Climate Change: Fire and Rain in California

The state’s headwaters are ground-zero for the impact of global climate change on California’s water and air. This policy paper, developed by The Sierra Fund with input from the Sierra Institute for Community and Environment, discusses the need for significant investment to address the forecasted impacts of climate change on forest fire and watershed health in the state.

Between millions of dead trees, an aging water infrastructure designed for a different century, and historic poverty and joblessness throughout the region, the headwaters of the state are in crisis and are ill-prepared for catastrophic changes ahead.

Fire threatens the forested headwaters of California. The many efforts to reduce risk have in large part been opportunistic “random acts” of conservation that include using thinning and controlled burns around the region. The condition of the forests are a result of a century of mining combined with short-sighted forestry and land use practices such as fire suppression and housing development in forests. Recognizing these historic conditions while building a comprehensive response to the dangerous conditions of the forests requires strategic action.

Rain and snow in the headwaters is a key driver of California’s high performance economy. As snowfall gives way to atmospheric rivers under global climate change, the already challenged built infrastructure will be pushed to the limit. Oroville Dam is but one poignant example. California’s reservoirs are filling up with sediment faster than anticipated and, in fact, the USGS estimates that half of California’s reservoir capacity has been lost to sedimentation already. As the state loses its largest piece of water infrastructure – snowpack – we are simultaneously losing the capacity of our built reservoirs, even as we struggle to store more water.

We are in the 21st century, in the fifth largest economy on earth, delivering water to millions of Californians using technology developed by the Roman Empire – open wooden flumes and dirt ditches. Thousands of miles of these ditches winding through the forest, the capillaries of the state water system, are inefficient and falling apart.

In addition, an unknown number of abandoned debris dams holding mine and mill tailings that litter the towns and forests of the Gold Country are growing old and threatening to burst, flooding waterways and conveyance structures with toxic heavy metals. These debris control dams, such as the Argonaut Mine’s abandoned debris dam now threatening downtown Jackson and the debris dams scattered among the headwater creeks of the Tahoe National Forest, pose a significant threat to the state’s water quality when they collapse – which they will do unless they are managed properly. The contaminated material now being held back by these failing dams (150 year old concrete structures 30 – 50’ high) will flow into the state’s water system under the pressure of the new precipitation regime unless these dams are repaired.

Proposed Actions
The Sierra Fund applauds the executive order and announcement of funding by Governor Brown on May 10, 2018 to combat tree mortality, increase the ability of our forests in California to capture carbon and to improve forest management. We are very interested in the portion of the order that refers to reservoir sedimentation. This executive order is an important step in the effort improve the capacity of the state’s natural and built infrastructure in the headwaters to adapt to changes in precipitation while improving the health of the forests, meadows, rivers and communities in the region.

From almost every federal, state and local level of government there is a unifying clamor for action to address the impacts of climate change. New monies from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF) and other sources are pouring in to make an impact. There are forestry collaboratives, meadow partnerships, integrated watershed management groups and fire safe councils ready to spend the money about to be unleashed.

The time has come to tie these efforts together to address the impact of climate change on California’s headwaters comprehensively – reducing both the threat of wildfire and water infrastructure failure to the region’s communities.

Three proposed actions to restore resiliency to the headwaters in the face of climate change:

  1. Direct GGRF money to the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) for a grant program that will support Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) projects that incorporate the newly required “Global Climate Change” analysis as part of the approved IRWM plans. IRWM groups are required to write and adopt a Global Climate Change element to their plan, and to generate and prioritize a list of projects that would promote this element, but there is no funding to implement these vital projects. GGRF could fund multiple benefit projects that target meadow restoration and forest thinning on scarred landscapes where legacy activities such as mining occurred, using newly developed “best management practices” to reduce fire danger while protecting water quality, reducing discharge of legacy toxins, and improving public safety.
  2. Direct GGRF funding to Department of Conservation (DOC) for a grant program (complementary to their program focusing on GHG reductions on ranch- and farmland) that focuses on improving the ability of the headwater region’s forests and meadows to resist catastrophic fire and sequester carbon. A similar grant program should be funded, set-up and administered by the regional State Conservancies.  The Sierra Nevada Conservancy’s Watershed Improvement Project, for example, provides an excellent model for how to invest these funds for maximum impact. These projects should include some combination of the following benefits:
    • Reduced danger of catastrophic wildfire;
    • Improved water quality, retention and storage;
    • Reduced erosion;
    • Improved habitat for fish and other wildlife;
    • Community economic investment in working landscapes; and
    • Carbon sequestration.

One tool to protect forests and meadows in perpetuity to sequester carbon are conservation acquisitions and easements tied to climate change strategies. Riparian areas including restored wet meadows are especially crucial in this effort as they are excellent at sequestering carbon while providing critical water quality and habitat functions.

Conservation investments must be structured to include both restoration and long-term management. Funding for these acquisitions must include and incentivize restoration activities that improve the resiliency of the landscape, including treatment of dangerous conditions such as perilously overgrown forests – not just pay for the purchase. There are many places in which forests and meadows are too highly damaged to purchase for conservation and then just “walk away.” Forests are NOT self-managing – they often require extensive restoration prior to active management informed by monitoring. In some cases, forests have grown over abandoned mines and mills sites that pose chemical and/or physical hazards that should be addressed prior to implementation of a management regime.

  1. Direct funding to improve water storage toward projects that restore reservoir operation and capacity lost to sedimentation. The most economically efficient and fastest way to improve the quantity of water storage is to restore the storage capacity in structures that have already been built and plumbed into the state’s water system.

DWR needs to assess the current loss of reservoir capacity in the state and prioritize activities to restore capacity. These projects could create multiple benefits including improved storage capacity, improved water quality, improved operational capacity, improved ecosystems and fish habitat, and may improve recreational activities or produce marketable products such as gravel and gold.

Funds from Proposition 1 could be used for some of these activities. DWR should use Proposition 1 funding to invest in a suite of pilot projects to explore best management practices and protocols to restore reservoir capacity and operation. The pilot projects should be carefully selected to address a variety of circumstances and reservoir sizes to help maximize understanding of the different challenges and opportunities that are abundant in the many reservoirs facing sedimentation problems in the state.

DWR should work with the State Water Resources Control Board and other state agencies to develop best management practices, technologies and policies for improving water quality, reservoir operation and capacity that are gleaned from these pilot projects. These pilot projects should be limited to those facilities that are owned and operated by state and local agencies or non-profit organizations that have responsibilities for water facilities, water supply or water management. In addition, these projects should be part of approved regional water management plans.

Ready for Action
The Sierra Fund is dedicated to the proposition that any new investments made in the headwaters must improve both ecosystem and community resiliency. The Sierra Fund’s organizational strategy is described graphically below.