Drought Impacts and Water Management Practices
7/12/2021—As Californians experience one of the most extreme dry years in history, drought impacts are made more severe by a lack of planning and imbalanced water management practices. Our approach to water management must include the species and natural systems that make our water, our air, our food, and our existence possible. Read more from Sandi Matsumoto, CA Water Program Director
Life as we know it is at stake in California. Catastrophic wildfires, extreme heat, flooding and drought—the list of climate change impacts in California is growing larger and more severe. Over the last decade, California has experienced some of the most extreme climate-exacerbated events in history:
- Devastating megafires: In the last 8 years, catastrophic wildfires have taken 199 lives, burned 10.8 million acres & destroyed 51,086 structures.
- Extreme Weather: Climate-exacerbated weather patterns have created both extreme heat and flooding with California experiencing more droughts and floods per decade than any other part of the country.
- Contaminated Drinking Water: An estimated 700,000 Californians can no longer safely drink water from their taps.
Science-Based Action for California's Future
In order to change the trajectory of climate change and reduce the growing threats it poses to public safety, our health and the environment, we urge legislators to take bold climate action now. Policy is one of the most effective tools to make rapid and lasting change in the battle against climate change. California legislators have led the world on climate policy. With so much at stake, the need for policy leadership is even more urgent.
Partner with us to fight climate change. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) brings to the table innovative science and over 70 years of experience developing conservation solutions to some of humanity’s biggest challenges. In partnership with communities, businesses and policymakers, we test our ideas on the ground and in the water in search of the most effective solutions. We then work to scale those proven solutions to fight climate change.
Through research and practice, we have identified three proven climate resilience strategies that, if scaled through policy, can significantly change the planet’s trajectory in the face of climate change:
Read on to learn more about our climate solutions and how we can continue to partner together to fight climate change by developing and supporting policy in these key areas.
Fire Resilient Communities
Policy Solutions | Fire Resilient Communities
Governor’s Revised Budget: The Gov. has proposed $1 billion in funding to support critical fire prevention/resilience and $5.1 billion for water, infrastructure & drought response.
- Wildfire Resilience (AB 9) | Assembly Member Wood: This legislation would increase CA’s capacity to prevent and reduce the impact of wildfires.
The terrifying scenes of megafires devastating natural and human communities are becoming a relentless part of our life in the Golden State with each year setting new records for the “largest,” “most damaging,” “most costly,” and tragically, the “most deadly” we’ve ever seen. In addition to staggering statistics on lives lost to fires and homes burned to the ground, hundreds of thousands of Californians have had to evacuate their homes, have experienced power outages, and millions have been exposed to unhealthy levels of smoke and air pollution.
These megafires are driven by many factors including extreme weather, land use decisions and a century of forest and wildfire mismanagement, leaving many communities and natural lands a spark away from catastrophe.
In the face of megafires, we have a responsibility to invest in and create fire resilient communities. To do this, we must thoughtfully consider where we build new homes for California’s ever-growing population and rethink land use policies that put people in harm’s way by providing incentives to build in safe and sustainable locations. We must consider the impact of wildfires on home insurance availability and whether there are innovative insurance models that can incentivize resilience-enhancing land management. We also must adapt our existing communities to the escalating threat of fires by making them more resilient through fire-safe building retrofit incentives, evacuation planning and science-based interventions like wildfire buffers.
The 2018 Camp Fire decimated the town of Paradise—claiming 85 lives, destroying over 18,000 structures and causing billions of dollars in damage. In the wake of devastating megafires like the Camp Fire, before we begin to rebuild, we must first ask hard questions, like, “How do we break this cycle and better protect people and communities?”
TNC scientists are partnering with key stakeholders in the Paradise community to demonstrate how redirecting development away from wildland urban boundaries in tandem with buffers may better protect people and communities most vulnerable to these natural disasters. In 2019, TNC partnered with the Paradise Recreation and Park District to research and pilot the development of the first Wildfire Buffer—a greenbelt made up of formerly developed properties around the town, repurposed as open space and managed for resilience to serve as a protective buffer between people and the wildlands. You can read more about wildfire resilience efforts including wildfire buffers in our storymap & report below.
