Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: Cat-astrophes and other drought-related effects

The Stanislaus County Health Services Agency in Modesto flies a flag indicating “moderate” air quality on Friday. Schools and some public agencies fly flags each day, with colors indicating the current air quality. California’s 4-year-old drought is contributing to poor air quality due to smoke from wildfires and dust from drier-than-normal conditions.
The Stanislaus County Health Services Agency in Modesto flies a flag indicating “moderate” air quality on Friday. Schools and some public agencies fly flags each day, with colors indicating the current air quality. California’s 4-year-old drought is contributing to poor air quality due to smoke from wildfires and dust from drier-than-normal conditions. jlee@modbee.com

Failed wells, near-empty reservoirs exposing ruins of Gold Rush-era towns, brown lawns and water cops. Throw in for good measure Sierra peaks devoid of snow by late spring and cold-water flows sent down the rivers for fish that don’t respond.

Want a symbol of the drought? Take your pick. Mix ’n’ match, even. All are real, and frequently discussed. But the drought surfaces in other ways that aren’t necessarily top of mind and that don’t draw as much attention from the politicians or the media. They range from health concerns to animal behaviors to legal issues.

The drought is in the air, literally and figuratively. West Nile virus killed two people among the 47 reported cases in Stanislaus County in 2014, up from 18 and no deaths in 2013. The county saw its first human case of 2015 this week. The increase can be attributed to the continuing drought, according to Dr. John Walker, Stanislaus County’s public health official. The virus is spread when mosquitoes feed on dead birds infected with the disease. In non-drought times, people water their lawns and landscaping normally, and there isn’t a buildup of water. But during droughts, residents look to keep trees and plants alive any way they can.

“Birds are migrating into the most populated areas, Walker said. “It’s been heightened by the drought because people are collecting water in buckets – saving water (to water plants). All you’re doing is incubating (mosquito hatches). They’re looking for sources to feed and breed.”

Without water outside, ants, rats and mice will go wherever they can to quench their thirsts, said Norma Wellington, who has worked at Discovery Pest Control for the past 28 years. They bring health hazards into homes.

“Ants come out of the woodwork looking for water,” she said. “We’ve seen much more ant activity. And rodents are getting under raised foundations, chewing up wires and causing all kinds of damage. This year, its been really bad – really bad.”

At the higher elevations, Yosemite National Park in 2012 experienced an outbreak of the deadly hantavirus, spread by deer mice and believed to be more prevalent during a drought.

The drought has turned much of the state into a tinderbox. Major wildland and forest fires, including several going at once, can spread smoke over vast areas of the region. Air currents have steered it away from the valley so far, but the next major fire might be closer or in an air pattern that would affect us, Walker said. That and the dust from the almond harvest just beginning will contribute to poor air quality adversely affecting asthmatics. Schools and some public agencies fly flags each day, the colors indicating the air quality. Green is good. Red means folks with respiratory issues need to stay inside.

Seeing more feral kittens in your neighborhood?

Cats breed more during droughts and the hot spells they bring, said Annette Patton, executive director of the Stanislaus County Animal Services Agency.

She calls warm weather “cat season.” Drought generally means more warm days that, in turn, generate more frolicking among felines. Other areas have noticed a rise in the number of feral kittens as a result. Stanislaus County, too, she said. If not for aggressive spay/neuter/return efforts by Animal Services, local cat advocacy organizations and individuals, the problem would be cat-astrophic (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Meanwhile, the bigger ones – mountain lions, cougars or your name of choice – are showing up in cities including Turlock, and were blamed for attacks on goats east of Oakdale and a horse in Valley Home. They follow deer and other animals also looking for food and water.

“And bears probably have been coming down lower (in elevation) than in the past,” Lt. Phil McKay of state Fish and Wildlife said. “Because of the drought, their food and water sources are not as available, so they are going to other places to get it.”

“Other places” included downtown Tracy from the hills on the West Wide, along with one near Yosemite Lake near Merced and sightings in Visalia and other southern valley towns.

Live in a rural area and want to sell your place? Tired of seeing your water table drop and worrying about your well going dry?

As part of the state real estate contract, sellers must disclose to the buyers anything they know is not in operating condition. Wells are on the checklist.

“A (failing) well is a material function that should be disclosed,” said Allen R. Mitterling, an attorney in Modesto who specializes in real estate law. Good buyers’ agents will encourage clients to have a licensed professional look at the home for structural and electrical issues. Mitterling said measuring groundwater depth is just as important. “I’d strongly recommend that they write it in (the contract) that the buyer can (pay to) inspect the well to see where the water table is.”

And Line 11 requires disclosure of “neighborhood noise problems or other nuisances.” Would the harvest dust and sounds of heavy duty agriculture pumps qualify? It depends on the prospective buyer. Get it in writing. One or more of those issues might well might be a deal-breaker or affect the sale price, but it beats getting sued later.

And finally, every bit of the drought bears some kind of health or economic cost, said Jeffrey Michael, director of the University of the Pacific’s Business Forecasting Center. Should it continue, it could drive up electricity costs, food prices, taxpayer-borne costs of firefighting and, in some places, rising home insurance costs because of the increased fire dangers.

“It affects a lot of people a little bit,” he said. And in ways they probably haven’t considered.

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