For Californians, being at the water’s edge is akin to standing at the edge of a cliff. One needs to back away slowly, making sure you are holding your child’s hand and avoid standing where the cliff is crumbling away.
About twice a year I write a rant that has to do with water use and land management.
Once when it burns.
The other time when it floods.
So, while Oakland teachers were on strike, Trump officials were before the committee or a sentencing judge and suspect aircraft were on the ground, Guerneville and the surrounding area was once again underwater.
This is nothing new there or in many places around California. Floods hit regularly in places as urban as San Anselmo and as wild as the South Fork of the Eel River where residents love to place signs way up on polls to show the 1964 high water mark.
The floods and fires are both natural.
The severity of both is a product of bad land management.
And bad water management.
Forestry experts, environmental biologists and experts in related fields have been telling us for over two generations that we should learn from the practices of the older, native cultures here and preserve creek beds and set small managerial fires at specific times.
Keeping brush and forest coverage around the water ways, big and small, is the key to having a healthy watershed. This keeps top soil from washing away, provides natural fire breaks, allows more water to seep back down to the aquifer and softens the blow from heavy rains.
A healthy stream is clear water and we all know it. A healthy watershed gives us healthy streams that flow long after the rain stops.
Watersheds composed mostly of fields, pastures and parking lots are the exact opposite of that. The fires burn right past where cows have been allowed to graze to the muddy edge of the ruined creek beds and across our structures and the rain runs off them as if it were a tin roof. Not only was the water high on the Russian River, it was brown with washed away soil.
And it is no laughing matter. Homes and lives were lost in Guerneville, Paradise, Santa Rosa, Ventura and places I don’t know, all in recent times. I keep having a reason to write the same things.
There is no way that we can go back to the system of land management that the Yurok and Ohlone peoples had because there are too many of us and too much has changed. But we can go back to the wisdom behind those ways of life and blend it with what we know as a society that practices industrial engineering and claims to follow the evidence before our own eyes. Once called science.
We need to start a sophisticated reforesting effort and we need to start yesterday.
And when we think of reforesting, we need to see beyond trees and think about the whole web of life that thrives in our environment. Reforesting is a community of plants and animals that survive the burns and absorb the rains. When we reforest, we need to think of exactly where we reforest and how that relates to fire and flood.
We also need to make our planning contemplate the extremes. There never was a California normal, just an average between wide swings. Nature was already full of big highs and lows out here down wind of the Niño and jet stream effects. We will always see times of drought and high water and need to make that the measure of our “normal”. With climate change, we know that we need to expect those swings to become wider and the results more unpredictable than they are already.
We need to carefully back away from the water’s edge and get out of the way of fire.
And we need to back away from the environmental cliff edge that we built for ourselves with over a century of playing God with water channels and fighting fires we should have let burn. Those high-water marks on the Eel river reached that high because of aggressive and indiscriminate lumbar cutting. There are parts of California where the fires burned so hot that little survived because we fought fires and did not replant a full spectrum of fire ecology trees and scrub and did not do controlled burns.
There are places in our state that look like the surface of the moon they were scorched so bad. The Eel river never recovered from its messed-up watershed and in most places a person can walk across it, most of the time.
In other words, leaving it alone and letting nature come back is not a realistic option unless you want to allow enough time for us humans to die out.
We need to be part of a healing process for our environment.
No part of an aggressive reforestation program will keep us from having fires because we live in a set of natural fire ecology biomes. No part of reforestation will provide more water, at best it would provide fire breaks and clean up the water ways while moderating the flows.
If we are going to fully bring back our rivers to the point that we can have the salmon run again, some of the water we divert from one river to another needs to be left where it was.
But there is another source of water that we mostly ignore.
We are flushing it down the toilet.
Yep, our sewage is a resource we can reclaim. How? Two parts, first is to stop the use of cleaners and chemicals that turn it into poison, and second, it to pump it back uphill and treat it there with natural methods. Most people do not know this, but California has pioneered the use of artificial wetlands and sewage treatment. Arcata has a working model.
Obviously to make such ideas real, we need to spend a lot of public money and think of environmental restoration and stability as an infrastructure project, as essential to a modern society as freeways.
And we need to act fast. The situation is already a series of disasters. Real improvement over a short decade or two requires an aggressive plan. To put all the parts together, I offer this proposal:
The California Integrated Land and Water Management Plan.
This plan would be a combination of pubic works and state land management codes.
Reforest the watersheds.
