What We Can Learn from the California Drought

Over the past three weeks, continued rain and snow across California has, almost miraculously, lifted nearly half of the state out of drought. That's a huge improvement from last February, when more than 95% of the state was listed as being in some form of drought. Large parts of the state have been under threat of extreme drought continuously for three consecutive years.

While those of us in California are thankful, counting on unreliable weather patterns to save us isn't a viable approach to preparing for, or enduring, the kind of crippling drought our state has suffered through.

However, there are some very straightforward steps that can be taken to mitigate against both drought AND flood - two conditions of which California has had its share and which are linked by the extreme weather that accompanies climate change. These measures provide the most important protections that we have against drought and flood. Both are too often overlooked and taken for granted.

The first action we can take is planting trees and increasing forest cover around farmland. Trees help manage water: on average, one large tree can lift up to 100 gallons from the ground and discharge it through the air. Trees sequester carbon, clean water along streams, attract wildlife and prevent erosion through their root systems. They conserve soil by providing nutrients as their leaves and roots decay.

That takes us to our second and most important measure: healthy soil. Its holding capacity is simply remarkable: one percent of organic matter in the top six inches of soil could hold about 27,000 gallons of water per acre, according to the USDA. Increasing organic matter in topsoil increases holding capacity, making it capable of storing 20 times its own weight in water. Healthy soil makes the land itself far more resilient to drought, flood and other forms of extreme weather.

Healthy soil is full of life. Literally. Organic material, microorganisms, bacteria, arthropods, fungi, and air and water - all these things bring life to soil. This life, this fertility, makes it possible to grow plants naturally, without additional fertilizers or other inputs. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., sustainable soil management can produce up to 58 percent more food than soil managed under prevailing monoculture agricultural practices. And, the kind of healthy soil that makes this fertility possible is also porous, allowing water and air to move through it freely, a property that increases water-holding capacity, improving the land's ability to better resist drought conditions and better work for us.

As California adjusts to its new drought status, it's absolutely critical that we learn from nature, and that we take steps toward sustainability that protect water resources and soil health. The state produces 90 percent or more of all the artichokes, walnuts, kiwis, plums, celery, and garlic, and 89% of the cauliflower grown in the US. What affects California's agriculture affects the whole country, and has global reverberations. We have a responsibility to ensure the security of food production all over the country and world, and the simplest and most effective way to do this is to care for the soil that bears all.

But soil isn't a natural resource that's very easy to come by or reproduce. According to the Nature Conservancy, it takes 2,000 years for natural processes to make 10 centimeters of fertile soil from bedrock. Because of industrial agriculture practices, erosion, and mismanagement, about 24 billion tons of topsoil are lost every year, more than three tons per person.

During the aftermath of the dustbowl, Franklin Roosevelt said, "The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself." That statement is as true today as it was more than 80 years ago. Although it's a different time, we face similar challenges related to changing climate and a lack of investment in the very land we stand upon. An ecological approach that empowers us to act more in harmony with nature will not only build up the health, resiliency, fertility and water-holding capacity of our soil, but it will increase the soil's capacity to naturally absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Drought is only a piece of the larger issue we face as more extreme weather patterns will become more common with the advent of our self-induced climate change. A natural, regenerative approach to soil holds the key to the way we adapt, mitigate against damage and make ourselves and our planet more resilient to the challenges ahead. This approach will work to reduce the impacts of climate change, strengthen our ability to produce healthy, wholesome food, and ensure the well-being of our communities.