Tag Archives: water

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.

Is drought a natural disaster in a desert? Only if you’ve buried your head in the sands of the Cadillac Desert

Just saw this post by Tom Yulsman on Discover blogs:

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation made an historic announcement today: It is cutting its water releases from Lake Powell to their lowest levels since the giant reservoir on the Colorado River began to fill in the 1960s.

Thanks to increasing demand for Colorado River water, and decreasing supply resulting from profound drought, Lake Powell has dropped to less than half full. To help slow the decline,  the Bureau of Reclamation will reduce the amount of water Lake Powell releases downstream toward Lake Mead in 2014 by almost 1 million acre-feet. (An acre-foot is roughly the amount of water a U.S. household uses in a year.

But that means Lake Mead, the other giant hydrological savings bank on the river — and the supplier of 90 percent of the water used by Las Vegas — could be headed for even more serious trouble in coming years.

That prospect has prompted the water czar for southern Nevada to float the idea of asking for federal disaster assistance to cope with dwindling water supplies. Quoted in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Pat Mulroy, head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, compared the drought and its effects to Hurricane Sandy, which inundated large parts of the Northeast in fall of 2012:

“This is as much an extreme weather event as Sandy was on the East Coast. Does a drought not rise to the same level as a storm? The potential damage is just as bad.”

I started to write a comment there, found it turning rather long, so figured I might as well share my thoughts here.

This news should make it clearer that our mortgage payment on all the thoughtless and heedless development in the Cadillac Desert (Marc Reisner’s evocative phrase) which is based on borrowing resources from nature without finding ways to replenish them, is now due (or overdue). And so we have to figure out a way to back out of the ongoing unsustainable development of cities and farms throughout the US southwest.

It is interesting to think of Vegas seeking federal disaster relief assistance to deal with this water crisis, although I’m not sure what federal dollars can do if the natural water supply itself is dwindling. What do those seeking federal assistance have in mind for the money they may get from taxpayers elsewhere? Is it for changing the landscape and nature of development to reduce water use, or to put in more/longer straws deeper down into the reservoir so we can suck it dry faster? Does this request for federal disaster relief funds also mean that we are acknowledging that Vegas itself (and other cities like it) is a man-made disaster, not this decade-long drought which is part of what happens in desert regions?

Yulsman also links to this time-lapse animation of satellite images from Google’s Earth Engine to show the dramatic growth of Las Vegas over the past 3 decades, mirrored (in a manner of speaking) in the shrinking waters of Lake Mead over the same time period. Here’s the last frame of this animation, from 2012:

Vegas Landsat timelapse 1024x558

Does that look like a natural disaster to you? Or more like the not-so-gradual unfolding of a man-made disaster? One that anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the ecology of the region should have anticipated, but no one in any position of power thought to stop or even slow down. And now, after a decade-long drought (which, in a desert, is a surprise to whom, exactly?), we are being asked to treat the completely foreseeable (Cadillac Desert was published in 1993!) water shortage as a natural disaster on par with Hurricane Sandy, and therefore deserving of federal assistance?

While some of the socioeconomic effects of droughts may be similar to those of storms, in as much as they inconvenience the conduct of business as usual, our response to drought cannot be the same because there are fundamental ecological differences between these natural phenomena. It is possible (if ill advised) to recover from storms and hurricanes by rebuilding infrastructure and houses, and to pick up the pieces. It is also possible to redesign those cities with architectural and engineering solutions that might increase resilience to future storms. Many civilizations/nations have managed to survive / thrive in hurricane-prone areas for long periods of time throughout history, because those disasters, while causing damage, do not fundamentally reduce the amount of natural resources available for our use; if anything the heavy rainfalls can actually enhance the fertility of the regions for agriculture. Prolonged droughts, which are characteristic of desert regions, on the other hand, have a tendency to wipe out civilizations that build up beyond their natural resource means. The very name of Phoenix, Vegas’ big brother to the east and rival to the affections of Colorado river water, is testimony to cities past that have crumbled in the desert.

Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, many smaller cities, as well as major farm areas like Imperial Valley, have all flourished over the past half a century owing largely to dams and canals and pipes that have allowed us to harness and redistribute water across the entire region in defiance of natural hydrological cycles. Did we really think we could get away with this forever without paying some cost? If we build cities and farms that consume more water than is naturally available (remember why these parts are called deserts!), it is inevitable that we will face such “disasters”, and once the rivers and aquifers are sucked dry, we won’t really have anywhere else to turn. The American Southwest is littered with archaeological sites that are testimony to such overreach by past civilizations which eventually bit the proverbial dust in these deserts.

We really have to face up to that long-term history and the ecological reality of living in and building a civilization in a desert region. There is no way to sustain any city in the long run if its water footprint exceeds the natural supply, however many straws we stick into the aquifers. Any long-term solution has to incorporate serious changes to the nature of development in the region, which must reduce water use and incorporate better ways to conserve water and try to replenish the aquifer instead of continuing to grow as these cities have been doing for some decades now.

