Go Hug a (Stubborn) Tree

There’s been good news about our forests. Not much, but, amid all the devastation, we’ll take small victories wherever we can.

Trees are recovering, despite our mismanagement of water supplies, despite overpumping groundwater to the point that water tables are sinking and collapsing, despite you causing the statewide water shortage during the drought because you just HAD to do laundry that one day last summer.

Kidding about the laundry. That had nothing to do with trees dying. Continue with the laundry — and come do mine, please. It’s really piling up.

Not kidding about the trees. The recent drought weakened trees across the western US: In California alone, 102 million trees have died in the last six years, 62 million in 2016 alone. This die off is unprecedented in both pace and acreage, and one from which it will take generations to recover. We thought we were headed to the point of no return, but it looks like the forests are more resilient than we thought. Our stubborn trees refuse to give up.

This spring, trees are growing at an explosive rate. Finally able to soak up all the water they need, trees across the region have wasted no time growing taller, wider and stronger. Forests look markedly different than they did at this time last year, and trees in neighborhoods and parks have shot up, growth spurts trying to compensate for the years of living in survival mode. Things are looking up.

Your actions had nothing to do with this good news, though, so sit down and don’t try to take any credit. In fact, this recovery happened despite our missteps. As the drought slogged on, cities and individuals looked for every possible way to save water. The immediate cuts were to outdoor watering, which makes sense when landscaping is a luxury. But when root systems are holding up hillsides or trees are looming over homes, weakened trees can be catastrophic. It turns out that not watering the giants in our landscape has had lasting, devastating effects.

Trees struggling to survive stopped producing the pitch they need to repel pests, specifically the bark beetle. Weaker trees became feasts for beetles, killing more trees, feeding more beetles, weakening more trees. Struggling to survive, the dry trees burned in wildfires and, when this winter’s rains hit, they toppled over as stunted roots failed to hold tight to sliding hillsides. There were deaths, disruptions, and billions of dollars in infrastructure damage.

When it comes to the environment, there’s no shortage of doom and gloom. Without question, human activity, industry and ambition have wreaked havoc on our planet. It’s important to learn from mistakes and oversights, and, if only for morale purposes, to celebrate and learn from small victories when we see them. Looking carefully, there are small victories throughout California. Communities who watered trees during the drought have seen far fewer trees topple over in storms, and less overall damage from pests. Those trees are still standing, while unwatered trees nearby are brown. Many factors are at work here: trees watered during a drought have been likely been maintained through drought cycles for decades, not every community has the resources to continue outdoor watering in a drought, and it certainly isn’t feasible to get water to all the trees in the Sierras. But, there’s still actionable information. Not watering has dire consequences immediately and long term, and our homes, roads, and infrastructure suffer. If we become more strategic with our water use, we can save more trees and improve the long term health of our forests.

Being strategic doesn’t mean depriving ourselves of vegetable gardens and hot tubs, or planning to dip into water resources we won’t have in a drought. Being strategic means knowing how and where we use water on a daily basis so that we can figure out where and when to cut back when we have to. Buoy does exactly this for households, attaching to your water main and sending real time data to an app on your mobile phone. You can monitor your use over time and use water where you need to, plan for the times when you know you’ll need more and spot water-wasting (and potentially damaging) leaks.

Scalability is an issue with water planning and strategy, but starting at home, with our individual use, gives us data to make better decisions. So, take a minute and celebrate the resilience of the trees. We have a long recovery ahead, but things are looking better. Our trees are growing again, our reservoirs are hitting capacity, and we have the information we need to develop better water strategies.

Now, please come do my laundry.