Capital News & Notes
For Clients & Friends of The Gualco Group, Inc.
IN THIS ISSUE – “No One Knows How Long The Boom Will Last”
ECONOMY & ELECTIONS
- Golden State’s Booming Economy on the Brink of Bust?
- Special Elections in Three Assembly Districts: 1Win, 2 Go to Runoffs
- $13 Billion in Water Bonds on 2018 Ballots
- Late Storms Help, Don’t Save Snowpack for 2018
- SoCal Water District Supports Down-Sized Delta Tunnels
- LA Opposes High-Rise Housing at Transit Hubs
- CA v. US on Public Lands Sales
- Forests Are “Ticking Time Bomb”
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FOR THE WEEK ENDING APRIL 6, 2018
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Golden State’s Booming Economy on the Brink of Bust?
California’s economy is booming with record-high employment, record-low unemployment and billions of extra tax dollars flowing into the state treasury.
The official jobless rate dropped to 4.3 percent in February, only slightly above the national rate of 4.1 percent and nearly a full percentage point lower than it was a year earlier.
“The record low unemployment rate signals a taut labor market, but the labor force has been growing at a moderate pace and has enabled the state’s industries to continue hiring,” Robert Kleinhenz, director of research at Beacon Economics and the Center for Forecasting at the University of California-Riverside, said in a recent report.
“Looking at individual industries, continued increases in construction jobs reflect ongoing strength in that sector, while California manufacturing has seen a welcome surge in hiring in recent months following a slowdown at this time a year ago.”
The state Department of Finance reported that while February’s tax collections were slightly below the state budget’s assumption, overall revenues for the 2017-18 fiscal year are $2.6 billion above expectations.
So what’s not to like?
Well, for one thing no one knows how long the current boom will last. The state averages one economic boom and one bust per decade and California’s recovery from the Great Recession now has lasted well beyond historic expectations. In other words, as Gov. Jerry Brown, the Capitol’s resident economic worrywart, often points out, California is overdue for a downturn.
That’s why he wants to squirrel away as much as politically possible of the state’s current flood of revenues, saying they’ll be needed if the economy tanks, even though his “rainy day fund” would be quickly exhausted by even a moderate recession.
Brown’s fellow Democrats in the Legislature are more inclined to spend the bounty, particularly on expanding health coverage to more of the poor, setting up a potential confrontation in Brown’s 16th and final year as governor.
Brown’s worries about the economy mirror those of Cal Lutheran University’s Center for Economic Research and Forecasting.
“We are currently forecasting a convergence in the economic fortunes of California and the nation. While California has historically grown at a rate that is significantly higher than the nation’s, 2017 may have marked a turning point,” the center’s director, Matthew Fienup, said in a recent appraisal.
“Despite being in an expansionary phase of the business cycle and despite a national growth rate that is well below the post-World War II average growth rate, California registered two quarters of growth that were slower even than the nation’s. While growth was accelerating around the country, it appeared to slow down in California.”
There are clearly several negative factors that could sabotage the state’s current boom.
For one thing, President Donald Trump’s imposition of tariffs on imported goods, particularly those from China, and his disdain for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) could have disproportionate impacts on California’s export-heavy economy, particularly technology and agricultural sectors.
For another, fast rising housing costs are making it more difficult for employers to recruit much-needed high-skill employees and compelling many Californians to flee to states where they can afford to live.
As Cal Lutheran’s analysis points out, “For the past 25 years, the number of households and people moving out of California to other states has been greater than those moving into California from other states. This points to a future for the state that exhibits less demographic and economic vitality. Our forecast calls for the net domestic migration trend to continue to worsen. Related to this, the state’s population growth will decline. Population growth and economic growth are closely interlinked.”
Special Elections in Three Assembly Districts: One Win, Two Go to Runoffs
Sydney Kamlager, a Los Angeles community college trustee, was elected Tuesday to the Assembly in a special election while candidates in two other nearby vacant seats are headed to a June 5 runoff.
Kamlager, 45, will serve the remaining seven months in the term of former Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, who cited health issues in his resignation late last year.
