FutureStructure

California Seeks to Base Future Growth on Climate Change Adaptation

The Safeguarding California report calls on state agencies to take action to help the state adapt to a hotter climate.

by / October 27, 2015
The Safeguarding California report projects worsening fires as temperatures increase, rain becomes less consistent and trees die. Shutterstock/Kevin Key

If climate change scenarios plotted out through scientific research come to fruition, California faces a future of flood and fire. The problems inherent in rising temperatures and sea levels in the state are vast — cities at risk for partial submersion underwater, an agriculture industry battling a rising number of pests and a shrinking amount of water, forests dying and providing kindling for wildfires, and hotter days ramping up the incidence of heat stroke.

It’s a lot for a state to deal with, and for that reason, California has begun to work climate adaptation into its plans for growing and governing in the future. At the direction of Gov. Jerry Brown, the Natural Resources Agency put out a report, Safeguarding California: Implementation Action Plans, on Oct. 9. The document is aimed at sizing up the scope of potential problems and identifying agencies and organizations that can help, and rounding up potential solutions. Through a variety of mechanisms — grant money handed out for climate-conscious projects and requirements that governments plan to adapt to climate changes, for example — the plan aims to begin preparing the state for climate changes.

The agency presented the draft report at public hearings in Sacramento and Los Angeles on Monday and Tuesday, respectively. A big focus at the Los Angeles meeting was on the need for adaptation to come from all sides — that is, many different groups need to be preparing for the effects of global warming, and many of the solutions they come up with can be used to address multiple problems. The report covers agriculture, ocean management, wildlife preservation, forestry, emergency management, urban planning and other sectors of governance.

“It’s probably the most comprehensive adaptation strategy in the country,” said JR DeLaRosa, special assistant for climate at the Natural Resources Agency, during the Los Angeles hearing.

As a result of the plan, climate adaptation could influence things like how the state builds roads, where it places affordable housing and how it farms the land.

A RISING OCEAN

Rising sea levels are a threat all along the California coast, with places as urban as Long Beach and as remote as Eureka lying in places that could need protection as melting global ice adds to ocean height. According to the action plan, a five-foot rise in the level of the ocean would impact nearly half a million people and $105.2 billion of property in coastal areas.

But there are threats of flooding inland, too: The low-lying Central Valley is already susceptible to flooding, and the state expects rains to become less frequent but more intense. Projection maps based on climate modeling show major flooding risk in Sacramento, Stockton, the wildlife-rich delta between them and the farmland surrounding them.

The state has a Central Valley Flood Protection document, updated every five years and with its next revisal due in 2017. The project inventories approaches to flood protection and pools knowledge on adapting to flood risk.

WORSENING FIRES

Fire is a big risk for the state as well. Wildfires did major damage in the northern half of the state this year, and the report predicts conditions that could make blazes worse. For starters, the report estimates that 20 to 25 percent of pine trees are dead or dying in some parts of the state. The state expects to lose up to 90 percent of the snowpack in the Sierra Mountains, a big supplier of water. And the temperature is steadily rising.

The state has already noted an increase in the number and severity of wildfires in recent years.

The report outlines many different approaches to handling the problem. The Forest Service removes “biomass” from the forests and converts it into fuel sources as an alternative greenhouse gas-emitting fuels. The state is also trying to reduce the prevalence of tree-killing pests such as beetles. The state’s emergency management agency wants to push for more insurance coverage in at-risk areas for when disasters cause damage.

AGRICULTURE THREATENED

The state’s agriculture industry, which produced $46.4 billion in commodities in 2013, is at risk as well. Crops and livestock alike have suffered from a prolonged drought, while the report projects that floods in the future could reduce soil and water quality. Intruding water can carry hazardous material, carry nutrition-rich soil away and bring ocean salt into inland aquifers that are supposed to be sources of freshwater for farms.

California agencies are already pushing for farmers to adopt less water-intensive methods and supporting technology upgrades with grant money. The Department of Food and Agriculture has been tasked with implementing the Healthy Soils initiative, which seeks to improve the quality of the soil used for agriculture by adding carbon and organic matter to the ground and making it more resistant to erosion.

Like many of the proposed solutions in the report, the agriculture sector also has a potential solution that works to reduce carbon emissions. The Dairy Digester Research and Development Program aims to use anaerobic bacteria to convert methane produced on farms into fuel. Methane has about 25 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.

MOVING FORWARD

The Natural Resources Agency will take public comments on the draft plan through the end of November and will finalize the document in December. State agencies will be required to report back on how they want to implement the action plan by June 2016.

“At the end of the day, people want to know what we’re doing and … how we’re implementing it,” DeLaRosa said during the hearing.

Ben Miller Staff Writer

Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.