Think Global Act Local: Ojai Prepares for Climate Change
By Michelaina Johnson & Kit Soltz
Learning to Live With More Extreme Weather and Less Water
On September 25th, 2017, a limb weighing several hundred pounds fell from an elm tree onto a playground of Topa Topa Elementary School, injuring a teacher and four students. The teacher and three of the students were evacuated to hospitals; two with critical injuries and one requiring an airlift.
Ventura County Fire Department Captain Stan Ziegler said an expert arborist for the school district explained to fire officials that “a large contributing factor” was the five-year drought.
“This was not an isolated incident,” Ziegler said. “In the last few months we’ve had four or five incidents involving trees in Ojai dropping limbs without warning. Fortunately we haven’t had any other injuries in these incidents, but in one case a tree limb fell across a power line and did spark a grass fire.”
Fire and water officials, local farmers and scientists are grappling with the question of what climate change will mean for the Ojai Valley. A 2014 regional water plan warned that water supply — including greater chances for extreme droughts and floods — “will be among the most significant challenges this century.” Ecologist Nicole Molinari, who wrote a 2015 report for the Los Padres National Forest on the recent drought, was troubled but not surprised to hear that the tree dropped a huge limb.
“Gosh, that’s awful,” she said. “Unfortunately a lot of plants and trees that we consider to be stable elements in our landscape, such as the coast live oak, are really stressed right now.”
The tree limb fell a month after what weather historian Christopher Burt called “The Great California Heat Wave” felled all-time records for maximum temperatures across the state from San Francisco at 106 degrees to San Luis Obispo at 115 degrees on September 1.
Ojai recorded 110 degrees on August 30, just a small fraction under its all-time high for the date, and stayed there for three straight days. With more climate change-powered heat waves expected to hit Ojai, the Valley could face enhanced fire risk, water supply insecurity, and changes in regional plant composition.
In response to a request from the Ojai Quarterly, James Bronzan, a research analyst for Climate Central in Princeton, New Jersey, analyzed the temperature projections for Ojai.
“Over the last 20 years I found an average of 12 days a year in which Ojai had temperatures of 100 degrees or more,” he said. By 2050, the ensemble climate change models project that Ojai will have an additional 16-17 days of 100+ temperatures a year, giving the town close to three times as many extremely hot days in the future, compared to today.
Steve Sprinkel of Farmer & the Cook expressed skepticism about these projections, pointing out that scientists predicted a huge El Niño in 2016 that did not materialize as rain.
Bronzan said he has heard this complaint before.
“Seemingly it makes sense to say that if you can’t predict the weather three days out, how can you predict the climate 50 years out?” he said. “But there’s an analogy I like to use to explain this, which is that if you dump 50 rubber duckies in a river, it’s very hard to say exactly where those rubber duckies will be in five minutes, but I can darn well tell you that in an hour they’ll be way downstream. What we’re talking about with these temperature projections is not the weather of the future, but the climate, which is much more predictable.”
For ecologist Molinari, the point is that the scientists know it’s going to get hotter,
but can’t be as confident about rainfall.
“If you look at the projections they all say it’s going to be warmer in the future,” Molinari added. “But there’s a really mixed bag on which way precipitation will go.” Alexander Gershunov, a researcher at UC Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has an explanation for that uncertainty.
“It is going to get warmer and that much we’re certain about,” he said. “We don’t know whether there will be more or less precipitation on an annual basis. When we look at the daily data we see that frequency of precipitation is clearly projected to decrease, but the intensity of the most intense rain events is projected to increase. It’s a question of which of these signals will dominate the other.”
HAS OJAI ADAPTED
TO CLIMATE CHANGE?
During the heatwave of late August, many locals reported innovative methods to cope with the heat. The Little House near City Hall opened a “hydration station” for those who might need the benefit of air conditioning. At the Humane Society, Greg Cooper, Director of Community Outreach, said they made sure the dogs were safe, and even had volunteers feed the dogs “pupsicles” — icicles flavored
with peanut butter — to keep them from overheating.
Will Ojai be able to adapt to higher temperatures? “I don’t know if we’ve adapted or if we’ve become used to this kind of punishment,” said Russ Baggerly, who serves on three separate water district boards in Ojai. Mayor Johnny Johnston said that Ojai is in effect a high desert town and has always had high temperatures — once reaching 119 degreesback in 1917.