I rather doubt that’s what they have in mind for the federal disaster relief dollars: a rethink and reorientation of the entire pattern of development in the region, with the goal of actually halting further growth and bringing our use of natural resources back in line with the natural rate of replenishment of those resources. If society intends federal disaster relief funds to mitigate the effects of such disasters and to try to prevent their recurrence, I have a humble suggestion for Las Vegas: use the funds to shut down or move the casinos and golf courses and other excessively thirsty unsustainable businesses (and the people working in those sectors) out of the area. That would be a good start towards avoiding future disasters, no?

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

War correspondence for The Nature of Cities

A few months ago, while attending the 2012 Urban Biodiversity and Design Conference in Bombay, I met David Maddox of Sound Science, an organization he co-founded in 2004. David is an urban ecologist and conservationist who opted out of academia and is doing great things for urban conservation, adaptive management, and science communication. He recently put together a fine online portal for wide-ranging essays about nature in the city on this semi-urban planet of ours: The Nature of Cities blog. As David says though, this has already become rather more of a platform for longer-form essays about urban ecology than a typical blog – and that I think is a very fine thing thing. He has done an excellent job of bringing together a great (and still growing) group of writers from around the world—urban ecologists of every stripe from academics to activists, designers to planners to economists—who are sharing their insights and perspectives on what nature means in this urban world.

After some terrific discussions—including on a long bus ride where we sat together in the evening traffic winding our way past Dharavi to the Cricket Club of India for dinner—David invited me to join The Nature of Cities as a regular contributor. I am honored to be part of this collective through which David is curating a veritable archive of contemporary thought in urban ecology. Whether I bring anything of value to this conversation… well, you be the judge. My first contribution to the blog, where I don the hat of a frontier correspondent reporting about water use and abuse in Fresno based on my group’s research, went up this past Sunday. It is a much longer essay than my average blog post here, but worth your while, I hope. Allow me to lead you on with this teaser graphic:

Urban Water Use in the Cadillac Desert

Do leave a comment below the post (or here – but better there) if so moved. And don’t forget to bookmark / subscribe to The Nature of Cities!

Let go of that lawn to welcome some life into your suburban yards

Here is a neat video illustrating how wonderful it can be to convert our yards into ecosystems rich in biodiversity – richer certainly than the manicured lawns that dominate most suburban landscapes. Imagine converting most of that lawn acreage – estimated to be 4x the acreage of corn making lawns the number one irrigated crop in the continental US – into native wildlife-friendly habitats!

Imagine your yard looking and sounding and smelling and feeling like this:

How much more local biodiversity would we be able to support within our increasingly suburban landscape? How many ecosystem services and positive environmental externalities could our suburbs generate? By supporting healthier populations of honeybees, for example, which might go pollinate crops in the surrounding agricultural landscape, and maybe give you some delicious local honey to boot, especially if we give them more beautiful flowers from which to sip! That’s a joy already being experienced by urban apiarists even in megacities, who would no doubt appreciate more flowers for their hardworking bees.

And how much water would we save, especially out here in the arid southwest? After all, water wise yards are also biodiversity friendly yards, which is why we are trying to promote them in the suburban sprawl of California’s Central Valley.

It is high time you let go of that lawn, and welcome some more life into your yards too.

Archaeologist Brian Fagan to visit Fresno State this week (and a repost)

I just learnt that archaeologist and writer Brian Fagan is visiting my campus this week – tomorrow (Mar 6) in fact – but I will miss his visit! I’ve been wanting to bring him to Fresno for some time now – and here I am stuck in Mumbai when he does actually arrive on campus! If you are on Fresno and reading this, please do go to his talk on the Fresno State campus tomorrow. Here’s more info on the event, which is open to the public:


Meanwhile, since I won’t be able to participate in the event, let me at least throw in my tuppence remotely, by sharing something I had written about him a few years ago. The following is a repost:

“This is a very serious issue, in fact…”

“… that’s why you’re on this show!”

That was perhaps the most ironic exchange between Brian Fagan (who said the first part) and Jon Stewart (who came back with the swift self-deprecating retort) tonight on The Daily Show where Fagan came on to talk about his new book “The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations“. The Daily Show’s promo blurb for today’s show had a link to Fagan’s blog, where he wrote this interesting post about the forecasts of prolonged droughts in some parts of the world being the silent elephants in the climate change discussion. And it was when he was discussing that very point when the above ironic exchange occurred during the interview (look for it @ 3:35 min in the video below the fold) – a double dose of irony if you will!