Fire Resilient Forests
Policy Solutions | Fire Resilient Forests
- Governor’s Revised Budget: The Gov. has proposed $1 billion in funding to support critical fire prevention/resilience and $5.1 billion for water, infrastructure & drought response.
- Prescribed Fire (AB 642) | Assemb. Friedman: This legislation would increase the use of prescribed fire across CA.
- Good Neighbor Authority (AB 697) | Assemb. Chau: This legislation would establish a CA program for ecological restoration and fire resiliency projects on national forest lands.
Megafires continue to decimate California forests. Last year alone, 4.2 million acres burned, the largest annual number ever recorded in our state’s history. Forests play a critical role for both people and nature, providing clean water (60% of California’s clean water supply comes from Sierra Nevada forests), clean air, carbon storage, recreation and wildlife habitat. These values are increasingly threatened by megafires. By protecting our forests from extreme fire, we are protecting their ability to store carbon over the long term, an important tool in our fight against climate change. We are also protecting important wildlife species like the California spotted owl from critical habitat loss.
Ecological Forestry Solution
While we can’t stop megafires overnight, there is something we can invest in immediately to better protect people and nature in the face of wildfire: ecological forestry. Ecological forestry means controlled burns and ecological thinning to reduce the amount of small trees and brush that make wildfires so destructive. Science shows that these techniques deliver a one-two punch, reducing the risk of megafires in fire-adapted conifer forests like the Sierra and promoting healthier, more resilient forest conditions.
Ecological Forestry Solution
TNC’s forest restoration work focuses on the forested headwaters of the Sierra Nevada, the source of most of Californian’s water. Working with partners, we’ve shown that ecological forestry works, and that through better forest management, we can reduce wildfire intensity and support resilient habitats in our most important watersheds.
Accelerating forest restoration would not only have many benefits for nature, it would also support jobs and a restoration economy in our rural communities. With additional workforce training, both ecological thinning and controlled burns can support critically important jobs in rural areas with high unemployment. Investing in appropriately scaled biomass energy facilities and mills designed to process small diameter trees would also create additional jobs. Additionally, that investment would allow for more acres of forest to be restored by providing an economic use for the byproducts of restoration.
We urge policymakers to increase funding for ecological thinning, controlled burns and wood product innovation and to address the policy and practical barriers to implementing ecological forestry at a scale and pace that can match the challenge at hand.
Health Impacts of Fire
In addition to the significant losses in our communities and forests, smoke from high intensity wildfires has also resulted in harmful air pollution in nearly every corner of our state and beyond. When large megafires occur, wildfire smoke immediately impacts nearby communities and then can be carried by the wind thousands of miles settling over urban communities and towns located far from the megafire’s location. While we are just beginning to understand the health impacts of megafires, we already know that fire related air pollution has resulted in an increase in asthma attacks and heart damage.
TNC partnered with Stanford University to evaluate whether controlled burning, to reduce fuel levels in forests, might help protect the health of children who live nearby. The study’s preliminary findings suggest that the answer is yes. Smoke from controlled burns is lower in volume of pollutants than wildfire smoke, and children’s immune systems respond better to controlled burn smoke when compared to wildfire smoke. Now we are helping Stanford enroll more willing participants in their study, including those who are likely to be most impacted by smoke: the front line fire-workers who manage fires and the residents of the Sierra Nevada communities closest to the fires. You can learn more about our joint study below.
Policy Solution | Climate Bond
- Climate Bond (SB 45 & AB 1500): If passed by the CA legislature, the Climate Bond would be placed on the November 2022 ballot, giving voters the ability to support investments that would curb megafires and reduce the impacts of floods, droughts, excessive heat and sea level rise in CA.
