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Fall usually brings crisp, cool weather and a landscape studded with scarlet and gold hues of changing leaves, signaling that winter is just around the corner. In California, however, the weather hasn’t cooled down. While the leaves and hills are changing color, it’s more of a dull grayish-brown rather than the vibrant colors of fall. And it’s certainly not a sign icy weather is on its way.
California has had its fair share of droughts in the past 100 years.
Graphic by Natalie Alexander
But with the expanding population and resultant water use, this new drought — which began around 2013 — has hit the state a little harder than usual. According to the 2013 U.S. census, the population of Los Angeles reached 3.858 million people, with the population density roughly 8,225 people per square mile.
That’s an increase of almost 1 percent from the last record taken of the population, with more and more people turning on their sprinklers to water lawns or hoses to wash their cars. And in a state where the agriculture operations account for roughly 75 percent of water use, it’s safe to say California is in a bit of a bind regard- ing water usage.
In San Luis Obispo, it might be hard to see how we could be so affected by this water shortage; however, the drought has already begun to affect certain aspects of San Luis Obispo, including Cal Poly’s popular slogan.
The motto “Learn By Doing” is one of the university’s most high- lighted aspects. At this school, students don’t just sit in the class- room talking about things they’ll be doing after graduation, they actually start learning them from day one.
But the California drought is affecting Cal Poly’s Learn By Doing opportunities particularly in the agriculture departments.
Cal Poly has approximately 6,000 acres of land dedicated to farming and ranching operations for the college of agriculture, as well as 3,300 acres of the Swanton Pacific Ranch in Santa Cruz County. In the past, these facilities have enabled the Learn By Doing motto by giving students hands-on experience managing ranch land and cattle production.
The drought has had some adverse effects on some students’ ability to actually get this experience.
Marc Horney, an animal science professor in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences (CAFES), has seen these effects firsthand. As a rangeland operator, Horney runs the cattle enterprise which allows students to learn how to manage land as well as the cattle on the Swanton Pacific Ranch.
For the enterprise, approximately 500 cattle are brought over from Hawaii to graze at the Santa Cruz ranch for the student interns to manage. However, because cattle care requires so much water, the enterprise was canceled this year.
But Horney said he looks at the drought as an opportunity rather than a hindrance. In addition to operating the rangelands, Horney collects data on the grass and rangeland environment around the Cal Poly lands to study the impact of the drought. In this sense, students have the opportunity to gain more experience in their studies.
“It’s had a lot of different impacts because some of my students who worked on the cattle enterprise are getting a little less experience because we can’t have as many cattle as we usually do,” Horney said. “On the other hand, the students who work with me on the ecological systems side are having a whole lot more work to do because I’m trying to get as much data as I possibly can during this period of time.”
Chris Surfleet, a graduate coordinator and professor in the department of natural resources management and environmental sciences, has also struggled with teaching his classes because of the drought. Surfleet teaches courses in watershed management and restoration, soil erosion and water conservation, as well as advanced topics in hydrology.
“The drought has increased the awareness of students of the scarcity of water,” Surfleet said. “It has allowed great discussions on improving water allocation in and out of state. But I have had a hard time finding streams with flowing water near campus to teach stream flow measurements. Further, with little rain, we have not been able to go out on rainy days to observe erosion and erosion control practices.”
But while the drought has prevented students from gaining practical experience, it hasn’t stopped students from wanting to learn by doing.
In fact, according to Bwalya Malama, a professor in the department of natural resources management and environmental sciences, it’s actually broadening students’ horizons.
“The students are more interested in water conservation,” Malama said. “They’re more conscious of what’s going on, and they want to know more about what they can do and ways that they can help conserve water. In my earth sciences class, I try to put more emphasis on the hydrologic cycle, and I go more into the causes of prolonged droughts such as the one we are in now. But as of yet, I haven’t been much affected by the drought.”
Click on the hotspots below to see other ways the drought has affected Cal Poly students:
Graphic by Natalie Alexander