Unofficial returns on Tuesday showed her winning almost two-thirds of the votes cast for any of the four candidates on the ballot in the 54th Assembly District — more than enough needed to win the job outright without a runoff election.
“It’s an awesome responsibility I have ahead of me,” Kamlager said.
The Democrat was elected to the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees in 2015. She also serves as district director for state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles). Kamlager cited not only education, but criminal justice reform and poverty as issues she hopes to focus on upon her arrival in Sacramento.
“I think people responded to my experience in the district,” she said.
The Assembly district encompasses communities west of downtown Los Angeles, from Crenshaw to Culver City and as far north as Westwood.
Elections to fill two other Assembly vacancies — caused by the resignations of Democrats Raul Bocanegra of Pacoima and Matt Dababneh of Woodland Hills — were unresolved Tuesday. No candidate received 50% plus one of the votes, and the top two vote-getters in each race will square off on June 5. Bocanegra and Dababneh both resigned in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations.
Early returns indicated bipartisan runoffs in those districts come June: Democrat Luz Rivas and Republican Ricardo Benitez in the 39th Assembly District, and Democrat Jesse Gabriel and Republican Justin Clark in the 45th Assembly District.
Kamlager, who will join the Assembly this month, isn’t finished with campaigning. She is also a candidate for a new full two-year term that begins in December and will have to compete for that stint — as the incumbent — in June.
$13 Billion in Water Bonds on 2018 Ballots
Since 2002, California voters have approved more than $15.5 billion in bonds – voter-approved debt reimbursed with general fund taxes – that have been largely focused on water.
This year California voters will consider whether to approve another $13 billion in water bonds — the $4.1 billion California Clean Water & Safe Parks Act (Proposition 68) in June and the $8.9 billion Water Supply and Water Quality Act of 2018 in November.
Prop. 68, authored by Sen. Kevin de Leόn as SB 5, includes $1.5 billion for parks, $1.5 billion for drought contingency/water supply and $500 million for flood protection. It’s the first parks and water bond since 2006, when the $5.4 billion Prop. 84 was approved.
“It’s a jam-packed bond,” said Caitrin Chappelle, associate director at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center. “It’s not just a water bond. It’s parks, coastal protection and outdoor access.”
Gerald Meral, director of the Natural Heritage Institute’s California Water Program, is the author of the November bond known as theWater Supply and Water Quality Act of 2018, which among other things dedicates $640 million for assisting implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). He said his proposal, which is currently undergoing signature verification with the Secretary of State’s office, is intended to complement Prop. 68, which is broader in scope. Californians, he said, are ready to embrace both measures.
“Typically, in polling usually what polls well is safe drinking water, clean water in rivers and streams and water supply that’s resistant to drought,” he said. This bond, he said, responds “to all those things in a really big way.”
The two bond proposals reflect the disparity that sometimes exists among California stakeholders. Prop. 68, the result of the consensus-driven legislative process, includes funding for parks, coastal protection, outdoor access and natural resource management. Meral’s measure is more geared toward the interests of urban and agricultural water suppliers.
“Given the need we have for water management, you couldn’t have gotten it on one bond,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, which represents both urban and agricultural water agencies. “The legislative bond reflects the constraints of doing something in the Legislature where the focus tends to be coastal, urban Democrat. The November bond shifts a lot of the investments inland [and] was developed through a different process reflecting a different political environment.”
Water bonds regularly appear on the ballot (sometimes in June and November) because bond financing is seen as necessary to deal with water issues in a state as large as California. The recent spate of large water bonds can be traced to 1996’s Prop. 204, which authorized $995 million to help restore and improve the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and San Francisco Bay ecosystem, boost wastewater treatment, water supply and conservation and help with local flood control and prevention.
“Bonds are used in different ways,” said Chappelle with PPIC. “Sometimes they are used to incentivize large infrastructure projects that wouldn’t be able to get off the ground without state support and sometimes they are used to motivate new types of projects that local agencies haven’t been investing in yet.”
