salaried professorial life. Our weekends never seem free enough when school is in session, and we’re always trying to travel to more distant places during breaks, when we are done recovering from the exhaustion of the school year. Because, there is always that other thing, you know, where we keep thinking we can always go to Yosemite/Sequioa/Kings Canyon because they are right here, so nearby that we can go anytime, and therefore of course we end up not going there much at all. Familiarity / proximity breeding not contempt but a certain taking-for-grantedness of the sort which makes us neglect our loved ones until sometimes it is too late, and we are left with nothing but regret at opportunities lost, moments never enjoyed because we were too busy chasing distant mirages to notice the beauty so close to hand.

But really, how well do these mundane earthly excuses hold up against the transcendental magnificence of the mountains and the trees and the stars and the skies so within our reach, almost outside our doorstep? Can we not cut down / skip out occasionally on the seemingly all-weekend-consuming treadmills of grocery shopping/cleaning house/chores/grading papers/writing exams for us academic grownups, and soccer/waterpolo/dance/music/orchestra for our kids? Even as we share the growing lament for childhoods lost and alienated from nature, the so-called Nature Deficit Disorder, amid the over-scheduling of our children’s lives, and the hours they must spend poring over screens (for schoolwork as much as for edutainment), it is hard to free ourselves from the anxieties of modern parenthood, of the dread over their futures if they don’t have so many lines of extra-curricular activities, and leadership, and initiative, and engagement outside the classroom, to fill their little CVs so they can hope to qualify for the college of our dreams! Oh fuss and bother! Will they be OK if they don’t do all these extra things and fill their weekends and every waking moment with different structured activities to round out their broad educations and nurture all their talents?

But, will they be OK if they miss out on building a connection with nature instead? Will it really do them much harm if they give the old football game or orchestra performance a miss to instead go scramble up a boulder or splash through a stream or hug a giant tree? I daresay they will likely be all the better for having the taken the time to commune with this magnificent nature right here at our doorstep. Just as much as they have been better for missing school for an entire semester this year to travel (during my sabbatical) to the magnificently ruggedly austere landscapes of Spiti in the trans-Himalaya, for instance, among other places in India. They loved being in Spiti so much, despite being outside cellphone and internet range, these kids of the iPad age, that they didn’t even notice or mind when we got stuck in them mountain villages for an extra 10 days when roads got blocked after some heavy rains downstream (I wrote about it here and at The Nature of Cities). They were loath to leave Spiti then, and are now torn about returning to Fresno, to their much-missed friends, and the normal routines of school life there after months of travel and living out of suitcases.

This video, and others from Yosemite, though, have me thinking, resolving, that it won’t do for us to keep ignoring those mountains when we get back. My mother used to sneak us out of school occasionally, ostensibly for “family functions”, but really because she wanted to take us to a matinee showing of the latest Bollywood flick. Seems to me it would be well worth remembering that tactic, to pull our girls out of some of their weekend structured activities, and take them to Yosemite, and Sequoia, and Kings Canyon, and places in between, so they can get to know these places intimately, and remember them, and cherish them, and make them their own. I have shown them the milky way high up in the Himalaya. I want them to know that it is well within their reach closer to their home too.

Join us if you can, if you need a reason to visit Fresno: we’re right at the doorstep to Yosemite! And for those of you who are unable to make the trip, I hope the above video gives you enough glimpses of beauty.

And if the night seems to get too dark, here are Yosemite’s night skies:

[youtube ZhgR3zVfo-0]

A thirsty city of the American West meters itself to save water

My most recent contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (see my previous essays in the archives) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition a few weeks ago. The audio is available in the archives. In this commentary, I congratulated Fresno on completing the installation of home water meters, and exhorted fellow Fresnans to turn off their sprinklers and learn how to grow a beautiful garden while saving water. Since today is World Water Day, in what is also the International Year of Water Cooperation, I am posting the transcript of my commentary here as well


The Moral Is 2012-2013          KVPR (February 2013

Written by Madhusudan Katti, Associate Professor of Biology, CSU Fresno

Congratulations Fresno! You are no longer an anachronism. Though rather late to the party, Fresno ushered in 2013 by turning over a huge environmental leaf with the announcement that every home in the city now had a water meter installed. So let us congratulate Fresno for joining other Valley cities in taking an important step towards better environmental stewardship!

