Burning reminders

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

Smoke remained dense in Butte Creek Canyon (viewed at Lookout Point) the day after the Camp Fire ravaged the Ridge.

If Mother Nature sent a sentient message in 2018, surely it matched what the CN&R expressed in our Nov. 29 editorial.

“How many hurricanes, floods and—yes—wildfires do [myopes] need to see for reality to set in? To paraphrase a saying, it’s climate change, stupid.”

Just as scientists predicted for over a decade, changing climatic conditions due to man-made impacts have intensified environmental disasters. We’ve experienced greater extremes in weather. We’ve paid a greater toll in lives and property.

This fall, two new reports came out—one international, one domestic—with forecasts even darker. Yet, the current occupant of the White House continues to deny science and take actions with dire consequences. Fortunately, local and state officials haven’t abdicated their ecological responsibilities.

Sustainably speaking, here are 10 of the top issues affecting North State residents this past year.

1. Vulnerable spots

As part of state-mandated climate action planning, both Chico and Butte County honed climate vulnerability assessments to address how changes will impact people, places and the environment, plus strategies to adapt and mitigate. The reports, utilizing government modeling software, describe higher temperatures overall with increased heat waves and wildfires; more rainfall via brief storms that cause flooding, and melting snowpack. Effects include less water for surface storage and aquifer recharge, public health issues, pollution from fires and endangerment of native species.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Grazing on overgrowth—as did goats brought to Bidwell Park in November—represents one way to reduce wildfire fuels.

2. Forecasts grow grimmer

Scientists continue to reach consensus on climate change, and in quadrennial reports released a month apart, that common ground looked bleaker. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (or IPCC) determined that the risk of fires, droughts, floods and poverty around the world will skyrocket if global temperatures rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030—the most ambitious mark in the Paris Climate Agreement, a landmark commitment from nearly 200 countries to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The National Climate Assessment, meanwhile, calculated that the cost to the country from rising sea levels, heat-related deaths and infrastructure damage will reach up to $500 billion a year.

3. President Gas

Though President Trump lost his top eco-hatchetmen with the resignations of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, their rollbacks of environmental protections continue to ripple. The administration sought to expand petroleum production by opening public lands and coasts to drilling; hit the brakes on fuel efficiency for cars and light trucks; dropped safeguards for development near wetlands; and attempted to reverse regulations on emissions. States such as California have challenged the White House in court, often winning.

4. State in flames

Wildfires raged across California due to a tragic convergence of conditions. The Golden State got just over half its normal snowpack by April compared to 160 percent the previous winter; then hot, dry summer days persisted through the fall, prolonging and exacerbating fire season. Adding fuel: parched overgrowth from plants that thrived in wet times.

5. Preventative measures

Prescribed burning, a wildfire-prevention strategy that traces to indigenous tribes yet fell out of favor for a half-century, returned to Cal Fire’s toolbox with the approval of state officials. Chico State professor Don Hankins has been at the forefront of this movement; for a decade, he’s conducted trainings and controlled fires on the university’s ecological reserves. Other efforts to reduce fuels include introducing grazing animals to areas with dense brush.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

As Jennifer Arbuckle of Northern Recycling and Waste Services showed in July, single-bin recycling can cause contamination.

6. Ridge’s recovery

The Camp Fire caused ecological damage beyond burnt trees. Because it also ignited synthetic substances, the blaze unleashed a cocktail of chemicals into the air and soil—spread farther by wind and rain flow. Scientists from Chico State and UC Davis anticipate eventual regrowth of native flora and, correspondingly, a return of associated bird and insect species. Runoff raises concerns for water quality in creeks and the Feather River.

7. Water power

As outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown attempted to seal his legacy with the so-called twin tunnels diversion project in the Delta, Chico-based AquAlliance won a lawsuit against the state and the federal government asserting that a 10-year program to transfer water from the Sacramento Valley had inadequate environmental review. A district court judge halted the transfers. In Butte County, water agencies and county officials agreed on how to organize under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (or SGMA), which in 2022 will turn oversight of underground water to local jurisdictions. A recent high-tech scan of the aquifer will aid planning.

8. Recycling backs up

Independent of trade wars with Trump, China imposed stricter standards on the recycled materials it imports for remanufacturing. This policy, named the National Sword, requires paper and cardboard in particular to be virtually spotless—a challenge for waste haulers, such as those in the North State, that rely on Chinese industry and have a single stream of recyclables. Lacking infrastructure to handle the change, California found itself awash in repurposable trash.

9. Straws—so yesterday

The plastic drinking straw may seem insignificant, but with 500 million used in the U.S. each day, that adds up to a lot of disposable waste: 2.4 million tons per year. This mass sparked multiple measures, here and in Sacramento, to cut down on usage. A Chico-based campaign, the Strawless Challenge, formed to urge local businesses and residents to forgo straws. Chico State’s Associated Students stopped providing straws at its eateries. Statewide, starting Jan. 1 under a bill signed by Brown, full-service restaurants will offer straws only by request.

10. Rising up

Sept. 8, just ahead of Brown’s global summit on climate change in San Francisco, a busload of 50 Chicoans joined a group of 30,000 there for the environmental action Rise for Climate, Jobs and Justice. Along with a march, participants painted murals on streets outside the summit site, including artwork designed by Ali Meders-Knight of Chico’s Mechoopda Indian tribe. The San Francisco event coincided with more than 900 held simultaneously in 95 countries to call for ending dependence on fossil fuels and promote economic equality.