Voters last approved a water-related bond in 2014, when they passed Prop. 1, which included $2.7 billion to fund the public benefits portion of new surface storage projects. Disbursement of the storage funds is subject to the California Water Commission’s approval, and the agency has been criticized by some parties for its initial decision not to award funding for the proposed Sites Reservoir in Colusa County and Temperance Flat upstream of Friant Dam near Fresno.
Chappelle said the high bar set by the Water Commission was by design.
“Anyone who read or understood the original language of Prop. 1 probably is not that surprised because they set a pretty rigorous process by which money was going to be passed out,” she said. “The fact that it’s taking a while is because they are following the letter of the original bond language.”
The two bonds of 2018 do not include any money for new surface storage. Among Prop. 68’s supporters is the San Diego County Water Authority, which is keenly interested in seeing the state follow through on its commitment to restore the Salton Sea.
“Robust Salton Sea funding in this bond measure is significant for San Diego County because it supports agreements that generate substantial water supplies for our region,” Mark Muir, chair of the Water Authority’s board of directors, said in a March 22 statement. “The bond would help the state meet its obligations for Salton Sea restoration and allow our region to compete for other funds to further enhance water supply reliability and local watersheds.”
The $750 million allocated in the November bond to deal with subsidence issues in the San Joaquin Valley is crucial because of the need to move water for groundwater replenishment as part of SGMA, Quinn said. Beginning at Millerton Lake east of Fresno, the 36-mile Madera Canal moves water north to augment irrigation capacity in Madera County while the 152-mile Friant-Kern Canal moves water south to Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties.
“Both of these canals have been seriously impacted by subsidence,” Quinn said. “The Friant-Kern Canal has lost an amazing 60 percent of its capacity to deliver water. These funds will help raise the canals and restore the ability to deliver replenishment water.”
The two bonds together designate more than $1 billion for the clean drinking water needs of disadvantaged communities, something ACWA endorses. The group would rather see the bonds fund this issue instead of a plan by the Brown administration to establish a tax on drinking water of 95 cents per month to help repair the hundreds of mostly small public water systems with unsafe tap water.
“We want to solve the problem and we want to minimize the desire people have for a tax on drinking water,” Quinn said.
Unknown is whether voters will experience bond fatigue with two multibillion-dollar measures facing them in June and November. SB 5 was opposed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which generally opposes the use of large state bonds to finance projects. While not formally opposing SB 5, the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, a group of south-of-Delta water contractors, last year issued a release saying that SB 5’s funding allocation of $1.5 billion for water “is woefully inadequate.”
While voters have a history of supporting water bonds, Chapelle noted that Prop. 1 passed during a protracted drought when water was viewed as one of the most important issues in California. “That is not currently the case anymore,” she said. A drought-busting winter in 2017 refilled many of the state’s depleted reservoirs and late season snow and rain in 2018 likely prevented the return of an official drought.
Meral said voters have a history of passing two bonds in the same year and that the issue with the Water Commission and storage funding will soon be resolved.
“I think by July they [the Water Commission] will make some awards,” he said. “I would be clearly surprised if they didn’t.”
Quinn, a veteran of California water policy, said times have significantly changed since the days when the primary focus in the state was completion of a major infrastructure project like the State Water Project. The emphasis now is developing sustainable water supplies at the regional level with financial help from the state.
“It turns out that about every four years we pass a new bond that infuses some public dollars, which always leverages a lot more local money and the voters have overwhelmingly supported them,” he said. “This is what has kept the wolves away from California’s door for 25 years – public investment stimulating local investment in a different direction of water management and I believe it is now time for another infusion of that public investment.”
Late Storms Help, Don’t Save Snowpack for 2018
Powerful storms may have saved California from having one of the worst wet seasons on record, but the state’s Sierra snowpack still remains well below average.
April 1 is considered the tail end of the California’s rain and snow season. On Monday, the Sierra Nevada snowpack was 52 percent of average, according to readings from automated snow sensors the state Department of Water Resources has placed around the massive mountain range that spans California’s eastern border.
