How Interdisciplinary Teamwork Might Solve the Historic California Drought

What do strawberries, peaches, raspberries, pistachios and almonds all have in common? If you’ve enjoyed one of these snacks in the past year, chances are it came from one of California’s many farms. California grows an overwhelming majority of domestically produced fruit. If you love healthy snack food, you should be worried about the historic California drought, which is arguably the worst drought of the 21st century.

California’s extreme drought threatens more than just our supply of healthy snack food. The state is home to nearly 40 million people, making it the most populous in the union, and it is filled with ecologically diverse and unique landscapes such as Yosemite National Park. Without water, life itself is endangered.

Environmental problems on the scale and complexity of the California drought are not easily solved. Especially poignant is the problem of balancing societal and human needs with those of the natural environment. To find out more about how researchers are attempting to solve problems brought on by drought, I interviewed Dr. Margaret Reams, professor of Environmental Sciences at Louisiana State University.

Being a professor at a public research university can be quite hectic. In addition to her family ties, Dr. Reams balances instructing and advising graduate students with researching and publishing scientific papers. One of her many current projects sheds light on varying environmental and social contexts in which people take action to address drought.

“We can’t solve the crisis in California without exploring the role of human agency… It’s a key element in trying to improve environmental conditions and devise better environmental policies.” – Dr. Margaret Reams

“We have to think of the impacts of the decisions that we make collectively and individually.” – Dr. Margaret Reams

The USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) funded project seeks to understand the conditions under which people take action to mitigate the damaging effects of drought. Putting preparedness and mitigation efforts in context of someone’s past experience and awareness of drought, age, income, location and employment will hopefully inform planners to understand how prepared a community is to face drought.

One would expect that people residing in primarily agricultural areas are more invested in drought mitigation and preparedness than perhaps a typical urbanite. However, this may not be the case. Drought on the scale and prominence of the historic California drought is not typical, and it often goes unnoticed. Either way, Dr. Reams believes that the project will enable a better understanding of the human dimensions of climatology and natural systems processes (i.e. how humans impact and possibly exacerbate drought).

The multidisciplinary project involves experts in geography, environmental sciences and political sciences. GIS expert Dr. Nina Lam and climatologist Dr. Robert Rohli contribute to the project by studying areas in the US that are characterized by historic and recent drought.

Addressing complex environmental issues such as drought often requires interdisciplinary teamwork. Together, according to Reams, the team hopes to “gain insight that is generalizable to other places and times.”

“Understanding the conditions under which people take action to mitigate damaging effects of drought and conserve water is key.” – Dr. Margaret Reams

In addition to qualitative research methods such as content analysis, and reviewing public documents, the team utilizes research methods that underscore the relationship between technology and drought planning. Remote sensing, GIS, and drought monitors such as the Palmer Drought Severity Index, the Crop Moisture Index, and the US Drought Monitor are being used to assess human response to drought conditions.

Current drought conditions in the United States

Current drought conditions in the United States

Dr. Reams’ portion of the project is running a statistical analysis of a randomized household survey within a predefined region in the South-Central portion of the United States. Facilitated by LSU’s public policy center, this portion of the project undertakes a multiple regression statistical analysis of about 500 randomized residents in drought prone areas.

By analyzing this data, the research team hopes to understand natural and human processes that are generalizable to the drought in California. If the results demonstrate applicable, Dr. Reams hopes to expand the two papers the group is planning to write from this project, particularly in California. Though it is too early to say, further research may involve the kind of policy tools that Californians are using, and their behavior in face of extreme drought in conditions.


Sean Williams is a graduate assistant working with Dr. Reams. He can be contacted for further information at Listen to the full interview here.


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