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California's three-part drought survival plan

Anglers hike down to the water's edge at the San Luis Reservoir. The reservoir is at 30 percent of capacity.
National Public Radio reporter Kurt Siegler spoke to the director of the UC California Institute for Water Resources, Doug Parker, to set the stage for a five-minute report on the California drought for All Things Considered. (The story is embedded below.)

In California, Siegler reported, water is moved through a network of dams, canals and pipes from the places where it rains and snows, to places where it is needed, like farms and cities.

"The system that we have was designed back in the 1930s through 1950s to meet population and land use needs of the time," Parker said. "Now things have changed in the state and that system really hasn't evolved to keep up with the times in California."

The system was designed when the California population was about 10 million. Now the population is 38 million. It was also designed during an unusually wet period of history.

"And the question is, how is that system going to perform in 2050?" Parker said.

The story outlines three ways the state is coping with the drought:

  • A $7 billion water bond to upgrade that massive infrastructure system is on the Nov. 4 ballot. The measure would pay for building two new large reservoirs and the expansion of dozens more. There is also tens of millions of dollars earmarked for water recycling and reuse.
  • Efficiency, such as capturing urban waste water, treating it and using it on farms. Passage of the water bond will allow for this strategy to expand.
  • Water conservation. The example Siegler gave was an executive order by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, which aims to cut freshwater use in his city by 20 percent in the next three years.

Listen to the NPR story here:



Posted on Thursday, October 23, 2014 at 8:50 AM

Students design a solar home for farmworkers

When a team of UC Davis students packs up its house and travels to Irvine next year for the U.S. Department of Energy's 2015 Solar Decathlon competition, its members will bring not only a desire to win, but also to make zero-net-energy homes more affordable.

After submitting an entry for the first time, UC Davis was one of 20 universities selected in February to compete in the Solar Decathlon. The competition draws students and scientists from universities across the nation — from Yale and Vanderbilt to CalPoly and Sacramento State — to design and build solar-powered homes that are energy efficient and attractive.

The front rendering of the UC Davis students' farmworker housing unit.
Meeting a competition milestone, UC Davis' team, Aggie Sol, submitted 80 percent-complete design documents to the department on Oct. 9. The UC Davis project is designed to be a marketable, sustainable house for farmworkers and other low-income communities. Complete plans for the home are due in January, when construction will begin at UC Davis. In October 2015, the home will be disassembled, packed in pieces and transported to the competition site in Irvine.  

“I really want to see solar homes everywhere,” said Aggie Sol team member Payman Alemi, a civil and environmental engineering major. “I want every house to be solar powered, and I want every car to be electric. I want everything to be sustainable, and I think that developing a mass marketable house is a big stepping stone.”

Connecting a campus

In addition to addressing a social and environmental problem, the project also provides unique educational opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students.

It connects students in the fields of engineering, architecture, design, communication and development. They've drawn on the expertise and support of faculty in the colleges of Letters and SciencesEngineering, and Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. They've also tapped the experience of several energy centers on campus—most located at West Village—including the Institute of Transportation StudiesEnergy Efficiency CenterPlug-In Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Research Center, and Center for Water Energy Efficiency.

Looking over the Simplex design.

“I heard about what we were going to do about ZNE housing for low-income families, and that really struck a chord with me, being from a low-income neighborhood,” said team member Alejandro Perez, a civil and environmental engineering major. “I really want to make my own house energy efficient, but it's really costly, and it's not really practical where I'm from. Just being part of that effort to make it more affordable really inspired me to be part of the team.”

And while team Aggie Sol is made of about 20 students, an estimated 200 to 500 students from various disciplines will study the project in the coming months, including students from UC Davis Extension, the continuing education division of UC Davis.  

The project students are also working with the UC Davis Graduate School of Management and the Division of Social Sciences to create a business plan for the home.

“We want to use this as a way to showcase the ability for zero net energy to be affordable and to do it with a business model in place to implement change in California,” said faculty adviser Frank Loge, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. “If we don't win the competition and still market it, some of us will feel like this has been a very successful effort.” 

Nothing but net

UC Davis has proven itself a national leader in zero-net-energy design. In 2011, it opened West Village, a public-private partnership with West Village Community Partnership LLC and the nation's largest planned zero-net-energy community. This past spring, it debuted the Honda Smart Home, which produces enough renewable energy to power both the home and a Honda Fit electric vehicle in its garage.

Private builders and homeowners worldwide have also taken on the challenge of creating homes that produce as much energy as they consume, and the California Public Utilities Commission has a goal for all new residential homes to be zero net energy by 2020. Yet such residences still tend to fall on the upper financial spectrum of the real est

ate market.

“As part of our effort at UC Davis, we want to make zero-net-energy housing affordable for everyone,” Loge said. “We're trying to drive down the price point of zero-net-energy housing to help the housing market understand that you can have affordable, nice homes that are zero net energy.”

Big cut in price

Price estimates for most homes that compete in the Decathlon range from $300 to $350 per square foot. Team Aggie Sol intends to cut that price by more than half, to $70 to $150 per square foot.

One way they're doing that is by creating a relatively simple, modular design using prefabricated materials. The Aggie Sol design also addresses the health and living concerns associated with farmworkers' current housing conditions, such as poor air quality, crowding and lack of shade.

