Brush and dead trees cover the Berkeley Hills on Aug. 10, 2021.
Brush and dead trees cover the Berkeley Hills on Aug. 10. Soil moisture levels are extremely low and chaparral is as brittle as kindling across the East Bay. Credit: Clara Mokri

The second-biggest wildfire in California history is in its second month of immolation. Dozens of northern towns report they’re running out of water. Around Sacramento, heat-stressed cockroaches are pouring into homes so profusely one backyard looks like it moves at night.

What’s this climate change-worsened drought doing around Berkeley?

Head up into the bone-dry hills for an answer. “I’ve worked at the park district for almost 15 years and this is the worst year I’ve ever seen,” says Matt Graul, chief of stewardship for the East Bay Regional Park District.

“We’re certainly seeing more and more deer and coyotes that are exhibiting signs of stress. You’re seeing them just looking emaciated, and we’re also seeing them foraging and looking for food in areas where we wouldn’t typically see them.”

“I’ve never seen chaparral as dry and brittle as it is now, and I’ve been in California most of my life,” says Doug Bell, a wildlife program manager at the park district.

Waterholes dried out early this year, leaving some species in the lurch. “A lot of our ponds are located along major roadways,” says Bell. “We have seen turtles unfortunately getting run over by cars, because now there are more turtles out looking for places to go.”

While all of California is in some kind of drought, Alameda County is suffering from the most acute form in which “fields are left fallow” and “wildlife death is widespread,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The Berkeley Fire Department, citing the danger of “catastrophic wind-driven fires” made more frequent by climate change, now advises residents in the hills to leave during periods of Extreme Fire Weather. The city explains: “The narrow, winding street network in the Berkeley hills – combined with the rapid fire spread likely in these conditions – means that driving in a car during an immediate evacuation won’t be an option for everyone.”

Drought levels in California on Aug. 11, 2020 (left), versus Aug. 10, 2021 (right). Alameda County is now suffering from the most acute form of drought. Credit: U.S. Drought Monitor

The East Bay Municipal Utility District declared a drought shortage as early as April and asked customers to voluntarily cut water use by 10%. That’s something Berkeley has handled pretty well, according to EBMUD’s Ward 4 Director Andy Katz. “We have modest turf use, we have appropriate use of native plants, our community is efficient for the most part with indoor water use,” he said in a July webinar. “We have among the lowest per capita water use in the state.”

EBMUD draws its water from the Mokelumne River watershed in the Sierra Nevada and stores it in reservoirs that, as of early August, were roughly 60% full. There’s no water crisis for the East Bay, yet, but if this winter doesn’t deliver on enough precipitation the district is considering buying water from outside sources next year.

The UC Botanical Garden has stopped irrigating its central lawn. Richard Ward, who runs the Dry Garden Nursery on Shattuck Avenue, is allowing his already drought-resistant plants even less water: “We’re trying to do our part.” Golf courses are reportedly rationing, too, leading to new quirks in the game.

“I got golfers coming in telling stories of things they’re experiencing, like the fairways being as hard as a rock,” says Michael Clark, who builds custom clubs at Berkeley’s Fore! Seasons Golf. “So a golf ball might be landing on hardpack and the ball rolls farther – every golfer’s dream.”

The drought is changing residential landscapes. “I’ve been seeing a huge, huge shift in planting palettes. No longer are we using thirsty hydrangeas and turf; that’s being replaced by drought-tolerant succulents, California natives, and lawn substitutes like dymondia,” says Sarah Ray, who runs a Richmond-based landscape-design company that serves Berkeley.

“A lot of people are not even asking for lawns anymore,” she says. “If they are, they’re asking for lawns that are a little area so their child can play on a little space or their dogs can go to the bathroom.” (Hopefully not both, though.)

Interns with the volunteer group Friends of Five Creeks map possible drought effects along the banks of Cerrito Creek in August. Credit: Friends of Five Creeks

It’s also changing natural landscapes, especially seasonal ponds. Balance Hydrologics, a business in West Berkeley, had work scheduled this year to clear invasive frogs from local ponds. It was canceled for now because the ponds dried up. “The great hydrologist in the sky decides it all,” says the company’s Zan Rubin.

