March 1, 2013
The economy of the state of California is one of the largest in the world. In fact, if California were its own country, its economy would rank eighth against other nations. But the economy and development of California are closely tied to various environmental factors, the implications of which can be tremendous. One such factor – the Sierra Nevada snowpack – drives some of the state’s largest sectors: agriculture, tourism and industry. Californians also rely on the snowpack as a major source of domestic water. Decreases in annual snowfall as well as sooner melting times in the year could have drastic effects on the state’s economy and greatly hinder future developments.
As California’s main watershed, the Sierra Nevada plays a major role in water supply and the hydrological system. A normal snowpack/precipitation usage cycle would be one in which water stored in reservoirs would be used during the cold season, while during the hot season water would be supplied by the melting snow. Although reservoirs reach low levels by the end of the warm months, they are soon replenished by snow and precipitation during the wet season. However, this usage cycle is based on the assumption that annual snowpack will melt at approximately the same time every year, and that cold season precipitation will sufficiently replenish water sources to meet annual needs. Rising temperatures have caused disequilibrium in the cycle of the snowpack, forcing the snow to melt earlier (reducing the spring snowpack) and increasing the risk of water shortage during the hot summer months. Increased temperatures also cause for precipitation to fall as rain (instead of snow), meaning more freshwater is lost to runoff.
Volumes of snow on April 1st – when the snowpack normally peaks – have been declining in low elevation areas where increasing temperatures have stronger effects. A survey done in January 2012 from the California Department of Water Resources showed one of the lowest snow levels ever recorded; the snowpack was only to 19% of its capacity. California’s economy is sensitive to any change in the snowpack level since the snowmelt accounts for 1/3 of the state’s water supply.
California’s agricultural sector is worth $30 billion annually, and employs more than one million people. The industry produces a quarter of the nation’s crops. Farmers could face significant economic hardship if the rate of snowmelt in the Sierra Nevadas continues to accelerate. At the height of the recession, The New York Times reported central valley unemployment rates at three to four times the rest of the country, fueled in part by a major water shortage from 2009 to 2011. A study conducted in 2006 analyzing the potential conditions of a group of farmers in the central valley predicted several scenarios caused by lower levels of snowpack and early snowmelt: One was a harsh drought with $2 billion in revenue losses. Additionally, water scarcity followed by drought could create $2.6 billion in revenue losses due to limitations of water usage. These potential scenarios illustrate how sensitive California’s economy is to any fluctuations in water availability.
Changing snow conditions also reduce the moisture in the soil and vegetation of the Sierra Nevada; these conditions promote warmer temperatures with drier air, which combined are the main cause of wildfires that affect Southern California’s economy every year. Forestry and Protection stated that in 2007 the state wildfires cost nearly $300 million, while infrastructure damages comprised about $250 million. Estimations by the Forestry and Protection predict that drier and hotter seasons could increase water scarcity statewide which could create costs up to $500 million annually by 2085.
Though few studies specifically analyze potential threats to California’s tourism economy, the implications of the data on snowpack and melt are worrisome. Winter recreation sports and tourism contribute significantly to the state economy. Diminished snowfall and shorter snow seasons could mean that ski resorts and California ecotourism take a massive financial hit.
Lastly, diminished water supply could take a drastic toll on domestic water use patterns. Especially in drier areas – the Los Angeles area, for example – water rationing policies may be enforced. The expansion and development of newer communities could be prevented due to limited water availability.
Environmentalists and economists alike should take note of the Sierra Nevada’s precarious snowpack situation. Continued declines in annual snowfall and earlier snowmelt could prove devastating to the state economy.
By: Austin Reagan and Beatriz Lopez
October 30, 2011
n July 2011, Representative Ken Calvert (R-California) introduced the Reducing Environmental Barriers to Unified Infrastructure and Land Development (REBUILD) Act. Currently, construction and land development projects must not only meet state regulations, but also federal standards created by the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Under the REBUILD Act, development projects would have to comply with state regulations only, provided that these state regulations uphold NEPA standards or higher. In effect, the REBUILD Act seeks to merge state and federal legislation to expedite the process of bringing development projects to fruition without sacrificing environmental protection.
As it stands, many states, such as California, already feature more stringent regulations than NEPA standards.Calvert himself called the REBUILD Act an attempt to “remove bureaucratic red tape” and “streamline the environmental review processes for critical infrastructure projects without compromising environmental protections.” Estimates place the amount of time saved by the REBUILD Act, should it be passed, around 18 months per project.