Many Fresnans had already started seeing changes in their water bills that now show the actual amount of water consumed in the household, and the charge per gallon. For decades, Fresno (alongside our state capitol Sacramento) had been a peculiar holdout, stubbornly refusing to even measure its water use, let alone to make residents pay accordingly. This frontier mentality had us living in a semidesert ecosystem (defined as one receiving between 10-16 inches of rainfall annually) but consuming more water than most American cities: over 300 gallons per person per day! 

Our profligate use of water allowed us to grow lush landscapes of lawns shaded by trees to evoke ancestral homelands in wetter places. Never mind that we were depleting the valley’s ground water even as our city continued to sprawl. As a recent study from Fresno State found (full disclosure: I am the lead investigator of this project), most of us living here are aware at some level that we live in a dry part of the world. Indeed the lack of heavy rainfall or snowfall may be part of the region’s draw! Yet, most of us also want big lawns where our children can play, and a variety of thirsty trees to shade our yards and homes in the summer.

How do we square this circle then, between our desire for personal landscapes of remembered lushness, and the reality of depleting water resources in the desert we inhabit? We can begin by recognizing the inherent incompatibility. The city, under duress from state and federal agencies, has taken the first big step towards better stewardship of our water supply. We residents can respond in two ways: complain about the suddenly high price of our expansive lawns; or rethink our landscape and its place in local ecology, and transition to water-wise yards that can provide most of the same aesthetic and recreational benefits as before, but less thirstily. Many of us are already doing this, and the new water bills will encourage more to explore alternatives. Let us make this an opportunity to find creative ways to ensure the long-term sustainability of our water supply while making our own habitats friendlier to nature.

Fresno’s water conundrum is a microcosm of humanity’s frayed relationship with nature. The Earth is overcrowded compared to a century ago, but the bigger problem is that each one of us now consumes far more resources (or wants to) than a generation ago. Our very economic model is based on perpetual growth, which is at odds with a finite planet. Time for us to turn off our sprinklers and pause the growth bandwagon to repair our relationship with nature, to stop being mere consumers and become stewards of planet Earth.

For The Moral Is, this is Madhusudan Katti

“Gardening is my graffiti”

…says South Central LA's guerrilla gardening artist Ron Finley about his project to make his neighborhood's food desert into a living breathing healthy food oasis by painting the soil canvas of its vacant lots into beautiful vegetable gardens that can nourish the body and soul of his community. Are you ready to join the new urban gangsta movement, and pick up a shovel?

[youtube EzZzZ_qpZ4w]

Reconciliation ecology and the soul of a university (a radio essay)

My reading of the following essay will be broadcast as part of the series “The Moral Is” (to which I have been contributing for a year now) on Valley Public Radio today, July 3, 2012, during the local morning program Valley Edition between 9-10 AM (rebroadcast at 7PM). Tune in online here if you get the chance. At some point in the future, it will be available in the archives, and I will post a link here when it does. In the meantime, here is the text of my essay (adapted from my open letter to President Welty in the wake of the recent deforestation on our campus) in its original form – it was condensed just a little bit to make it radio-worthy. I hope you find my voice is at least as suited as my face for radio…

Fall colors in the now deforested Lot J

A view of gorgeous fall colors in the urban forest on our campus that was cut down last month to create more parking spaces

Is a university more than a collection of buildings where classes are held so students can get their money’s worth of diplomas? To whom does a public university belong: the faculty and students who live and work there and make it their community, or administrators and politicians who control the fate of a campus with top-down decisions? Does a university have a soul, and if it does, how do we protect and nurture it during economically difficult times? Does a university have a responsibility to model, on its own campus, some of the solutions to the difficult challenges facing society?

I ponder these questions as a tenured faculty member at California State University, Fresno – also known by its new brand name as “Fresno State”. The adoption of that brand, with a logo that no one likes, is symbolic of how out-of-touch our upper administration is with much of the campus community. Campus leaders created a more visible and tragic symbol recently when they literally tore a chunk of life out of campus by chopping down a mature urban forest to expand parking. This was a massive failure from our university at multiple levels: failure to consult with the campus community before cutting down 200 mature trees; and lack of any broader vision for building a sustainable green campus as a model for urban development. Deforestation to expand parking on a campus recently added to Princeton Review’s list of Green Campuses seriously undermines Fresno State’s credibility. I am also deeply hurt because the deforestation destroyed a significant part of my outdoor research and teaching laboratory.