Graul has noticed many ponds shrinking down to something you could try to fit into a martini glass. One in Briones Regional Park has a “cracked, almost desert-like landscape around the edges of the pond. We had issues last year where we noticed certain amphibians were falling into those cracks, and weren’t able to crawl out and get back into the water.”

Larger bodies of water are also suffering. Lake Anza in Tilden is closed due to toxic blue-green algae, which thrive in low water conditions with high nutrient loads – a classic drought combo – and cause diarrhea in humans and vomiting and death in dogs. “In many of our lakes, that low water level is impacting a lot of our docks,” says Graul. “The docks are no longer usable or they’ve been damaged by this low water level, so they’re going to require some repair.”

Wild animals are becoming bolder in their search for water. The East Bay Gardening Group on Facebook is rife with reports of critters attacking plants for the precious moisture within. “The deer ate all my roses and daisies this week. In the 24 years I have lived here they have never bothered them before,” wrote one person. Another posted a photo of an absolutely ravaged watermelon, presumably the work of squirrels or raccoons, saying he’s “ABSOLUTELY FINISHED trying to grow anything edible, I’m sticking to drought-tolerant flowers from now on.”

For folks who hear snuffling in their backyard, they should know feral pigs increase their hunting range in drought years.

For folks who hear snuffling in their backyard, they should know feral pigs increase their hunting range in drought years. “With wild pigs, we do have clear evidence they move into irrigated turf when it’s dry in the hills, to the exasperation of homeowners and golf courses,” says the park district’s Bell. “What the pigs do is they’re searching out moist soil – and lawns provide moist soil – so they come in one night and basically rototill your lawn.”

Local streams are still running, though a lot of that’s due to receiving input from human sources like irrigation, leaks and dewatering wells.

“My observations of the Strawberry Creek watershed don’t reveal as dire a picture as I recall from the last drought cycle (yet); my impression (and I haven’t had the chance to verify using NWS data yet) is that the coastal/Bay-influenced zones so far have largely been spared the searing heat hammering the interior parts of the state,” emails Tim Pine, an environmental specialist at UC Berkeley.

“So despite the very low precipitation of the last two years, our cooler, windier days so far this summer have preserved some of our moisture.”

Susan Schwartz, president of the environmental group Friends of Five Creeks, says there’s still water in Cerrito and Codornices creeks (even if much of it is also human-derived). She has another concern, though: With a potentially nasty fire season looming, agencies are putting a ton of energy into mowing and clearing brush from natural areas that support butterfly species, ground squirrels, snakes, and other wildlife.

“If you go up into Tilden there’s massive clearing and the creation of firebreaks along the road,” she says. “I think we have to do it, but all of that is or was habitat. Many birds need a pretty dense and tall brush to safely nest.”

Tilden’s been hit by a mass tree die off, but Berkeley’s city trees seem to be doing OK, for the moment. They had a good soaking back in rainy 2017, which helped them recharge stores of carbohydrates and sugars depleted during the last drought. “But you’re looking at three to five years max, as far as that storage capacity goes. I will say it’d be nice to have a nice, normal winter,” says Dan Gallagher, a senior forestry supervisor with the city.

Because Berkeley could soon have the climate of Santa Barbara, the city is considering planting trees that thrive in Arizona and Texas.

Because models show Berkeley could soon have the climate of present-day Santa Barbara, the city is considering planting trees that thrive in regions as far south as Arizona and Texas. But until everyone has a Joshua Tree overshadowing their sidewalk plot (kidding, the city is looking at species like cork oak and Catalina ironwood), preserving neighborhood tree health could be as easy as just pulling out the garden sprinkler.

“Even though people think, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a drought! I can’t use water’ – well, of course [watering] turf is no good,” says Gallagher. “But giving a tree, even a mature tree, a good soaking once a month is OK. Because the tree’s returns on the climate and biology and all its other benefits, that really compensates for any cost incurred by occasionally giving that tree a deep watering.”

John Metcalfe is an Oakland-based freelance reporter who's written for Berkeleyside, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Atlantic. He enjoys covering science, climate and weather, and urban...