All hands on deck

Photo by Andre Byik

Chico City Council candidate Rich Ober rallies a crowd during a climate strike in September at Chico City Plaza.

In a year marked by the aftermath of the Camp Fire—one of the most significant climate-driven disasters the country has suffered—recovery was the dominant theme.

Ecologically minded folks stepped up to help the burn scar grow in a safe and sustainable way and also to ensure the landscape wasn’t denuded. Facing down the threats of a changing climate, young people organized protests and rallies in Chico. Meanwhile, the Butte Environmental Council welcomed a new generation of leadership.

Another major issue in 2019 that stands to make headlines in the coming year: water sustainability and conveyance, including the Paradise Irrigation District’s (PID) long-term solvency and its controversial proposed pipeline to Chico.

Here are the top local environmental stories of the past year.

Youth-led activism

Photo by Andre Byik

Journalist Naomi Klein, center, interviews Butte County Supervisor Tami Ritter, left, while Chico State professor Mark Stemen stands over Lookout Point on the Skyway.

Facing down the threats posed by climate change, youth-led groups such as the Sunrise Movement made their presence known following the devastating, climate-driven Camp Fire. Environmental activists protested outside a town hall featuring District 1 Rep. Doug LaMalfa, who has denied human-caused climate change exists. They filled the El Rey Theater in Chico for a rally in support of the Green New Deal, endorsing Democratic congressional hopeful Audrey Denney’s 2020 campaign in the process. And during a global day of climate action in September, demonstrators packed Chico City Plaza days ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit.

Water worries

Farmers in northwestern Butte County, where groundwater is depended upon for irrigation, unveiled a controversial proposal: the formation of the Tuscan Water District. The effort is being led by the Agricultural Groundwater Users of Butte County and has been billed as a way for growers to represent their interests as local water agencies and county officials grapple with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the sweeping state law that places oversight of groundwater basins under local control. Some water advocates, however, are skeptical of the proposal. They say it could adversely affect domestic well-users within the proposed district, which would extend from the Tehama County line south to the Durham area.

Meanwhile, the Butte County Board of Supervisors put the brakes on a controversial study of a proposed water pipeline from Paradise to Chico. The pipeline—an intertie between PID and the California Water Service Co.’s Chico branch—has been billed as way to alleviate overpumping of groundwater in Chico, while also helping to keep PID solvent as Paradise rebuilds. The county withdrew funding for the study amid questions about how the project would work and confusion over whether water the county pays for through the State Water Project could be sent through the pipeline.

Tree concerns

After hundreds of thousands of trees were scorched in the Camp Fire, PG&E and local governments worked quickly to identify and remove dead or dying trees that threatened power lines and public rights-of-way. Too quickly, according local, formerly certified arborists who noticed some trees in Butte Creek Canyon and elsewhere had been marked with spray paint for removal but appeared to be faring just fine. Some trees slated for removal, the experts said, weren’t even touched by flames. They urged county officials to slow down and institute a more transparent process detailing removal activities.

Photo by Andre Byik

Former certified arborists Ron Smith (left) and Robin McCollum stand near an oracle oak they say was improperly marked for removal after the Camp Fire.

Green waste moves

Chico-based landscaping businesses found themselves facing an inconvenient truth earlier this year. Old Durham Wood off Highway 99, which landscapers used to dispose of their green waste, stopped accepting the stuff in July. With the city of Chico’s compost facility accepting only residential green waste at the time, that left the Neal Road landfill as the only viable—and more costly—option. Old Durham Wood blamed state and federal regulations for the move; the city said it was taking in more green waste than it could compost and sell. City and county officials said a lack of green waste processing options has become a regional and national problem. In November, however, the city reopened its compost facility for commercial intake, following an agreement it reached with Waste Management. And the county is pursuing a state grant to create a separated-organics composting facility at the landfill that also would use green waste.

New leadership

There was a changing of the guard this summer at the Butte Environmental Council (BEC), with Danielle Baxter appointed as general manager. Baxter, a former member of Chico’s Sustainability Task Force and BEC’s board, said the organization is entering a new chapter dubbed “BEC 2.0,” with younger leadership that reflects the nonprofit’s roots. The goal is to become a more collaborative organization, she said. Inspiring environmental knowledge and activism is at the top of her to-do list.

Ecological restoration

In the wake of the Camp Fire, Matthew Trumm spearheaded the Camp Fire Restoration Project, which aims to support landowners and public entities in restoring lands by applying permaculture and other ecological restoration methods. Trumm said fire safety, climate change and food security are major points of focus in wildfire recovery. Permaculture design gets to the heart of those points through natural fire breaks, plant selection, irrigation and shade. Fire-resilient building—such as building with wood covered with earthen material—are also at the heart of the endeavor. The Restoration Project and its partner groups have held workshops, camps and other eco-related activities for survivors over the past year.

Burning case

Journalist Naomi Klein—author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and, most recently, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal—toured the Camp Fire disaster zone with local environmental activists, Chico State professor Mark Stemen and Butte County Supervisor Tami Ritter. The group also visited the base camp along the Skyway—formerly the Tuscan Ridge Golf Club—that houses fire recovery workers. After documents were obtained suggesting the owner of the property was quietly pursuing a major community development project at the site, Klein, in a talk at Chico State, warned the community about the threat of disaster capitalism, raising questions about whether public money was helping that private enterprise. Meanwhile, Ritter questioned the environmental impacts of building in the hills between Chico and Paradise.