I study and teach Reconciliation Ecology, a multidisciplinary approach to reconcile human development with biodiversity conservation on our overcrowded planet. I work with policy makers, planners, and citizens to find ways to soften our environmental impact while improving quality of life for humans. Our campus provides primary field study sites. Students do original research here, including in the now deforested parking lots. We document how these seemingly barren urban spaces support many wildlife species, including federally protected migratory birds; the Fox Squirrel, a campus mascot celebrated during Squirrel Week; Great Horned Owl, Peregrine Falcon, and other birds of prey living on campus. Their habitats now stand bereft of the tree canopy that provided valuable resources. How do I teach reconciliation ecology if we cannot practice even a modicum of reconciliation on our own campus?

The need for more parking when we are curtailing enrollment is curious, and this approach shows a complete lack of ecological foresight. Was it really necessary to cut down 200 mature trees, which fix carbon, provide shade, habitat, and psychological benefits, to add 600 parking spots? When the whole world is looking for ways to reduce our carbon footprint, and when most urban dwellers are increasingly disconnected with nature, must we really cut down an urban forest to encourage more driving?

The leaders who navigate our campus through extremely difficult financial times must not overlook the ramifications of decisions thrust upon an increasingly alienated and demoralized academic community. A little more respect for the views of faculty and students who care deeply about this university, a little more compassion towards the environment and other organisms who share our campus, and a little more ecological smarts to soften the hard edges of our campus’s physical and psychological footprint will go a long way towards making the difficult times ahead more bearable. It can also turn adversities into opportunities for genuine leadership in building a truly sustainable campus for the long-term future of this century-old university. After all, the university lies at the heart of both, our intellectual and environmental commons, and nurtures the soul of our entire community.

Preserving working ranchland and habitats in the Sierra foothills


That report aired on the local ABC affiliate TV station last Friday. Visit the Sierra Foothill Conservancy website to learn more about the important work they are doing in these parts of California.

Fresno Audubon presents: “San Joaquin Kit Fox – Conserving A Valley Native” | Tuesday, Nov 9

San Joaquin Kit Fox – Conserving A Valley Native

Tuesday, November 9 – 7:30 p.m – Programs held at the University of California Center, 550 East Shaw Avenue(across from Fashion Fair Mall)

The San Joaquin kit fox is one of many endangered species inhabiting the San Joaquin Valley. Kit fox numbers have been reduced to a fraction of their historic levels, primarily due to the conversion of kit fox habitat to agricultural, urban, and industrial uses. Despite its diminutive size, the kit fox is the largest of the many listed species in the Valley. Thus, it is an icon for endangered species conservation in the Valley and serves as an “umbrella” species in conservation efforts. In this talk, Brian Cypher will review the species’ life history and current status, and describe some of the recent efforts being conducted to conserve and recover this species. In addition to the efforts on the part of humans, he’ll describe how the kit fox may be using its own adaptability to help itself!

Brian Cypher is the Associate Director and a Research Ecologist with the California State University – Stanislaus, Endangered Species Recovery Program. His primary research interest is the ecology and conservation of wild canids. His research experience includes work on wolves, coyotes, gray foxes, red foxes, kit foxes, and island foxes. Since 1990, he has been involved in research and conservation efforts for endangered San Joaquin kit foxes and other sensitive species in the San Joaquin Valley of California. He is also a co-editor of the recently released book Urban Carnivores: Ecology, Conflict, and Conservation (purchase it on Amazon or direct from the publisher via this discount order form). 

Download the flyer below:

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Cyborgs and avatars against Prop 23 in California?!

I’m not quite sure what to make of this ad, especially the hilarity at the end… but I suppose it might have some sway over the masses who poured big bucks into Cameron’s coffers for his fantastical treatment of the white man’s burden of environmental problems on a fictional planet. Maybe doing that gave him enough cachet to pontificate about real life environmental issues. Maybe he can buy more cachet by spending some of the avatar bucks on campaigns like this. Whatever.

What do you think?

Why must more species go extinct so we can harvest “green” solar energy?

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/16067454 w=500&h=283]

Raw unedited interview with ecologist Jim Andre, Director, Granite Mountains Desert Research Center at University of California, on the dangers posed to the Mohave Desert ecosystem from Large Solar Development. Focusing on the Ivanpah Valley. ©2010 Robert Lundahl, Freshwater Bay Pictures, LLC.

Solar Gold is funded by people, not corporations. Contribute here: indiegogo.com/​Solar-Gold

Hat-tip to Chris Clarke who continues to fight the fight to save the Mojave from these “green” energy projects where even many big environmental organizations have failed to really stand up on behalf of biological diversity against those who would destroy what little remains in novel ways that are even more insidious for being garbed in green.