While resistance to strict government legislation is nothing new, the current economic climate poses a unique challenge to environmental protection. As this collection of polls from 2007-2011 shows, there is often a dichotomy presented between the environment and the economy; if one prospers, the other suffers. A March 2010 Gallup Poll found that 53% of Americans surveyed said that economic growth takes precedence over environmental protection. The same study concluded that American concern for the environment had hit a 20 year low. Opinions are also especially polarized across party lines. A 2010 CNN poll reported that Republicans, and to a lesser extent, Independents, felt that “economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent.” A majority of Democrats, however, felt that the environment should be protected, even at the risk of curbing economic growth.
Yet the issue of too much environmental regulation is not specific to Democrats or Republicans; nor is it limited to even The United States.“TheRedTapeChallenge” as it is known in the United Kingdom is an initiative launched by Parliament in early 2011 to reevaluate government regulation in a variety of sectors, including the environment. The Red Tape Challenge addresses the issue of regulation and red tape by attempting to encourage greater environmental and societal responsibility. The creators of The Red Tape Challenge recognize the importance of regulations but also the danger of having too many and the impact on an economy and business. On their website they sum up their opinions by saying, “This government has set a clear aim: to leave office having reduced the overall burden of regulation. With more than 21,000 regulations active in the UK today, this won’t be an easy task – but we’re determined to cut red tape.”
Essentially the United Kingdom is opening up their Environmental Regulations and Policies to be commented on and edited by the people. However just because a group of businessmen want one regulation cut doesn’t mean that it will be because the Ministers will have a total of 3 months to determine which regulations will be kept and why they will be kept. This is done so that the red tape will be cut, not the vital environmental regulations. In order for the regulations to remain the same cases will be heard on both sides and argued until a decision is made. However there is much concern as to whether or not this policy will be what is necessary to avoid Red Tape or whether it will undermine important regulations, and Britain remains largely divided over the issue.
About the authors: Makena Crowe and Minda Monteagudo are working towards their bachelor degrees in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
October 10, 2011
As global population continues to rise, the amount of freshwater available for human consumption becomes an increasing issue. Though sources are rapidly depleting, the United States in general has yet to understand the importance of conserving water.
For coastal states such as California, an alternative means to obtaining freshwater is right at their disposal: the ocean.
The spotlight on desalination has been glowing brighter in recent years, as researchers debate on whether or not it is an adequate provider of water for the public. But while desalination provides a new source of freshwater, the environmental and monetary costs outweigh the potential benefits considering the lack of focus on conservation in California.
As far as the environment goes, negative effects of desalination are far too great at this point; the debris left over from distilling the water is put back into the ocean, increasing salinity and killing off biodiversity that is not adapted to such high levels of salt. According to David Rosenfeld, “desalination plants have the potential to entrap sea lions, millions of fish and other marine life,” their environmental impacts also including “the heavy concentrates of salt and the remains of other chemicals that could be dumped into the ocean,” as he writes in his article, Conservationists Push Back Against Desalination in California. When species all around the world are already rapidly declining due to anthropogenic reasons, consciously decreasing ocean biodiversity is not the answer to finding more sources of freshwater.
In addition, desalination is an extremely energy intensive process. Rosenfeld furthers his argument to say that desalination has a massive carbon footprint—around 40 percent of the operating cost is the cost of electricity used to power to plant.
Even while the issue of wasted energy can be mitigated with improved technology, the biodiversity lost cannot be replaced, and the costs put into the additional technology renders the whole business impractical.
While desalination seems like one of the only options for increasing our freshwater resources, in addition to the environmental degradation, it is currently not economical. A proposed plant in Carlsbad is estimated to cost $700 million dollars and will satisfy only 8% of San Diego’s water needs. For this 8% of the water supply it will use as much electricity as 45,000 homes, which is an additional recurrent operating cost on top of the $700 million. The amount of energy required for desalination is extremely high and will be very costly. The cost of water from the desalination plant will be tied to the cost of energy and as the price of energy rises, so will the price of water. “The Public Utilities Commission has approved a plan to allow publicly traded California American Water to potentially quadruple water bills on 40,000 ratepayers in order to pay for the proposed plant,” writes Rosenfeld. Consumers are unaware that the cost of desalination plants will be passed on to them, which is why they are cost-effective for the owners of the plant.
