After the 2002 drought -- till then, the dryest winter on record -- the numbers of a lot of bird species dropped off. "In some cases quite dramatically," he says. Especially in this last year, because now we've had two successive years of drought. "But some birds, like the mockingbird, which is the ultimate opportunist, were able to take advantage of the many drought-induced fires in the county, including the 2003 Cedar." That fire burned a quarter-million acres, so mockingbirds had plenty of terrain to exploit. "But there were quite a number of birds which were affected dreadfully by the fires. And their recovery after the fire has been retarded because of the drought. Birds like the California thrasher and the wrentit. Their numbers are down over the last two or three years.
"So if [as some say] the fires marked a shift to a dryer climate, then the reductions we see in those species that were sensitive to [the fires] could represent a permanent cutting back of their range and numbers." In a couple of cases, he says, local extinction is possible. "For example, the saw-whet owl. It is a species of the coniferous forest. San Diego was the southern tip of its range. And if they were wiped out of the Cuyamaca Mountains, then their range will end up retracting back toward the north."
But generally, he says, even though it's not yet time to panic, when things get dry, some birds simply stop reproducing. "I had a colleague studying chaparral birds like the rufous-crowned sparrow, the spotted towhee, the California towhee, and the wrentit. After that extremely dry winter of 2002, they basically did not nest at all. They didn't even try."
On the other hand, some species have benefited and taken advantage of the irrigated urban treescapes we have created -- the crow, Cooper's hawk, peregrine falcon, and Nuttall's woodpecker, which traditionally inhabits oak groves. Now the woodpecker's taken to town trees, such as avocados.
And if -- worst-case scenario -- repeated fires, drought, and high temperatures continue for, say, the next ten years and we become more of a desert city, Unitt can see other desert opportunists like the black-throated sparrow moving in.
What should we do to mitigate this, to help the county's birds, to retain a temperate climate? "Above all, people should be careful with fire," says Unitt. "It was very clear from our studies that in the firestorms of 2003, a lot of them didn't fly away or couldn't fly away. Especially with those fires which spread at night. That catches birds even more unaware."
Tiny Fish Causes Colossal Water Crisis
So what is the San Diego County Water Authority doing about this coming drought?
At least until the end of August, shifting deckchairs on the Titanic. An August 7 press release announcing the authority's five-year Blueprint for Water Conservation summarized the plans. "Motivating more homeowners and businesses to install low-water-use landscapes, expanding incentives for purchasing 'smart' irrigation controllers and other water-saving devices, and reducing overwatering via a sophisticated, web-based 'water budget' program are cornerstones of the San Diego County Water Authority's new five-year Blueprint for Water Conservation," said their press release. "The Blueprint is designed to help the Water Authority and its member agencies meet a 2010 conservation savings goal of 80,000 acre-feet, up from 51,000 acre-feet in 2006. To stay on course to meet the region's growing needs, the Water Authority must save 80,000 acre-feet by 2010, 94,000 acre-feet by 2020, and 108,000 acre-feet by 2030."
Then came the bombshell caused by the three-inch fish. "Federal judge orders massive cut in water supply deliveries from the Bay Delta," said the water authority's August 31 press release. "California faces unprecedented water crisis as early as 2008."
Suddenly, the San Diego County Water Authority stopped worrying about "smart" irrigation controllers and started worrying about survival. Not the delta smelt's survival but San Diego's. "Those cutbacks will be the largest curtailments ever ordered," the authority wrote. "The cutbacks are expected to last a year or more."
"We are clearly facing a serious water crisis throughout California," said Fern Steiner, chair of the water authority's board of directors, in the August 31 press release. "The water supply impacts of this court decision to San Diego County will be significant, and supply shortages and mandatory water use restrictions are a very real possibility. This decision comes on the heels of the historic dry conditions we are experiencing throughout California, which are already impacting water supplies."
San Diego's water authority kowtows to the L.A.-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies most of our Colorado River water and all of our delta water -- 76 percent of our total supply. The Metropolitan Water District (MWD), according to the water authority's press release, "could impose mandatory water supply reductions in deliveries to its member agencies, including the San Diego County Water Authority. MWD has already advised agricultural customers...to expect a 30 percent cut in those supplies beginning January 1, 2008. The final impact of the court action will not be known until the end of the upcoming 2007-2008 winter season, which will determine how much Sierra snow pack -- and water supply -- may be available next year, and how much of that supply will be curtailed because of the pumping restrictions."
The water authority assured San Diego customers that since the 1987-1992 drought, it "has invested in maximizing storage, local supply development, the Coachella and All-American canal lining projects, the water transfer from Imperial Irrigation District, conservation, and recycling." And better days are to come. "This year the water transfer and the canal linings will provide 71,500 acre-feet of reliable water. By 2011, the water transfer and canal lining projects will provide nearly 158,000 acre-feet of water. By 2021, they will provide 277,700 acre-feet annually."
Plus, said the water authority, the long-delayed seawater desalination plant in Carlsbad could be just the beginning. "The Water Authority is also exploring other potential options for a seawater desalination plant in the county." And, if you can just wait 13 years, "The Water Authority is projecting that as a result of investments by its member agencies, groundwater production will triple from 14,956 acre-feet in 2006 to 52,300 acre-feet in 2020. Similarly, recycled water usage is expected to triple from 14,828 acre-feet in 2006 to 52,300 acre-feet in 2020."