“A good March, but certainly not a great March, and by no means even close to the ‘March Miracle,'” Frank Gehrke, director of snow surveys for the DWR, told reporters Monday after conducting a snowpack reading near Echo Summit. His measurement showed snow-water content at just below half of its long-term average at that location.
The Sierra snowpack often is called the state’s largest reservoir. As it melts during the dry, hot months, water flows into the massive network of reservoirs that ring California’s Central Valley. They store the water and release it to cities and farms throughout the year.
But a lower-than-average snowpack doesn’t necessarily mean California’s water supply is in dire shape as the state heads into summer.
Thanks to water collected last winter, most of the state’s reservoirs still are in decent shape. As of Monday morning, the state’s largest reservoirs were right at average, according to state Department of Water Resources data.
Much of that is water is from the deluges of 2017, which filled lakes to the brim and prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare that California’s record-breaking five-year drought was over.
Shasta and Folsom reservoirs are above average for this time of year. Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir, is 105 percent of average. Folsom is 129 percent. The only large reservoir in California that’s significantly below average is Oroville. It’s being kept at 60 percent full, less than it normally would be this time of year.
State water managers intentionally have kept Oroville lower this winter in hopes they could avoid using the lake’s spillway, which is under construction. The spillway failed dramatically in February 2017, prompting a frantic two-day evacuation of 188,000 people below the dam.
Last month’s rainfall gave Sacramento a major boost in local precipitation. March brought 5.37 inches of rain to the city.
An average March in Sacramento is 3.02 inches. Still, March’s soaking wasn’t enough to erase the city’s dry winter. Sacramento stands at 77 percent of average.
It’s much worse in Southern California, where Los Angeles sits at a mere third of average. Even with so little rain in the southern half of the state, the situation hasn’t become desperate. Southern California receives much of its water from the Colorado River and Northern California.
Diamond Valley Lake, a key Southern California drinking water reservoir almost as large as Folsom Lake, filled last winter from water pumped from the north state. On Monday, it was 89 percent full.
Rain is expected to return to the north state this week. The National Weather Service says there’s a 20 percent chance of rain on Thursday in Sacramento. Rain is likely Friday, and could continue on Saturday and Sunday. Californians shouldn’t expect much snow from the storm. So far, the forecast is for a warm storm with snow only at high elevations.
Karla Nemeth, director of Department of Water Resources, attended the Echo Summit snow survey on Monday. She said that while last winter’s heavy storms brought the state out of a long drought, this winter showed that Californians need to be prepared for the next one.
“We’ve got one word for all Californians: Conserve,” she said.
SoCal Water District Downsizes Delta Tunnels
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is dropping plans to push ahead with a two-tunnel proposal to revamp the state’s water delivery system, opting to pursue a scaled-back version instead.
MWD officials said the decision followed discussions with major agricultural districts that remain unwilling to make any financing commitments for the project, known as California WaterFix.
Rather than fund much of the full project on its own, the staff will ask the board to vote next week to approve $5.3 billion in funding for a smaller capacity, one-tunnel version.
MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said his preference had been to build the full project, but it was time to make a decision.
“More important is that we just get going…. We’re talking one tunnel for now,” he said.
Money has been a major sticking point for the much-debated project, which is intended to sustain water deliveries to San Joaquin Valley agribusiness and urban Southern California.
As originally proposed, the urban and farm districts that rely on deliveries from the southern portion of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta were supposed to pick up the $17-billion bill to construct two massive water tunnels under the delta.
MWD and most of the urban districts voted last year to contribute their share. But agricultural districts that had long supported the project said the tunnel water would be too expensive and voted against joining WaterFix.
That prompted Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration to downsize the initial construction to a less expensive, one-tunnel project that would be used and financed by the largely urban districts supplied by the State Water Project.
Not long after the state announcement, some MWD board members suggested that the agency consider paying for agriculture’s unfunded share so that both tunnels could be built.
The staff analysis of how MWD could do that assumed that agricultural districts would buy in to WaterFix when it was completed. That way, the staff said, MWD would eventually be reimbursed for taking on agriculture’s upfront costs.
