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February 5, 2014
Viewpoints: Action needed to protect health during drought and dry days ahead

dry_field.JPG(Feb. 5 - By Linda Rudolph, Special to The Bee)

California is now in the grip of the most severe drought on record. In his drought emergency declaration, Gov. Jerry Brown urged Californians to "pause and reflect on how dependent we are on the rain, nature and one another."

Let's not forget about our health. Water is, after all, essential for life.

Most of us are used to having clean, safe drinking water come right out of the faucet. We do not worry about how to get water to cook or to wash our hands with. Unfortunately, even before the drought, this was not the case in some California communities.

In parts of Fresno and Tulare counties, mostly due to fertilizer runoff, communities are already either drinking contaminated water, paying more to connect to other sources of water, or drinking unhealthy alternatives like soda. Seventeen rural California communities are already in danger of running out of water in the next few months.

The drought puts even more strain on these communities; it also puts all of us at risk. And it has real impacts on our health.

As groundwater and surface water levels decline and water temperatures warm, pathogens and contaminants become more concentrated, raising the risk of disease. Lower water levels in ponds increase the breeding grounds for mosquitoes, as can household efforts to store water in rain barrels, increasing the risks of West Nile virus and other mosquito-spread diseases.

When soils dry out and dust levels increase, higher levels of pollen and particulate matter in the air exacerbate asthma and chronic respiratory disease, as do wildfires that become more frequent and severe due to drought.

In the Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s, hundreds to thousands of people died of "dust pneumonia." In California today we're seeing the rise of Valley fever, caused by a fungus that lives in the soil. When the fungus becomes airborne in dust, it gets into people's lungs and can cause potentially debilitating symptoms. Drier soil and more dust could put many more Californians at risk.

Drought-related food shortages can lead to significant food price increases. These, in turn, increase food insecurity and the risk for hunger, as well as for obesity and diabetes.

Perhaps worst of all, we don't even really know the full extent of the current and potential health impacts.

California is gearing up to respond to this drought in the short term; we also need to build drought resilience to reduce risks to our health and our communities from the longer and harsher droughts that are projected due to climate change.

First, as we put emergency response actions in place, we need to prioritize the needs of disadvantaged communities that are already struggling with poor water quality. We need to ensure that all Californians have access to adequate supplies of clean and safe water for drinking and household use. And, we must monitor drought-related hardship and health impacts, to improve our responses to current needs and to plan for the future.

With population growth, urbanization and climate change all adding to California's water scarcity challenge in coming years, we need to put into place strong and long-term water conservation measures, increasing water efficiency in homes, industry and agriculture, and supporting safe and healthful gray-water systems and water re-use. This includes retrofitting our cities so that rainwater replenishes our groundwater rather than running off into our bays or wastewater systems. It can be done: Las Vegas, the driest city in the country, has been able to reduce its water use by one-third over the past 15 years, even as its population has grown.

We need to assess, in advance, the health and environmental implications of large-scale projects such as desalination, water reuse/recycling facilities, and water transfer projects. And, we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, to prevent the worst-case climate change scenarios, so that we forestall worse droughts in the future.

We have seen a little bit of rain over the last week, with more expected today. That is a very good thing. But a few drops of water today won't solve tomorrow's problems.

Let's use this emergency to push for long-term solutions that protect both water and health.

Dr. Linda Rudolph is the co-director at the Center for Climate Change and Health at the Public Health Institute. She is a former deputy director at the California Department of Public Health.