When the going gets tough, local high school kids get going

By Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

When a colleague telephoned the other day, I asked him how he was doing. “In and out of depression,” he said. He’s not usually down in the dumps, but I understood. He’s a scientist. He’s deeply concerned about things like climate change, drought, sea-level rise and mass extinctions. The planet’s future is looking downright scary right now, especially as climate-change deniers assume power in Washington.

I’ve been wondering how aspiring young scientists are coping with this gloomy situation. That’s why I attended the San Lorenzo Valley High School’s Environmental Conference last night, hosted by science students Julianna Manseau, Kate Ussat and Haile Davis. Jane Orbuch, an acclaimed science teacher at the high school, sponsored the conference. But, she insisted, “The girls organized the whole thing — from setting up speakers, getting permissions, publicizing, and working with school personnel — it was entirely their gig.”

 Haile Davis, left, Julianna Manseau and Kate Ussat helped organize the San Lorenzo Valley High School Environmental Conference on Dec. 12. Jane Orbuch — Contributed

Haile Davis, left, Julianna Manseau and Kate Ussat helped organize the San Lorenzo Valley High School Environmental Conference on Dec. 12. Jane Orbuch — Contributed

Wow! These girls were in high gear — and very tuned in to climate change. Their selection of speakers brought this global issue right down to the local level. Some 200 attendees, both students and adults, learned what local folks can expect in this region from climate change, how they can prepare for it and how they can help offset it.

Fred and Roberta McPherson’s newest film, “Getting to Know Our Watershed: Fall Creek”, set the stage for the evening. The beautiful and mostly protected Fall Creek is Felton’s main water source, managed by the San Lorenzo Valley Water District. The film, which the McPhersons shot over the past year and a half, showed the remarkable differences in streamflows during dry and wet seasons. It was easy to visualize how extended droughts and short bursts of very heavy rain — as forecast by climate scientists — will affect both drinking water and fish habitat.

Sierra Ryan, a water resources planner for Santa Cruz County Environmental Health, explained that our county is entirely self-sufficient in terms of water supply. We don’t import water from anywhere and rely completely on local surface water and aquifers. So it’s up to us to take care of these resources, she said. She showed how water conservation is the most promising way to address the 30 percent reduction in water supply predicted by the year 2100.

Karen Holl, a UC Santa Cruz scientist specializing in ecosystem restoration, displayed a world map indicating our local region as one of the planet’s top biodiversity hotspots. While the best way to keep rare species from extinction is to protect existing habitats from development and invasive species, sometimes people need to intervene to repair damaged ecosystems. She lauded local efforts to control French broom and acacia, both invasive species that threaten rare native species.

Michael Loik, a UC Santa Cruz researcher, explained that climate change is bringing more regional droughts and higher temperatures, which will lead to drier vegetation and increased fire risk. A reduction in fog will also likely impact redwood trees, which depend on summer fog for survival.

Finally, Erik Lowe, a UC Santa Cruz geographer, switched gears to another locale, presenting his research about the Cayman Islands, which are particularly vulnerable to hurricanes and sea-level rise. Hurricane Ivan destroyed 95 percent of the islands’ infrastructure in 2004. He showed how restoring mangrove forests along the coastline was an effective way to prepare for future hurricanes, because mangroves reduce the force of big waves. Generally, he said, nature-based solutions are more resilient and cost less than engineered solutions.

You can purchase a DVD of “Getting to Know Our Watershed: Fall Creek” for $12 at the Nature Store, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who can be contacted through her website at www.betsyherbert.com. She serves on the board of Sempervirens Fund and on the board of Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council.