But by the end of last week, it became apparent that the Westlands Water District and other irrigation agencies weren’t willing to sign options or purchase agreements assuring that they would in fact join the project in the future.
Representatives of Los Angeles and the San Diego County Water Authority had also expressed concerns that if MWD boosted its tunnels investment to roughly $11 billion, that would jack up local water rates and divert funds from regional supply programs, such as building recycled water and stormwater capture facilities.
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who appoints the city’s MWD delegates, has also said he opposed two tunnels.
Still, Los Angeles and San Diego together don’t have enough votes to stop MWD from taking on much of the twin-tunnel costs.
In remarks to the press Monday, Kightlinger said the staff recommendation to move ahead with one tunnel was based on agriculture’s inability to commit to future funding rather than a vote count or L.A.’s doubts.
He said the staff will ask the board at its April 10 meeting to progress with one tunnel by adding an additional $1 billion to the $4.3-billion financing package the board approved last fall.
By partially diverting some supplies from the Sacramento River in the northern delta, the tunnel project is intended to lessen the environmental harm of the massive pumping operations that fill southbound aqueducts.
The powerful pumps now draw entirely from the southern delta, causing water channels to flow backward, confusing migrating salmon and drawing the imperiled delta smelt into bad habitat.
Those effects have triggered endangered species protections that at times limit delta exports.
Although MWD has argued that two tunnels would provide more environmental benefits and more flexibility in export operations than one, some water experts have questioned whether a second tunnel is worth the added expense.
“There are significant improvements even with the one-tunnel approach over the status quo,” Kightlinger said Monday. “The bottom line is that we’re really looking forward to moving forward with this project.”
LA Opposes High-Rise Housing At Transit Hubs
The Los Angeles City Council voted to oppose a bill allowing residential buildings of four to eight stories on streets near public transit, despite objections from business leaders and groups that favor higher-density housing.
The 13-0 vote makes L.A. the largest municipality in California to come out against Senate Bill 827, which would loosen or eliminate restrictions on height, density, parking and design for residential projects near bus and rail stops.
Councilman Paul Koretz, who represents much of the Westside, called the bill “pure insanity.” And Councilman David Ryu, who wrote the resolution opposing the bill, said it would result in the widespread displacement of renters, generating “a housing boom for a privileged few and eviction notices for everyone else.”
“Los Angeles has a long and painful history of displacement in the name of progress, and of well-intended bills that uproot communities and destroy neighborhoods,” Ryu said. “SB 827 is one such bill.”
SB 827 was written by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and billed as a way to fight climate change, reduce traffic congestion and address soaring rents and home prices. It allows for taller, denser buildings within a quarter-mile of stops where buses arrive every 15 minutes during rush hour.
The bill also eases or overrides key planning rules on properties that sit within a half-mile of rail and subway stations, as well as stops where two higher-frequency bus routes intersect.
Wiener says his bill offers a series of tenant protections, including 42 months of relocation payments to any family displaced from their apartments as part of an SB 827 project. Developers also would be prohibited from demolishing rent-controlled buildings unless the council passes a law explicitly allowing them to do so.
Renters are already losing their homes, Wiener said, because cities are not producing enough homes. “Our current approach to housing — specifically, building very little housing — is what’s fueling displacement all over our state,” he said after the vote.
Those arguments have not reassured groups that represent renters and low-income families, who contend SB 827 would lead to rampant real estate speculation, with developers demolishing rent-controlled homes and replacing them with more expensive ones.
One opponent called SB 827 “a declaration of war” against South L.A., which is crisscrossed with bus corridors and is almost entirely covered by the “transit-rich” areas identified in the bill.
Homeowner groups and preservationists also oppose SB 827, saying it would undermine protections for historic buildings and eviscerate planning rules for almost half the city’s single-family neighborhoods.
A Times analysis found that in L.A., about 190,000 parcels in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes are located in the bill’s transit-rich areas. Residences in those neighborhoods could eventually be replaced with buildings ranging from 45 to 85 feet tall, city officials say.
