Cap-and-Trade, Water Bond, Make Now the Time

Seldom have need and opportunity combined with such force. With the driest January on record behind us and the likelihood of a fourth year of drought ahead, the world’s eighth largest economy faces questions about its water supply reliability, response to increasingly severe wildfire, and commitment to achieving the goals set in its historic AB 32 (Global Warming Act of 2006).

With this year’s rainy season disappointing (and perhaps behind us) and fire season imminent, California must either choose to sit idly by and brace for inevitable smoke plumes and mudslides, or act on the combined vision of adaptive science and respected resource management leaders to proactively and sustainably restore the state’s uncharacteristically dense forested watersheds.

California has “the most integrated policy to deal with climate change,” yet its actions on the ground and famously complex regulatory permitting process have been slow to result in actual integrated resource management. Constrained budgets, narrowly focused directives, conflicting jurisdictional boundaries, and a legacy of costly lawsuits have impeded in-the-field action.

Dense forests across much of the Sierra Nevada pose immediate threats to water supply reliability and air quality.

Dense forests across much of the Sierra Nevada pose immediate threats to water supply reliability and air quality.

A significant and growing body of research has shown integrated resource management efforts can reduce wildfire severity, increase clean energy production, and create jobs while saving money on firefighting costs, enhancing biodiversity, and protecting water quality. There is no doubt that California’s forested watersheds, the source of more than 60 percent of our water, have up to 10 times as many trees per acre than they did during the Gold Rush, or that the resulting fuel accumulations have driven an increase in wildfire size and severity.

California emerged as a world leader in addressing climate change by passing innovative legislation and establishing aggressive emission-reduction targets. Now, the state’s cap-and-trade program stands poised to infuse millions of dollars into efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile, an equally historic water bond stands poised to make millions of dollars available to address drought, restore ecosystems statewide, protect water supplies, and upgrade California’s water infrastructure.

Our trend of increasing wildfire size and severity, particularly in light of a potentially warmer, drier climate, cannot be turned around in a single year. Too many millions of state, federal and private acres stand packed with too many trees for the state’s fractured forest-management infrastructure to process.

But, aligning available dollars with integrated resource management plans that simultaneously reduce emissions (see AB 32 cap-and-trade) and improve water supply reliability (see Prop 1 water bond) would give the state the greatest opportunity to maximize its investments and realize the broadest environmental benefits. Research shows that the larger the scope of the project, the greater the environmental and economic returns. Such landscape-level projects tend to deliver quick, measurable results.

Innovative resource management plans must address not only the dynamic, interrelated nature of wildlife and ecosystems, but also the integration of human-constructed systems and natural systems. When constructed and natural systems work in concert, each can work at peak efficiency. Natural storms wreak havoc on manmade water-capture and conveyance systems, managing the landscape to make systems resilient can save millions while safeguarding diverse wildlife and human populations.

Facing extended drought and longer, costlier fire seasons, Californians can find hope in raw numbers and proven leadership. Research conducted collaboratively with state and federal agencies and California’s world-class universities has shown that integrated resource management solutions can:

  • Reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by up to 65 percent
  • Potentially increase water yield by up to nine percent
  • Reduce high-severity wildfire by up to 75 percent, and acres burned by 22 percent
  • Generate more than $1 billion in power revenue
  • Save hundreds of millions of dollars in fire suppression costs and avoided wildfire damage to assets
  • Prevent thousands of cubic yards of debris and sediment from filling reservoirs and diminishing water storage capacity

Water managers are being tasked with seemingly impossible challenges just as firefighters are gearing up to battle megafires and the Governor continues to push the envelope on clean-energy goals. The three are related. Their solution should be integrated.

California’s massive accumulation of biomass fuels could become a predictable source of clean energy in an integrated water management effort, or it could star in predictable videos as the media boldly reports amid horrifying smoke while communities are evacuated. Innovation could be the difference.

Implementing large-scale projects to effect long-term benefit is not without its challenges. There are diverse stakeholders, deep emotions, and decades-old perceptions to overcome – and there will need to be incentives and assurances that are not in place today as some interested parties may be reluctant to go “all in.” This is new, and there are likely to be some unknowns, yet investing in simultaneous resource conservation is well founded and supported by science and social conscience.

The devil may be in the details, but inspired leadership can prevent details from becoming insurmountable obstacles. The will and the way are there, as are the immediate threats of inaction and the skilled labor necessary to restore and sustain California’ magnificent landscapes.

Governor Brown recently reminded us “California, since the beginning, has undertaken big tasks and entertained big ideas.” Now is the time to think big and act on the landscape level. This is the time for leaders to lead.