The home combines public and private spaces in three linear zones: Two climate-controlled living spaces are separated by an enclosed deck. The zones act as climate buffers that maximize passive cooling in summer and passive heating in winter. It will also feature “smart home” technology that aligns the home's needs with the electrical grid, communicating with the resident and power provider to manage energy systems more effectively.

The team plans to begin building the house in January on the UC Davis campus but has not yet chosen a location. Loge said they intend for the home to be built in a public place. 

The Department of Energy provided a $50,000 grant to Aggie Sol, while the team is attempting to raise at least another $700,000 for training, travel, equipment, uniforms and team-building costs.

Posted on Wednesday, October 22, 2014 at 9:57 AM

Reporter ponders UC Cooperative Extension pepper research

Capsaicin, the yellow line of fluid, gives jalapeƱo peppers their heat.
A column in the Salinas Californian playfully reflected on UC Cooperative Extension research that aims to turn up the heat in the mighty jalapeño pepper.

Writer Dennis Taylor reported that Aziz Baameur, UCCE farm advisor in Santa Clara and San Benito counties, is trying to increase the Scoville units in hot peppers by adjusting on-farm practices.

"The trend lately is toward hotter items," said Jeff Sanders of George Chiala Farms in Morgan Hill, the site of the research project.

Taylor waxes on about super hot peppers that are being grown around the world - including the current record holder, according to Guinness, the Carolina Reaper, which is 900 times hotter than the jalapeño.

He wrote that he asked a newsroom colleague, UCCE Master Gardener Laramie Trevino, whether she would prefer more heat in jalapeños, and he mentioned a plan to call Baameur and Sanders to learn more about the motives behind their research work.

For more information about the hot pepper research, see: Some like it hotter: UC Cooperative Extension tries to grow a spicier jalapeño.

Posted on Tuesday, October 21, 2014 at 4:39 PM

Ranching and California's drought: A workshop & webcast

A UC Davis forum draws in ranchers and drought experts to discuss the U.S. Drought Monitor, along with new climate forecasts and survey insights.
One image has had every Californian cringing this year: the U.S. Drought Monitor map. Like a slice of molding bread, the drought began in the middle, grew darker and moved outward in concentric rings that gradually devoured the state. The reaction was shock. Yet what does such a large map mean to individual ranching operations? Where does this information come from? And how does it affect research and policy? With forecasts shaping up for yet another drought this fall and winter, serious ramifications may be coming for ranchers.

These concerns and more are being discussed at an upcoming meeting called “Ranching and California's Drought” a public workshop and webinar to be held on the UC Davis campus Nov. 7 and broadcast at local satellite locations throughout the state.

Drought experts from a range of organizations will open the dialogue with ranchers, to discuss the science and the policies of how drought is declared and mapped in California. UC Davis researcher Leslie Roche will present new insights from an extensive study, having surveyed and interviewed ranchers throughout the state. Other topics include new feeding strategies, how ranchers can qualify for drought relief assistance and a seasonal forecast from the state climatologist. The workshop will be a learning opportunity for researchers as well.

“There are impacts of drought on a ranch that these models are blind to or just can't integrate,” says UC Davis Cooperative Extension specialist Ken Tate, one of the meeting organizers. “But these things need to be integrated into policy.”

As an example, he explains how late April showers in northern California gave this year's totals a deceptively positive review: “It may not look like that big of a drought on the annual forage production basis, when in reality it was horrendous in December and January,” he says. “April rain and forage were too late to save the day.”

The forum will allow Drought Monitor experts to better integrate local knowledge into their analysis and decision making, Tate says, adding: “They're really open and really interested in having these conversations.”

A ranch manager uses feed supplements to account for little forage.
After light rain in December and January, a ranch manager uses feed supplements to make up for less forage.
Posted on Tuesday, October 21, 2014 at 1:23 PM

Kiwifruit industry is making a comeback in California

California kiwifruit was valued at $23 million in 2012. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons.)
Kiwifruit, the 67th most-valuable crop in California, had its heyday in the 70s and 80s, before production slowed somewhat, reported Reed Fujii in the Stockton Record. However, UC Cooperative Extension advisor Janine Hasey, says it appears to be growing in popularity once again.

All of U.S. kiwifruit is grown in California. Hasey told the reporter that most kiwifruit come from Sutter, Yuba and Butte counties, as well as the southern San Joaquin Valley. Strong market demand and prices have prompted at least one major grower to expand.

"They actually plan to plant 800 acres in Yuba County, which is a huge increase," Hasey said.

Kiwis are native to China, but are commonly associated with New Zealand. Called the Chinese gooseberry, they were renamed "kiwifruit" - after flightless birds native to New Zealand - for the export market in the 1950s. Kiwifruit vines are frost sensitive and require plenty of heat in the summer. Of the 27 most commonly eaten fruits, kiwis are the fourth most nutrient dense, following papayas, mangos and oranges, according to the Network for a Healthy California's Harvest of the Month.

Hasey said consumers are drawn to the fruit's sweet-tart taste and nutritional value.

“They're really packed with potassium and vitamins and antioxidants, and a lot of people like them,” she said.

Posted on Monday, October 20, 2014 at 4:20 PM

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