The Times also determined that more than 86,000 rent-controlled buildings, or about 537,000 total units, are located in the transit areas identified by SB 827. What is unclear, however, is how many of those buildings are in locations that already allow high-density residential buildings.
In a preliminary analysis, city planners concluded that SB 827 would have “disproportionate impacts on underserved communities and communities of color.” Mayor Eric Garcetti, for his part, said the bill would effectively rezone much of the L.A. Basin, “putting thousands of rent-stabilized housing units at risk of redevelopment.”
Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents coastal neighborhoods, said state legislators should focus instead on repealing the state’s restrictions on local rent control measures. They also should rework the Ellis Act, which allows landlords to replace their rental units with for-sale housing, he said.
Bonin said L.A. also needs to do its part, by approving new anti-displacement measures and an “inclusionary zoning” ordinance, which would require developers to include a specific percentage of affordable units in their projects. In addition, L.A. needs to have a series of neighborhood-level conversations about where homes should be built, Bonin said.
“Let’s be clear,” he added. “We need more housing.”
CA v. US On Public Lands Sales
In its latest legal salvo against California, the Department of Justice announced Monday it is filing suit against a state law that tries to give California power to veto sales of federal land to private interests.
The state law, enacted in March 2017, gave state officials the right to purchase any federal land in California the U.S. government tries to sell to private ownership. About 50 percent of California is public land.
Justice officials argue the state law is unconstitutional under the supremacy clause, which says when state laws conflict with federal laws the federal law is the ultimate authority. Federal law says the Bureau of Land Management can select public lands for sale if it meets certain criteria.
The litigation marks the second time in a month that McGregor Scott, U.S. attorney for California’s eastern district, has helped launch a lawsuit against the state. On March 7, Scott joined Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a California Peace Officers’ Association meeting to announce a lawsuit against California’s sanctuary policies for undocumented immigrants.
In 2017, California filed 24 lawsuits against the Trump administration. Involved were 17 separate issues, including immigration, environmental protection and the president’s proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall.
The latest Justice litigation helps bolster Trump’s standing with GOP lawmakers in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and other western states who have long complained about excessive federal landholdings in their states. Some of the lawmakers have called for federal legislation that would transfer federal public lands to the state or private ownership.
California passed its own legislation after Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, introduced legislation that would have transferred millions of acres of federal land to private or state ownership. He withdrew the bill in February 2017 after public pressure from hunting and fishing groups.
Why the Trump administration chose this moment to sue California over the law is not entirely clear, given the administration’s stated opposition to transfers of federal land to other interests.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a former congressman from Montana, has repeatedly said he opposes the sale of federal lands. His goal, he said, is to work with the states to open up recreational opportunities on public lands.
“We’re not transferring or selling public land,” Zinke said in a January interview with conservative radio commentator Josh Tolley. “What we’re doing is we’re working with the states to open up recreation opportunities. We don’t want to be in an adversarial role. And that’s been the tension out west, is that the local voice, communities, have been ignored. And that’s not right.”
David Hayes, a former Interior Department official in the Clinton and Obama administrations, said “it is odd” the Justice Department would sue California over a law that will only become operative if the Trump administration does something it says it won’t do.
“Whatever the motivation, I suspect that Attorney General Xavier Becerra will have something to say about state prerogatives that attach should the feds renege on their promises,” said Hayes, who directs the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center, a group that assists attorneys general on environmental litigation.
California officials assert they have the authority to implement the state legislation because they wouldn’t be preventing sales of the land. Instead, they would prevent private purchasers from recording deeds to the land.
Recording a deed is how a purchaser gives public notice of the right to a parcel of land. Without a recorded deed many banks will not lend money to buy or develop the property and a purchaser cannot get title insurance, making a recorded deed much more valuable than an unrecorded deed.
The land recording system is set up under state and not federal law, so California officials argue the state is within its rights to pass laws regarding recorded deeds.
Forests Are “Ticking Time Bomb”
Dave Kinateder has a keen eye for trees. But when Kinateder, a fire ecologist in the Plumas National Forest, surveys a hillside lush with pines, he doesn’t see abundance or the glory of nature’s bounty.
