On Saturday, California’s ostensible governor, Gavin Newsom, used the charred landscape of his own state to proclaim his impotence against the wildfires currently incinerating his state.
Newsom, like his predecessor Jerry Brown, believes in an unusual theory positing, basically, that free-market capitalism alters the global climate such that California keeps catching on fire.
“This perfect storm, the debate is over around climate change,” Newsom said from atop an ash heap. “Just come to the state of California, observe it with your own eyes. It’s not an intellectual debate, it’s not even debatable. We’re in the midst of a climate emergency. We’re in the midst of a climate crisis. We are experiencing weather conditions the likes of which we’ve never experienced in our lifetime. We’re experiencing what so many people predicted decades and decades ago, but all of that now is reality.”
In actual reality, the reason California’s wildfires are getting increasingly out of control is not because of climate change, but because of California’s elected leaders’ “climate change” superstitions. Rather than employing basic, time-tested steps at mitigating wildfire risk that mankind has employed for millennia, California politicians instead offer sacrifices of their own economic capacity to atone for earlier environmental interventions and other sins of unfettered commerce.
For decades, California has attempted to remove man’s footprint from their landscape — destroying water reservoirs, banning an ever-expanding array of automobiles, and deconstructing fossil fuel power generation plants. This “return to nature” approach has unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, turned the state into a tinderbox that — when combined with the droughts that have plagued the area since Americans first settled the area more than 150 years ago — make the state more susceptible to wildfires every year.
Since entering the governor’s office, Newsom’s eschewed these practical wildfire mitigation strategies, seemingly preferring to watch his state smolder so he can score new talking points validate his climate beliefs. California’s fate is thus dependent upon far-off theoretical solutions literally requiring a global new world, even as common sense measures remain at his disposal.
But if Californians decide it’s time to start protecting their state even if their politicians won’t, here are five basic steps to take:
— Hydration vs. Drainage. Over the course of most of human history, societies have attempted to collect water at various altitudes (through terraces, reservoirs, farm ponds, etc.) to hydrate their landscapes and ensure the viability of crops. Over the last 50 years, the federal government has begun viewing water management more as a drainage issue, pushing regulations that shuttle free-standing water to streams and rivers that ultimately empty into the ocean.
The popular farmer behind the “permaculture” movement, Joel Salatin, explains why we should be doing the opposite: "The goal for water is to keep the raindrops as close to their initial point of fall for as long as possible. Imagine the landscape like a huge sponge, obviously with seams and folds and ridges. The faster the water moves into that sponge, the driver the ridges will be. The more water we can hold up in the ridges, the more total water the sponge can hold.”
“What we’re after is base flow,” Salatin argues in his book, "Folks, This Ain’t Normal.” “That is the continual, regenerative movement of water through the soil substrate, gradually moving down from higher elevations. Remember that one pound of organic matter holds four pounds of water.”
California’s system of water storage and transportation, built in the late 1800s, was specifically engineered to withstand droughts of up to five years. More recently, this system is being deconstructed so that water is instead routed into the Pacific Ocean. In 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opined that a two-inch fish known in California as the delta smelt were at risk, and ordered pumps that hydrate the San Joaquin Valley to be turned off. "As a result, tens of billions of gallons of water from mountains east and north of Sacramento have been channeled away from farmers and into the ocean, leaving hundreds of thousands of acres of arable land fallow or scorched,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
Predictably, the San Joaquin Valley, once known as “salad bowl of the world,” is arid and at risk of becoming another dust bowl. During the last drought in 2014, several California congressmen sponsored the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act, which would have turned the pumps back on, but the bill died in a Democrat-controlled Senate.
Gov. Newsom could challenge federal regulations like these that are squeezing his state dry. As the delta smelt exists only within California, organizations like the Pacific Legal Foundation say the federal government lacks authority under the Commerce Clause to mandate these water restrictions. (Rather than turn these pumps back on, Newsom is proposing a bizarre $17 billion project that would build two tunnels under the San Joaquin Valley, but which is mostly confusing Californians.)
