From drought and storm to calm in California

Amid changing weather patterns, the state is finding a basis for security in a unity of caring for the environment.

Geese enjoy the high water along a Sacramento road on Jan. 4.

Since late December, a stack of unusual storms known as atmospheric rivers has inundated California, dropping up to 600% of normal rainfall in a month. The visual impact is striking in a state parched by three years of severe drought: flooded streets, mudslides, and brimming reservoirs. At least 20 people have died, the state estimates.

Disruptive weather events tend to reinforce the central fear of a warming atmosphere: that environmental instability and human insecurity are “the new normal.” Floodwaters are still receding in Pakistan, months after heavy monsoon rains and melting glaciers inundated a third of the country. Abnormal rains are flooding wide swaths of the Philippines nearly two months into what should be the dry season.

Just measuring extremity, however, misses something else going on. Dire weather situations have helped raise a tide of global compassion. At the most recent United Nations conference on climate change, wealthy industrial nations agreed to establish a “loss and damage” fund to offset the impact of their greenhouse gas emissions on poorer countries. They have also brokered more targeted agreements to help coal-dependent countries like South Africa, Indonesia, and Vietnam shift toward renewables.

In California, the recent storms are adding momentum to a radical shift in thinking about land use and environmental stewardship – one that is dissolving competition into cooperation among rival interest groups and replacing the subduing of nature with ecological restoration and replenishment.

“Through multi-benefit partnerships that include water interests as key partners, we have the resources to manage our watersheds sustainably, even in a warming climate,” says Roger Bales, director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at the University of California, Merced. In a Pacific Forest Trust webinar last year, he described what he called the “three-legged stool” of California’s environmental future: ecological integrity and resilience, human well-being, and environmental equity for rural communities and future generations.

All of that revolves around correcting the effects of human decisions and activity on California’s Sierra Nevada watershed, which accounts for 75% of the state’s water. That system has been disrupted in recent decades by warmer temperatures, which have resulted in less – and less reliable – annual snowpack. But the problem has a deeper history. A century of fire suppression strategies has resulted in thicker, younger forests. Trees drink water. During prolonged droughts, they die and become fire fuel. The U.S. Forest Service estimated that 9.2 million trees died just last year due to drought. That points to a common strategy for fire safety and drought alleviation. While the volumes of storm runoff over the past month underscore a need to transform California’s water catchment system for a warmer era, a growing number of initiatives between public agencies, the scientific community, and industries like timber and recreation are focused on thinning and diversifying California’s forests back to their natural pre-1900 balance.

The historian Kevin Starr observed that “Americans entered California and there, in a variety of ways, responded to its imperatives.” He might have written that sentence about today. Pressed with a need to restore the integrity of California’s watershed, the state’s varied interests are forging future security on a united ecosystem of thought.

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