He sees a disaster-in-waiting.
“It’s a ticking time bomb,” he said, gazing across the dense, green carpet of trees near Quincy, a small community high in the northern Sierra Nevada.
Last year’s wildfires, the worst in modern California history, have put a microscope on the forests that cover a third of the state–in particular, on managing these wooded lands in ways that would reduce the frequency and intensity of such blazes.
California is grappling with the counterintuitive dilemma of too many trees, packed too closely together, robbed of the space they need to thrive—and with how to clear out more than 100 million dead trees, felled by drought or insects, that provide tinder for the next infernos.
Curing these unhealthy forests is both difficult and expensive, and as with human health, prevention is far less costly than treatment. But these days the state firefighting agency, Cal Fire, spends the bulk of its resources battling fires rather than practicing preventive measures.
At stake is nothing less than life, property, air quality and the lands that hold most of California’s water. A state commission recently prescribed radical changes to address what it terms the “neglect” of California’s largest forests.
A 19th-century California forest would have held fewer than 50 trees an acre. Today the state’s forests have grown to an unnatural 300 to 500 trees an acre, or more. That doesn’t count the 2 million drought-stressed trees a month lost to bark beetles that have killed entire stands.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who in 2014 declared tree mortality a state of emergency, said in his January State of the State address that California needs to manage its forests more intelligently. He vowed to convene a task force “to review thoroughly the way our forests are managed and suggest ways to reduce the threat of devastating fires.”
California has dozens of agencies attacking problem but still cannot keep up with the work. Crews around the state have been busy clearing trees as fast as funding allows. This wielding of chainsaws they call “whacking and stacking” leaves massive wood piles along highways in some areas. But it amounts to no more than triage: Cal Fire removes trees on fewer than 40,000 acres a year, far short of its goal of clearing a half-million acres annually.
Number of forested acres in California
Number of dead trees in California
Number of acres Cal Fire* aspires to clear each year
Number of acres Cal Fire clears each year
Average cost per acre to fight a fire
Average cost per acre to clear a forest by controlled burn
* California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
Source: Little Hoover Commission report on forest management in California, February 2018
Kinateder estimates that removing trees in this way costs as much as $1,400 an acre. By comparison, controlled burns—those set by fire managers to remove vegetation from forests—is a bargain at less than $150 an acre. Fighting a wildfire comes in at just over $800 an acre, according to the report.
Far from the forest floor, California officials are wrestling with the financial and environmental cost of the state’s forest practices. At a hearing in March in Sacramento, legislators listened to lurid descriptions of raging fire and wrenching stories of human misery recounted by a stream of state and local officials: flames rearing up like an enormous beast, residents running for their lives, neighborhoods leveled, fire burning so hot and for so long that soils were rendered sterile.
A portion of the proceedings focused on a recent report about wildfires and forest health from the Little Hoover Commission, an independent state oversight agency that gave its findings to the governor and Legislature in February. The document pulled no punches, calling the state of the Sierra Nevada’s forests “an unprecedented environmental catastrophe.”
It cited a century of “mismanaging” the 10 million wooded acres in the Sierra, calling out state and federal firefighting agencies for their longstanding policy of aggressively putting out all fires rather than letting those that can safely burn do so, thereby thinning the choked woodlands.
Helge Eng, deputy director of Cal Fire, acknowledged the report was “spot on” in its assessment of the state of the Sierra, adding that the analysis “did an especially good job of recognizing that there are no easy, black-and-white answers to the problems we are facing.”
Cal Fire boasts that it stops 95 percent of fires at 10 acres or less, saving lives, property and entire forests from conflagration. Fire experts argue that a negative could be turned into a positive if fire bosses let them burn while still steering them away from people and structures and toward overgrown wildlands in need of clearing.
That’s an approach sometimes used by the National Park Service, but it’s difficult to defend when forests are ablaze, frightening the public and many elected officials alike.
Still, the report said, “it is not enough for agency leaders, scientists and advocates to recognize the benefits of fire as a tool; the bureaucracy of the state government and public sentiment as a whole must undergo a culture shift to embrace fire as a tool for forest health.”