In terms of the allocation of state money, while our education system struggles on budget cuts, Proposition 50 (passed in 2002) provide $50 million to support desalination projects. This year, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California reduced its conservation to $10 million while allocating $350 million for the Carlsbad desalination plant and promising $250 per acre-foot of fresh water produced to future desalination plants. Rather than spending tons of money on desalination plants that are harmful to the environment, we should first focus on maximizing conservation. While at some point, desalination might be necessary for human survival, we should increase our conservation first: “In parts of Southern California, up to 70 percent of all household water is used outdoors, mostly to water lawns, and an estimated 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater drains into the ocean each year” (Rosenfeld). Southern California is a desert and people living here need to accept that they cannot have a green lawn. If you want a green lawn, move to Northern California or Oregon. Otherwise plant some native plants that don’t need as much water and stop exploiting our water resources just to have a pretty front yard. In terms of in house conservation, low-flow toilets and showerheads, efficient washing machines and dishwashers could all be made extremely affordable if state subsidies were reallocated from desalination plants to conservation technologies.
Desalination plants cause too much environmental degradation and are too expensive to be implanted when there so much there is so much left to be done as far as conservation. We can reevaluate the need for desalination plants when excessive water use has been reduced significantly.
About the authors: Leslie Chang and Lauren Taymor are working towards their bachelor degrees in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
September 12, 2011
The Sierra Nevada Snowpack is one of California’s most important natural water reservoirs. The snowpack is formed during the fall and winter and as it melts in the spring and summer (the two seasons when California’s water demand is greatest), slowly releases about 15 million acre-feet of water. Because of its role in the water supply within California, changes in its formation and melting cycles can play a major role in the economy, infrastructure, and land development of the state overall.
The 2011 snowpack made headlines for its large size; over the winter it developed to 165% its average size, momentarily putting Californians at ease about their water demands being met. This good news comes after years of smaller snowpacks and subsequent droughts. Yet even in a year when the snowpack is projected to meet California’s water needs, there is still cause for concern.
Though it is well known that the size of the snow pack varies, recently there have also been changes in the pack’s melting cycle. Research published in 2008 suggests that the rate at which the snowpack melts has been increasing annually. So much so, scientists predict that by 2100 the snowpack will melt completely a full two months earlier than it does now. Current infrastructure, dams and other water storage and transportation facilities, have been built to best deal with the previous predictable cycle of snow melt. As the climate changes and temperatures in the area increase, the sudden burst of water earlier than expected and larger than these structures were built for threatens to overwhelm the storage facilities and threatens to increase the risk of both floods and waters shortages. Uncontrolled floods and the inability to properly store water from a mass runoff endangers development and the economy in that it threatens to damage development, which render the dams and other storage facilities useless, and after the runoff has ended suddenly there is little water left over for the seasons in which it is most desperately needed.
Land in the Sierras has long been considered prime for development. Since 1973, some 800,000 acres of woodland have been converted to new land uses. It has been projected that by 2040 almost 20% of private forests in the area will be affected or altered by even more development. More development would add more greenhouse gas emissions and increase erosion and runoff, all changing the behavior of the snowpack further. Development and industry could also introduce pollutants to the snowpack, as they have in the past.
The ecosystem accounts for approximately $2.2 billion of commodities and services annually. In 2005, agriculture production in California counties using Sierra Nevada water was valued at more than $18 billion. Any change or damage to the Sierra Nevada ecosystem has dramatic repercussions for tourism /recreation, agriculture and resource extraction opportunities. The water resources themselves contribute more than 60% and yield 65% of the developed urban and rural water supplies for California. In addition, the Sierra is also home to one of the greatest areas of biodiversity, and many rare organisms.
The main strategies for preserving the Sierra snowpack recently have been greenhouse gas emission reduction and water conservation and recycling. The fact remains, however, that the population of California continues to grow while their main water supply source does not. The steps proposed by the California Department of Water Resources can only counteract the observed changes in the snowpack’s melting cycle, but even a healthy snowpack will reach a point where it cannot meet California’s growing needs.
About the authors: Makena Crowe and Minda Monteagudo are working towards their bachelor’s degrees in Environmental Studies and Political Science, respectively, in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.