Close up on California in the era of climate change: a verdant vision for fire-prone land

Compendium Volume 2 Number 2 January 2019 r.1

Picture California in the 1700s, around the time the first Spanish missions appeared. It must have looked like heaven on earth for the 100,000s of native people living there [Ecological Society of America 2014], cradled between forested mountains and sparkling ocean. Meandering streams and rivers teeming with salmon criss-cross the valley and are knit together by a latticework of beaver dams. These porous little dams spread water over floodplains stretching in every direction, topping off aquifers and creating diverse habitat for an abundance of life. Wildfires come and go, and some are even manipulated by native peoples to diversify the resources in the landscape. But fires burn through relatively small patches before being damped out by ample ambient moisture, while triggering new growth in their wake.

This old-time paradise lacks the cozy thrill of watching a good Hollywood movie with a box of buttery popcorn, or the sense of security from a Central Valley harvest bountiful enough to nourish a nation. Indeed, our current era boasts a different kind of paradise – one that features convenient access to entertainment, great food, elegantly decorated homes and exotic vacations. This modern paradise is only occasionally interrupted by massive wildfires or storms that level whole neighborhoods, taps that run dry or are tainted with poison, deadly heat waves, or by news reports of such events. Those without the means to live in modern paradise are often the ones featured in the disturbing news reports.

Now imagine California in 2050, after ecosystems have been restored and deployed to rehydrate the landscape and to give Mother Nature the elbowroom she needs to go about her business without doing quite as much damage to human habitats, in spite of ongoing climate chaos. While we can’t and may not even want to go back to a pre-colonial natural California paradise, we can shore up our human spaces against the ravages of climate change by rehabilitating ecosystem processes in all the open space inside of and surrounding our existing cities and towns.

This means preventing any further urban sprawl into rural/wilderness areas. It means relocating people out of flood and fire prone rural/wilderness edges (as the Netherlands has done in its most low-lying areas [Bentley 2016]), and moving them into refurbished urban lots, while fully supporting them through the transition. It means thoughtfully investing in cities and towns to make them affordable and beautiful to reduce people’s compulsion to move into the fringes.

It means reconnecting rivers to their floodplains so that water has somewhere to go other than surging into cities when it floods, and so that floodplains, their wild inhabitants, and the underlying aquifers can benefit from a recharge of groundwater and nutrients. It means helping farmers transition to agricultural methods that conserve water, recycle nutrients, and restore biodiversity to their fields. And it means seeking out the best in applied ecological science to restore and manage wilderness areas in a way that favors biodiversity and therefore resilience.

Like the growing global call to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025, the prospect of vast and thorough ecosystems restoration sounds utopian, naïve, impossible. However, serious solutions are needed to manage ever more extreme weather. Hotter, drier conditions wrought by climate change have made the land crisp and flammable, causing wildfires to spread further and faster in recent years. A century of wildfire suppression allowing fuel build-up, urban sprawl butting up against fire-prone wilderness areas, and the spread of invasive flammable cheatgrass have further contributed to the severity of recent fires.

Moreover, the frequency of rainy seasons that are extremely dry is predicted to increase, especially in southern California, where consecutive dry years will become more common [Swain 2018]. At the same time, the frequency of major flooding events, comparable to the 1862 flood that temporarily turned the Sacramento Valley into an inland sea, is predicted to triple by the end of this century.

Water  whether too much or too little – is at the heart of California’s troubles. With a Mediterranean climate defined by a winter rainy season and long dry summers, California is inherently prone to feast or famine when it comes to water. State water managers, therefore, have long been dealt the challenge of capturing and storing winter rainfall for summer use. Water storage today is achieved with reservoirs, underground aquifers and mountain snowpack, which slowly releases water from melting snow during spring and summer.

The state’s water management system may be due for a redesign, though. For one thing, snowpack is no longer a reliable storage system. Not only is there less snowpack overall, but what there is bears a greater risk now of “rain on snow” events that melt it all at once in a giant gush. Furthermore, levees are not high enough for the scale of flooding that is predicted to become more common, and the water infrastructure overall is in need of repair to the tune of $34 billion [Mount 2017].

The state’s aquifers are a natural storage system that contribute about one third to annual water supply, but they have been unregulated and severely overdrawn during droughts, in some cases leading to land subsidence[10] [Martin 2018]. In response, however, the government passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014, which makes local governments responsible for monitoring and recharging the aquifers within their jurisdictions.  

Localities can fulfil their legal obligations at least in part by restoring natural processes that recharge groundwater, such as giving rivers more space to meander and restoring native vegetation. Plants protect and build soil, rendering the soil more sponge-like and able to absorb and hold water, allowing water to percolate into aquifers. Vegetation also shades soil surfaces, limiting evaporation. These principles hold true for all healthy ecosystems, which is to say biodiverse ecosystems, whether in the context of wilderness or agriculture. Biodiversity fosters ecosystem stability, productivity and resilience.

At this turning point for water management in California, what if the state were to redesign its aging system in a way that places a much higher value on hydrological functionality? Improving the land’s hydrology would mean facilitating the ground’s absorption of precipitation (such as the Yolo Bypass Wilderness Area has done), slowing water down rather than isolating it from the land with straight, narrow and constrained waterways ultimately emptying into the ocean.

