SNA survey results: Legislative and Gubernatorial budget inaction cripples water protection in Sierra

New Survey Documents How Freeze on Millions of Dollars in Contracts
Deals a Damaging Blow to Sierra Economy

January 21, 2009

(Sierra Nevada, CA) – A recent survey by the Sierra Nevada Alliance confirms that the State’s stop work order on bond funded contracts as of December 17, 2008 has effected 60% of surveyed conservation groups in the Sierra Nevada, with 26% laying off workers to date. The stop work order has withdrawn millions of dollars stimulating the Sierra economy, turning the existing green economy of the Sierra to muddy brown.

A survey with 68 conservation groups responding in the Sierra Nevada found that not only had 26% laid off staff, but 64% had laid off contractors. Projects impacted included restoration of Sierra headwaters that supply quality drinking water to over 65% of California. Other projects halted include acquiring critical lands to protect water, creating fire defensible space, monitoring water quality, and restoring important habitat. Groups reported that the majority of projects suspended related to restoration and water monitoring. For those groups impacted, the majority (55%) had over half their annual budget affected.  To date, 7% of groups responding closed the doors of their organization completely.

“It’s ironic in a time when stimulating the economy through ‘shovel ready’ green jobs is all the buzz, our legislators just ripped the green shovels out of ‘shovel happening’ projects,” said Joan Clayburgh, Executive Director of the Sierra Nevada Alliance. “In the Sierra’s rural communities, these were great full time jobs with benefits. This is only the tip of the iceberg. A number of groups indicated they plan to lay off more workers next month if the freeze on state contracts continues.”

The survey was issued to conservation groups the week of January 5th and results tabulated on January 12th. Sixty-eight groups took the survey. Groups surveyed spanned the 400 mile-long mountain range, from Lassen County to Kern County, and included groups on the eastern and western slope of the Sierra. Conservation groups surveyed included land trusts, watershed groups, resource conservation districts, and grassroots community groups.

An example of the type of work stopped was the Sierra Nevada Alliance’s Yard and Garden program, which helped homeowners defend their property from wildfire, while also reducing pollution that can runoff their yards into Sierra waters. This project provided homeowners with guidebooks and consultation to help them landscape their yards to achieve their personal goals, while also making their homes more defensible from fire. More than 600,000 people in the Sierra live in areas CalFire classifies as very high or extreme fire threat areas. Contractors were working in four counties to provide this homeowner outreach and free consultation. All contractors were told to stop work on this project as of December 17.

The suspension of bond funding has resulted in organizations laying off skilled, talented and committed experts. Not only does this have an impact on the Sierra economy, this talent may leave the Sierra forever.

“The 23-year old Feather River CRM had to lay off all 6 staff members effective January 2nd,” reported Jim Wilcox, restoration specialist with the Feather River CRM. “This halts work on 9 watershed projects affecting 22 miles of stream channel and 1800 acres of floodplain restoration.”

In addition, past work performed under state contracts is not being reimbursed. Some groups shared stories describing past invoices they were owed money on that dated back to July 2008. This action jeopardizes the financial sustainability of small conservation organizations Because many small conservation organizations were depending on payment to cover future operating costs such as salaries and rent. The severe strain on cash flow cripples the capacity of non-profit conservation groups.

The Sierra Nevada AmeriCorps Partnerships is another example of how widespread the effects of the stop work order are, losing 5 of its 2008 partners. The AmeriCorps program in the Sierra places 27 members with 19 conservation partner groups each year to do watershed restoration, monitoring and environmental education. Due to the state freeze on contracts, 5 groups could not provide their match funding to host a member in 2009 and dropped out of the program. This means the important work those AmeriCorps members were going to do for those partner’s communities will not happen at all in 2009.

“The state is not indicating when or even if they will reauthorize work to start again on these contracts,” continued Clayburgh. “The one thing that has been made clear is that the first step to getting the existing green economy resuscitated is for the legislature and governor to pass a budget. It’s time to put politics aside. The repercussions to our rural economy and environment are severe.”

The Sierra Nevada Alliance was inspired to survey conservation groups after laying off four of their own staff due to the stop-work order and disbanding their entire Watershed Program.

“We were devastated as an organization to be given no forewarning and then to have to stop all our watershed efforts immediately,” explained Clayburgh. “We knew other groups around the Sierra would be experiencing similar challenges and issued the survey to get a better grasp on the current impacts. Sadly, more workers will lose jobs in another month if the state doesn’t get the budget passed.”