California is one of the most climate-vulnerable states in North America. According to the California Natural Resources Agency’s Fourth Climate Assessment, if we continue on our “business as usual” path, the cost of climate change will reach $113 billion annually by 2050. With the knowledge that an investment in preventative measures now would not only protect people and nature, but also save state agencies and California residents billions of dollars in future damages, California cannot afford to wait to invest in climate prevention and adaptation.
With natural resource spending at just 3% of the total California budget, there is insufficient funding to address our state’s critical climate vulnerabilities, resulting in growing risks to public safety, health and the environment. The Climate Bond is a critical tool to help fill the funding void making much needed investments to curb megafires and reduce the impacts of floods, droughts, excessive heat and sea level rise in California, including funding for home hardening and defensible space protection.
Key Bond Elements
Key Bond Elements
TNC is hard at work advocating for a comprehensive Climate Bond that both identifies the best solutions to address the diverse climate problems facing California and secures adequate funding to bring those strategies to life. Critical elements include:
- A well-funded bond: Climate change is changeable but only if we make an investment that is on par with the scale of the problem our state is facing. A well-funded bond aligned with other investments that meet our climate needs will ensure all of our critical categories are covered. If we reduce the bond amount, one if not all critical risk categories (wildfire, flooding/sea level rise, contaminated drinking water) will suffer, resulting in costly bailouts and unnecessary risks to human health and safety.
- Key agency partnerships: In order to ensure bond funds are used efficiently and effectively, we must identify the right agencies to guide implementation of the bond strategies. Here are three key partners: California Natural Resources Agency, Wildlife Conservation Board and Regional Conservancies.
Nature-Based Climate Solutions
Policy | Nature-Based Climate Solutions
- Drought Package: The Senate’s $3 billion drought package will help ensure safe drinking water is available for all Californians while also providing immediate investments in science to measure drought impacts and funding to support sustainable groundwater management.
- Climate Goal: Natural and Working Lands (AB 284) | Assemb. Rivas/TNC Sponsor: TNC is sponsoring this legislation to establish a clear role for nature to help mitigate carbon dioxide emissions and build overall climate resilience in California by directing state agencies to establish a climate goal for the state’s natural and working lands in support of carbon neutrality.
- Carbon Neutrality (AB1395) | Assemb. Muratsuchi & Garcia: This legislation declares the policy of the state to achieve carbon neutrality no later than 2045 and calls for a scoping plan that includes measures and sequestration goals consistent with achieving carbon neutrality.
- Resilient Merced (SB 359) | Sen. Caballero: With Merced County as a pilot, this bill would provide support to counties to integrate nature-based activities into climate plans & implement them.
Nature is our solution. California’s natural and working lands—its forests, grasslands, wetlands, farmlands, rangelands and urban green spaces—are key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere and protecting people and wildlife from the harmful impacts of climate change. In fact, our land has the potential to reduce greenhouse gases by up to 514 million metric tons by the year 2050—a reduction that’s approximately equivalent to reducing three times all of California’s 2018 transportation emissions.
However, urban sprawl, megafires, intensive land use and climate change threaten our natural and working lands’ ability to sequester carbon as well as our water supply. In the face of climate change and without immediate intervention and careful stewardship, these healthy landscapes are at risk of becoming an increasing net source of emissions instead of a healthy net “sink” of carbon dioxide. If we act now, we can change this trajectory.
Nature-Based Climate Solutions
Carbon Neutral by 2045
California has a legacy of leadership in tackling climate change. The State has embraced ambitious climate goals, including a commitment to reach carbon neutrality (or net zero emissions) by 2045. But reaching this target will require us to use every climate tool available, including our lands.
The State cannot meet its long-term climate goals without nature-based strategies. Check out our storymap to take a deeper dive into our leading nature-based climate solutions.
Our Climate Can’t Wait
In order to fight climate change and reduce the growing threats it poses to public safety, our health and the environment, we urge legislators to take bold climate action now. Please join us in fighting climate change at scale with these effective policy solutions.