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Brian Fagan
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

Meanwhile, I was touched by another post discussing the Indian monsoon in a historical context, with the opening making me ache for my favorite season of the year back home:

“The peacocks danced at eventide”, wrote the sixth-century Indian writer Subdandhu of the onset of the monsoon. The monsoon is much more than a matter of meteorology in India and Pakistan. The very fabric of human existence unfolds around two seasons–the wet and the dry. The wet season brings warm, moist conditions and heavy rain, carried by the monsoon winds blowing inland from the ocean. The other half of the year, the arid season, enjoys cool, dry air from the north. The coming of the monsoon is a highlight of the year to those who suffered through the buildup after the pleasant winter months–weeks of torrid heat. Colonel Edward Tennant of the British East India Company wrote in 1886: “The sly, instead of its brilliant blue, assumes the sullen tint of lead. . . . The days become overcast and hot, banks of clouds rise over the ocean to the west. . . . At last the sudden lightning flash among the hills, and shoot through the clouds that overhang the sea, and with a crash of thunder the monsoon bursts over the hungry land.” My father was a civil servant in the British Raj in the Punjab during the 1920s. Even in his extreme old age, he could vividly recall the most epochal day of the year, when India became cold and grey, like distant England.

Trust me, it is actually quite unlike England, being grey, yes, but definitely not cold – but rather invitingly cool after a blazing hot summer! Oh how I miss the march of those grey clouds across the Bombay coastline…

Fagan goes on to describe the discovery of correlations between the Indian monsoon and El Nìno events in the Pacific…

Generations of meteorologists have tried to forecast monsoons, notable among them Sir Gilbert Walker, a brilliant statistician with a passion for flutes and atmospheric pressure, who is remembered for his discovery of the Southern Oscillation, the driving force behind El Nino and its opposite cousin, La Nina. There is now fairly general Agreement that monsoon failures sometimes, but not invariably, coincide with El Nino conditions in the Pacific, as was the case with the terrible famine and monsoon failure of 1875-6, which killed tens of thousands and ravaged at least a third of Bengal.

… before adding some strong words about the historical context of the famine and the culpability of the British empire:

While much of India starved, the British Raj was busy exporting grain to the world market. Meanwhile, the Viceroy, the eccentric and erratic Lord Lytton, who happened to be Queen Victoria’s favorite poet, was preoccupied with a gigantic durbar in Delhi, which included a week-long feast for 68,000 maharajahs and officials. An English journalist estimated that at least 100,000 rural farmers perished during the festivities, which were designed to be gaudy enough to impress the orientals”. Lytton’s shameful famine policy was one of laissez faire. The historian Mike Davis, whose book Late Victorian Holocausts should be required reading for every historian of the nineteenth century, estimates that at least 20-30 million tropical farmers perished during that century as a result of drought, famine, and famine-related diseases.

And as Fagan rounds off with an alarm bell about how future wars will be fought over water even as we waste our current resources on unnecessary wars while avoiding facing the real problems looming ahead, I’m reminded of the Indian journalist P. Sainath’s powerful book Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts.

Abstract of my ESA 2011 talk today

If you are reading this blog, and are at ESA, allow me a shameless plug and invite you to my talk in the Urban Stewardship symposium (which I’m co-organizing) this morning at 10:00 AM in Ballroom G. I will be in that room throughout the day as the morning symposium is followed by part two in the afternoon – so even if you can’t attend the talk, but are intrigued by my study, please come and find me.

Here’s the abstract of my talk – I will upload the slides to my slideshare account sometime soon, and will then embed it within this blog, so you’ll have the visuals.

Interactions between urban water policy, residential irrigation, and plant and bird diversity in Fresno-Clovis Metro Area


Ecological theory has begun to incorporate humans as part of coupled socio-ecological systems. Modern urban development provides an excellent laboratory to examine the interplay among socio-ecological relationships. Urban land and water management decisions result from dynamic interactions between institutional, individual and ecological factors. Landscaping and irrigation at any particular residence, for example, is a product of geography, hydrology, soil, and other local environmental conditions, the homeowners’ cultural preferences, socioeconomic status, identity construction, neighborhood dynamics, as well as zoning laws, market conditions, city policies, and county/state/federal government regulations. Since land and water management are key determinants of habitat for other species, urban biodiversity is strongly driven by the outcome of interactions between these variables. This study addresses the significance of water as a key variable in the Fresno-Clovis Metropolitan Area (FCMA), shaping current patterns of landscape and water use, at a time when the city of Fresno is installing meters as a regulatory tool to conserve water. We combine data from a citizen science bird monitoring project, field surveys of trees, and mail surveys of residents to address interactions among key components of the urban socioecological system.


We present results of multivariate analyses of bird and tree surveys to show that neighborhood income and irrigation levels interact to influence species diversity of both taxa. Data from the Fresno Bird Count found that bird species richness and functional group diversity are both strongly correlated with residential irrigation and neighborhood income levels. Tree species diversity shows a similar pattern. We examine these results to test and develop several theoretical models explaining outdoor water use behaviors, with the aim of assessing the resilience of such behaviors with the introduction of water metering in Fresno, and the resilience of urban plant and bird communities to resulting changes in water use in the landscape. We argue that socioeconomic status results from a complex interplay of cultural, economic, structural, and social-psychological factors, influencing institutional policies regarding the governance of water resources, and in turn impacts biodiversity within the urban landscape through spatial and temporal variations in water usage. This study is part of a long-term research project that examines the impacts of human water usage and water use policies on biodiversity within an urban environment.