· Set aside a zone of at least five times the waterway width at the ten-year high-water mark to be reforestation reserve, independent of ownership. Ownership need not change. Inside that zone, we need to conserve the natural tree and brush, or replant it if the land has been cleared.
· The reforestation of the watershed would apply to all identifiable stream beds, even the seasonal ones, up to the top of the watershed. The set aside land would never be smaller than 10 meters either side of the waterway.
· If the adjacent land is in agricultural or pastoral use, a supplemental margin of land equal to the natural set aside, will be zoned for orchards, lumbar or other soil stabilizing agriculture.
· If the adjacent land outside of the land zoned for orchards is for grazing, there must be a solid fenced barrier to keep livestock out.
· Land that is suffering exposed soil erosion needs to be fenced off and have a soil stabilizing cover planted, commercial or nature reserve, or both.
· In lands that were private and are becoming natural reserve, develop a system of recreational use for the owners to use for themselves or to let out as tourism properties. Homes already built inside such areas would have public support to upgrade and modify to have less or no negative impact on the watershed or reforestation.
· New buildings inside private watershed reserve areas would have to be built to an environmentally friendly code. The state would help build environmentally friendly access, bike paths, raised walk ways etc. to make these areas accessible for recreational use.
Forest and Agricultural Land Management.
· The state would have a schedule of small, local, controlled burns in areas that are ready.
· State law would prohibit wide pastures or fields of dried grass or other monoculture fire hazards. There would be an obligation to cut and mulch.
· Areas that are not prepared for controlled burns need to be restored. This could take the form or removing, or mulching on site, the dead trees from disease and drought and undoing the biodiversity damage that a century of fire fighting and monoculture tree planting has caused.
· The restoration of forestry lands will prioritize biological diversity and stability, fire and watershed management and the retention of bio-mass.
· Tree farming practices will be introduced and land dedicated to planting lumber farms where it can be the most sustainable and productive. We will intentionally have farms dedicated to growing lumber in a way that does not allow for a major fire.
Develop a sustainable water use cycle
· Limit water extraction to what allows for healthy rivers and fish stocks and do not take water out of the aquifer faster than it can be returned.
· Set aside absorption areas to replenish the watersheds and aquifers.
· Regulate the chemicals that go into the residential and agricultural waters.
· Physically separate “grey” water from sewage and agricultural run-off.
· Pump all residential waste water, including drains, to reclaim facilities strategically located uphill in the various watersheds of the state. Process grey water and sewage separately.
· Start a multi-step reclamation process using this waste water to grow fiber for paper, lumbar (the tree farms) and other agricultural products that are no part of the food chain.
· In a second step, runoff from the first sewage treatment would then go into the environment in reserve forests or controlled wetlands in a way that it would be naturally cleaned before joining back to the watershed or aquifer.
· Treat agricultural run off with artificial wetlands and reserve land allowing the treated water to go back to the watershed and aquifers.
· State code would regulate fire resilient building codes that local law could not override.
These codes would include:
These codes would include:
o Ceramic roofing
o Nonflammable siding
o Fire break landscaping around residential areas
· Environmental buffer zones between urban and rural areas
· A retrofit program to bring existing structures to a higher fire resilient status.
· A system of emergency water sprinklers around all housing in fire danger areas
· A full-time fire force that works on land management between dry seasons and manages the controlled burns during dry seasons.
· A strict enforcement of the fire control measures indicated in the state land management plan.
Over the years I have made this proposal in different forms. Sometimes with more details and sometimes with less. I am sure that people who actually work in the related fields would do a much better job than I am doing. Some of what I am proposing is probably wrong. Something else important is probably left out.
I write this because I want to provoke the discussion.
We need such a law and we need such a plan. If not this one, then a better one.
And I dedicate this version of my bi-annual rant to my good friend who lost his home, his daughters home and a lifetime of their possessions in Paradise. They were grateful to get out with their lives and we all are respectful of those who did not.
And I think of my friend in Ventura watching the landscaping burn around the oil wells near her home or my friend who tells me that his old Guerneville neighborhood was an island for a few days and the whole thing just feels personal.
Another friend tells me that the only reason he had a hospital to work at after the Santa Rosa fire, was because heroic staff went to the roof to stamp out the blowing cinders and keep them from lighting the roof on fire. Yep, a hospital with a flammable roof in a state that is mostly fire zone.
And a couple times every year I visit the South Fork of the Eel river, long after anyone remembers that I once lived there, and I see those high-water marks way up over my head in the middle of a small town. And I walk the rocky ruins of the depleted river, and feel that we all must do something.
It is already late.