That heat wave of 100 years ago coincided with a fire outbreak in the Wheeler Hot Springs area. The Wheeler Springs-Matilija fire of June 1917 went on to burn over 28,000 acres around Ojai and destroyed most of downtown, killing five people.
This was the first of four catastrophic forest fires in the last 100 years of Ojai history. One of them — the Matilija Fire of September 1932 — became one of the largest wildfires in recorded state history, burning for 11 days and
destroying more than 220,000 acres of brush
amidst a severe drought.
“Ojai is like the rest of the state,” said Jon Keeley of the US Geological Survey. “It’s susceptible to large high-intensity fires, and it always has been. We’ve had these kind of fires for probably 15 million years. What’s changed is that they’re much more damaging to humans now and humans are the primary cause of that, because there are more of us, and we’re spread out over a larger areat, and there are greater numbers of ignition sources.”
HOW WILL HIGHER TEMPERATURES
AFFECT FIRES IN OJAI?
Since the Wheeler Springs-Matilija fire of 1917, Ojai’s population has grown more than sevenfold with more homes and infrastructure, meaning more risk of loss in a blaze. A Forest Service report on climate change impacts on the Los Padres National Forest cites two studies that predict an upsurge of 10 percent to 35 percent in large fire risk in California by midcentury and an increase up to 2.5 times of current levels in Southern California shrublands, which dominate Ojai’s backcountry.
Higher temperatures will not directly cause more wildfires but will enhance fire frequency and size and, together with extended dry conditions, will elevate fire risk in historically low fire seasons, such as April and May.
Extended droughts could increase evapotranspiration and reduce plant moisture, making vegetation better fire fuel. Calfire projects a 300 percent increase in the risk of enhanced frequency of fire outside of urban centers by 2050 due to climate change,
“We think with long-term droughts the dieback of vegetation enhances the spread of spot fires, especially during high winds,” said wildfire expert Keeley. “Embers are too small a source to ignite most fuels in most conditions, but after a long-term drought you get a lot of dieback and a greater probability of ignition.”
Regional vegetation is also predicted to become more flammable. Since shrublands are projected to continue to convert to grasslands, fires may become more frequent and larger in the Southern California National Forests, warns the Forest Service report. Consequences include less usable water supply and reduced water quality due to increased erosion plus accelerated runoff in burned areas.
WILL OJAI HAVE ENOUGH WATER?
The Casitas Municipal Water District (CMWD) is contending with the question of how to create “new” water to bolster future water supply reliability. During the recent drought, the city’s two water supplies experienced worrisome lows: the 237,761 acre-foot capacity reservoir Lake Casitas dropped to levels not seen in 50 years while the Ojai Basin’s groundwater table fell to the fifth lowest level on record.
Part of the reason for that is the uncertainty about future precipitation in California, which “probably will continue to remain uncertain beyond the time frame we would need to adapt to negative climate change impacts,” said UC Riverside climatologist Dr. Robert Allen. His 2017 study found that, while the state will witness an increase in
Southern California will receive slightly less rain — 3.3 percent less by 2100 to be precise.
Despite the uncertainty, scientists concur that more extreme weather events, including droughts and floods, will hit California. The consequences of more severe floods range from damaged infrastructure to reduced water supply quality and reliability.
CMWD director Russ Baggerly cautioned that with climate change, “We need to increase our portfolio to make sure everyone is protected.”
The CMWD is researching two projects that would diversify the city’s water portfolio; import water from the State Water Project via the Calleguas Municipal Water District and extract groundwater from a local sandstone formation in the Santa Ynez Mountains west of Ojai. The SWP proposal would add 5,000 acre-feet to CMWD’s supply while the groundwater from the Matilija Formation would supplement several thousand acre feet to existing local supplies during dry periods.
For farmer Steve Sprinkel, the prediction of higher temperatures means water will become critical.
“If it’s true that we will see another degree or two of higher temperatures, I think a lot of success has to do with just having enough water,” he said. “As long as I keep irrigating, I can pick lettuce even in a heat wave.”
WILL FARMERS BE ABLE TO ADAPT
TO WARMER TEMPERATURES?