— Rainwater Harvesting. Facing regular droughts, California should be doing everything it can to harvest rain when it comes. In one sensible act of water management, Newsom’s predecessor, Gov. Brown, signed a bill in 2011 that legalized private water harvesting (enabling Californians to do things like buy rain barrels and collect rainfall for their personal use). But Newsom should go further, encouraging Californians to play a part in saving their state and investing in rain barrels, even providing tax credits for their purchase and installation. Compared to the expenses borne by California’s CO2-limiting regulations, rainwater harvesting is a bargain — and it has an immediate impact.
This winter, California was blessed with massive storms that resulted in some of the deepest snowpacks in the Sierra Nevada since 1998. Knowing his state’s increasing threat from aridity, Newsom should have done all he could to stockpile that water in every possible way. Thousands of ponds and reservoirs should be built across the state; instead, nature’s bounty was once again wasted.
— Desalination Plants. Situated alongside the Pacific Ocean, California actually enjoys unlimited water resources, if it were to get serious about constructing water desalination plants. Israel, for example, is one of the driest lands in the world, yet thanks to desalination, makes enough water to export to neighboring countries. Desalination plants turn salty ocean water into potable drinking water, but their construction in California has been mired in red tape, as environmentalists think they carry too large a carbon footprint. Other environmental concerns — such as intake valves accidentally sucking in marine life and safely returning the "brine" byproduct to the ocean — have already been solved through engineering. The problem now is that California's regulatory bodies make bringing new plants online almost impossible.
Poseiden Water, which is attempting to build a plant near Huntington Beach that would produce enough water to supply 112,000 homes year-round, can't get past the red tape.
“There’s been no lack of public involvement since we started permitting this project in 2001,” says Scott Maloni, a Poseidon vice president, as reported in the Los Angeles Times. “Every time we get close to the finish line, the state changes the rules of the game.”
The company doesn't expect the permitting process to complete until 2018, and then it has to begin an environmental impact statement, which could add years more of delays.
California, as Newsom frequently tells the Trump Administration, is facing a humanitarian crisis. It's time he started slashing red tape.
— Destructive Federal Forest Management. Gov. Newsom has been a mere bystander as other elected officials in Western states have petitioned the federal government to return control of forests to the states. Federal forest management is one of the major culprits of seemingly constant forest fires. As the Daily Signal recently reported:
In a May congressional hearing, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., said, “Forty-five years ago, we began imposing laws that have made the management of our forests all but impossible.”
He went on to say that federal authorities have done a poor job of implementing methods to reduce the number of deadly fires, and that this has been devastating for America’s wildlands.
“Time and again, we see vivid boundaries between the young, healthy, growing forests managed by state, local, and private landholders, and the choked, dying, or burned federal forests,” McClintock said. “The laws of the past 45 years have not only failed to protect the forest environment—they have done immeasurable harm to our forests.”
In a recent House address, McClintock pinned the blame of poor forest management on bad 1970s laws, like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. He said these laws “have resulted in endlessly time-consuming and cost-prohibitive restrictions and requirements that have made the scientific management of our forests virtually impossible.”
Even if Gov. Newsom believes California is ultimately at the mercy of larger climate trends he's powerless to overcome, he can still seek to proactively manage the state's forests to reduce the risk of wildfire.
— Preach Proactive Solutions, Not Fatalism. The many times Gov. Newsom has faced a water/fire crisis, he's responded as he did Saturday, telling Californians there's little that can be done, for the state is merely paying for humanity's sins of emitting carbon dioxide. The message is that beyond feeling guilty every time you shower, there's little anyone can do. Which is exactly the opposite message a leader should be driving during the face of such a large crisis.
California's wildfire problems are eminently solvable, if proactive steps are taken. But rather than use these repeated natural disasters to rally his state to protect itself from whatever nature may bring, Gov. Newsom apparently prefers exploiting these tragedies to evangelize and win over converts to his climate change communion.
Californians, take note: If wildfires do become "the new normal," don't blame global warming, blame your governor.