Eng said Cal Fire is considering adopting the managed-burn approach, when appropriate, but noted that federal firefighters are often working in wild settings, away from development.
“Cal Fire’s mission is different; we protect life and property” in areas that may be densely populated, Eng said in a written response to questions. “There is most often not an opportunity to let a fire burn. The risk to human life is just too great.”
The report also detailed a public safety threat from 129 million dead trees, the crushing cost—up to $1,000 a tree—to private property owners to have trees removed from their land and the enormous burden on rural governments to both recover from fire and prepare their forests to mitigate the intensity of the next one. In no uncertain terms, the commission prescribed dramatically ramping up tree-thinning projects and, as awful as the optics are, creating and controlling some fires to achieve the same result.
Eng agreed that the state firefighting agency was far from achieving its “aspirational” goal of clearing a half-million acres of land each year, citing such impediments as “the logistics of capacity of staff and equipment and environmental compliance,” among other factors.
In a moment notable for its rarity in Sacramento, there was bipartisan agreement in the hearing room this month about the problem, its scope and the appropriate measures to deal with it. Focus more intensely on the problem, they agreed, and throw money at it. The state spent $900 million fighting fires last year. Just one of those late-season blazes caused more than $9 billion in reported property damage.
“We’ve made mistakes, and we’ve created systems that are unwieldy….
It’s all of our fault,” Jim Branham, executive officer of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency, told CALmatters. “Money alone won’t solve it, but we won’t solve it without money, either.”
The mosaic of land ownership in California means the state owns only 2 percent of the forests but has legal responsibility over much more: 31 million acres, including land in rural counties.
Cal Fire received more than $200 million for forest health projects last year and has proposed an additional $160 million for the next fiscal year. Those sums are on top of the agency’s current $2.7 billion budget. Cal Fire, in turn, doles out millions of those dollars in grants to local governments and community groups to do some thinning themselves, and it teams with the federal Forest Service to tackle clearing projects.
The work to improve forest health dovetails with other state priorities—protecting water sources and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
The Sierra Nevada range is the headwaters for 60 percent of California’s developed water supply. Burned, denuded hillsides don’t store water efficiently when it rains. Sediment cascades downhill, filling streams, affecting water quality and loading up reservoirs, reducing their storage capacity
The carbon equation is equally direct: When trees burn or decay, they release greenhouse gases. The 2013 Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park produced emissions equal to those of 2.3 million cars in a year.
Prescribed burns emit less carbon than higher-intensity fires, because managed fire is aimed at smaller trees and shrubs. Cleared forest land may still ignite, but it will burn with less intensity and fewer emissions.
Moreover, when trees die, they stop absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. The state depends on that critical service to help reduce greenhouse gases. Research suggests that severely burned areas regrow with shrubs or grasses, plants that store about 10 percent less carbon than trees do.
John Moorlach, a Republican state senator from Costa Mesa, suggests the Democratic governor, a champion of the fight against climate change, has a “gigantic blind spot” when it comes to reducing carbon emissions. Moorlach said in an interview that Brown’s emphasis on electric cars, for example, ignores the role of fire in California’s greenhouse gas inventory.
“We’re being absolute phonies about climate change if we are not dealing with the real driver of greenhouse gas; that’s these wildfires,” said Moorlach. He has proposed that the state dedicate 25 percent of the revenue from its cap and trade grreenhouse-gas-reduction system to help counties’ fire mitigation efforts.
Counties would welcome the help. Randy Hanvelt, a supervisor in Tuolumne County, said that where forest management is concerned, there’s a “leadership problem.”
“Talk is cheap,” he said. “We have got ourselves a giant colossal mess. This is a war of sorts. Time is against us. Every available tool has to be applied.”
One such tool is carefully designed burns. But the meticulous planning necessary can take two to three years, and the burns require favorable weather, a permit from the local air district and, crucially, buy-in from local communities that must first be educated about the benefits. And controlled doesn’t mean risk-free.
“Politically, you have to have the ability to make mistakes and move on,” he said.