With increasing temperatures, more available water would help quench increasingly thirsty crops. The dominant crop in the Ojai Valley and upper Ventura River watershed is citrus; including oranges, mandarins and lemons, at about 3,000 acres. Avocados come in a distant second at around 800 acres.
The effects of climate change on avocados grown in Ojai are not known, said Ben Faber, an advisor with Ventura County’s UC Cooperative Extension. However, 2014 county water management plan warns that “changes to nighttime temperatures and seasonal water supplies would likely result in shifts in crop behavior and health.”
Dr. Mary Lu Arpaia, Subtropical Horticulturist at UC Riverside, said that “Ojai — given its unique geography — could be at greater risk” of not only higher summer temperatures and warmer winters but more extreme conditions like cold events.
Warmer temperatures and more frequent droughts will spell higher evapotranspiration and drier soil, equaling higher water demand and costs.
Conserving water is the single most important thing we can do to make a local difference
“One of the problems of growing in a place like Ojai is that there are water limitations. It’s finite and expensive,” said Faber. “If climate change means more water is required and less rainfall, most ag as we know it won’t continue there.” Increased episodes of drought and heat cause an influx of insects that threaten local crops. Since 2010, farmers in Ventura County have spent precious time and resources fighting the Asian citrus psyllid, which feeds on citrus trees and can transmit a fatal disease for the crop.
Dr. Erica Kistner, who studies the psyllid, predicted that warming will speed up the psyllid’s development time and life cycle (i.e. generations per year) though this is dependent on the availability of citrus leaves in a given region. “For example,” she explained, “citrus orchards situated in higher elevation sites (like Ojai) with cooler temperatures may experience greater increases in [psyllid] densities under climate change compared to lower elevation sites that are already very favorable for (psyllid) growth.”
Local organic grower Jim Churchill said that his concern about climate change takes a backseat to the immediate threats to crop yield like the psyllid and the drought. Other Ojai agriculturalists shared this sentiment.
“Growers aren’t collectively attempting to develop plans for coping with climate change,” said the chief executive officer of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County, John Krist, when asked about the farming community’s perspective on climate change. “It’s too difficult to predict how warming will affect crop production in the short term, and that’s the time horizon over which they make decisions about what to plant and where. They’ll do what they have always done — adapt as conditions change.”
HOW TO PROTECT OJAI’S NATURAL GEMS?
When Brian Stark, who directs the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, looks out at Ojai’s backcountry, he sees change already occurring, and faster than one might expect. Exotic annual grasses and forbs are replacing coastal sage scrub and chaparral habitats in Southern California.
“What we are see is the mass readjustment of vegetation regimes, so whole ecologies will be on the move,” he said. “These plants and associated ecologies need places to go, so we need to clear the path for them, protect the path for them.”
For this reason, OVLC has prioritized land acquisitions along identified habitat corridors and waterways to protect open space from development and preserve critical water supplies for aquatic life. The OVLC currently has roughly 2,300 acres with the goal of adding 2,020 acres by 2020 in four priority conservation areas, including sustainable agricultural land and the floodplains of San Antonio Creek and the Ventura River.
“The lands we are protecting … These are the carbon sinks,” said Stark. “We are thinking globally and acting locally by protecting these areas.”
One common migration route, for instance, runs through the Sulphur Mountain area, across Highway 33 in Casitas Springs, up the Ventura River watershed and into the Los Padres National Forest system.
Rising temperatures favor invasive species on both land and water, displacing native species, including the steelhead trout. This endangered fish will suffer from reduced summer flows that result in smaller or dried up pools.
“Our fish are our indicator of how we are managing our watershed,” said Paul Jenkin, Surfrider Foundation’s Ventura campaign coordinator. “Our resilience to climate change is kinda reflected in that.”
Resilience in this context is a measure of how a species is able to adapt to change it cannot avoid. Ojai farmers, ecologists, and water and land managers are not in existential peril, as is the Southern Coast Steelhead, but they are working to see a future in which we not only survive, but thrive.
“It’s going to get warmer, but how much warmer depends on different parameters, including in particular what humanity does or doesn’t do collectively to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Alexander “Sasha” Gershunov at Scripps. “I guess what worries me is that there’s plenty of evidence that climate change is occurring, yet it seems that many people and politicians require some dangerous extreme to motivate discussion about what needs to be done.”