Slowing down water would recharge aquifers and revitalize streams, rivers, wetlands, grasslands and forests. Expansive functional forested ecosystems could in turn reactivate local water cycling through transpiration and rain recycling, cooling the land in the process. Moistening and cooling the land by enhancing its absorptive capacity could create fire breaks and reduce flammability, thus mitigating the threat of out-of-control wildfires.

Moistening and cooling the land by enhancing its absorptive capacity could create fire breaks and reduce flammability, thus mitigating the threat of out-of-control wildfires.

Disturbed, dry hydrological systems are associated with more severe wildfires. In Borneo, researchers [Taufik 2017] found that massive wildfires coincided with years characterized by large areas of hydrological drought, where surface or groundwater levels had dropped due to extended rainfall deficits. Land use changes including deforestation and canalization to drain wetlands exacerbated hydrological drought, leading to more acres burned during wildfires.

How to restore ecosystems? On a small scale, Californians are already succeeding in this by removing levees to reactivate the floodplain [Fountain 2018], introducing beavers to restore streams and surrounding habitat [Goldfarb 2018],[11] and adaptively grazing livestock in wilderness areas to thin out vegetation, thus reducing fuel loads and replacing it with soil-nourishing manure and urine [Greenwood 2018]. Farmers in the Yolo Bypass Wilderness Area have adapted their practices to allow for seasonal flooding of their fields [Sommer 2001]. Farmers throughout the state participate in the department of agriculture’s Healthy Soils Program by implementing conservation practices to build soil and enhance ecosystem processes, such as carbon sequestration.

Urban areas too are learning to manage water in a way that better withstands boom or bust rainfall patterns. While cities everywhere are normally designed to remove stormwater as quickly as possible, some cities are beginning to see stormwater not so much as a nuisance, but as a valuable resource [Shimabuku, Diringer, Cooley 2018]. For example, the small agricultural town of Gonzalez, CA, modified its municipal code to facilitate low-impact development measures, such as the removal of portions of curb to allow rainwater to drain into vegetated areas. Santa Monica set a city-wide goal of becoming water self-sufficient by 2022 and plans to meet this goal, in part, by capturing more than 500 million gallons of stormwater for treatment and reuse. San Francisco now requires new developments of a certain size to capture and reuse stormwater on site.

San Francisco also recently passed a bill to allow denser development near transit lines within the city, potentially alleviating the housing crisis that’s driving sprawl. (A similar bill was defeated at the state level, unfortunately, due in part to a NIMBY-like resistance to sharing more spacious urban neighborhoods with lower-income newcomers.)

All these initiatives are a promising start. To stave off ever-longer fire seasons, alongside more severe flooding and drought, however, these innovations cannot remain isolated examples. They need to become the state-wide norm for water management, urban design and land stewardship. Such changes are urgently needed not only in California, profiled here as an instructive example of life in the era of climate change, but everywhere.

As in every community everywhere on Earth, California must take an honest, clear look at its choices: reimagine paradise as a place where we embrace the vibrancy of human diversity in dense, walkable urban neighborhoods, and cultivate biodiversity in all open green spaces; or tempt Mother Nature to destroy everything we love as we cling to an ideal of paradise as being the accumulation of manufactured luxuries, while ignoring the environmental and social costs.

Bentley, Chris, 2016, Holland is relocating homes to make room for high water, Public Radio International, June 22, 2016,

Ecological Society of America, 2014, Fire ecology manipulation by California native cultures, ScienceDaily, 26 July 2014,

Fountain, Henry, 2018, California is preparing for extreme weather. It’s time to plant some trees, New York Times, July 15, 2018,

Goldfarb, Ben, 2018, Beaver dams without beavers? Artificial logjams are a popular but controversial conservation tool, Science,

Goldfarb, Ben, 2018, Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, Chelsea Green Publishing: White River Junction.

Greenwood, Ariele, 2018, Transhumance: a revival of grassland culture,,

Martin, Glen, 2018, Deep Water in Deep Trouble: Can We Save California’s Drying Aquifers? California Magazine, Cal Alumni Association,

Mount, Jeffrey 2017, Just the facts: floods in California, Public Policy Institute of California, September 2017,

Shimabuku, Morgan, Sarah Diringer & Heather Cooley, 2018, Stormwater capture in California: innovative policies and funding opportunities, Pacific Institute,  

Sommer, Ted, Bill Harrell, Matt Nobriga, et al., 2011, California’s Yolo Bypass: evidence that flood control can be compatible with fisheries, wetlands, wildlife, and agriculture, Fisheries 26:8,

Swain, Daniel L., Baird Langenbrunner, J. David Neelin & Alex Hall, 2018, Increasing precipitation volatility in twenty-first century California, Nature Climate Change,

Taufik, Muh, Paul J. J. F. Torfs, Remko Uijlenhoet, et al., 2017, Amplification of wildfire area burnt by hydrological drought in the humid tropics, Nature Climate Change 7,

For the full PDF version of the compendium issue where this article appears, visit Compendium Volume 2 Number 2 January 2019 r.1