New environmentalism needed for California water

The city of Los Angeles’ revitalization of the Los Angeles River exemplifies “new environmentalism, which reconciles human activities to better support and expand habitat for native species. Images show the river today (left), looking north above 1st Street downtown, and an illustration of the same view with public access and habitat for fish and wildlife. Source: Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan

By Jay Lund

California needs a new environmentalism to set a more effective and sustainable green bar for the nation and even the world.

For decades, we have taken a “just say no” approach to stop, prevent or blunt human encroachments onto the natural world – often rightly so. Early environmentalism needed lines in the sand against rampant development and reckless industrialization and achieved widespread success. Our air and water is now cleaner even with population and economic growth. Industry, for the most part, is now accountable for its wastes.

Yet, despite these important gains, the classical environmentalism of “no” will ultimately fail. We must shift to “how better?”

Despite decades of earnest efforts and expenditures, human influence on the natural environment continues to grow, albeit at a slower rate. Native species continue to become endangered. Tens of thousands of inadequately tested chemicals still remain in use. Carbon exhausts keep accumulating and warming the planet. Our imprint on nature is subtler but more pervasive and difficult to stymie than we had ever imagined.

In the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, more than 90 percent of plants and animals don’t belong there naturally. They have profoundly changed food webs and habitats, mostly to the detriment of native species. Invasive non-native species have been introduced for fishing or escaped from ship ballast water, anglers’ bait buckets or home aquariums. Such environmental changes are not subject to review, and answer to no court.

Classical environmentalism is mostly about stopping new harmful human influences, not reversing the harmful effects of past changes or shaping a more environmentally friendly future. Environmentalism has not substantially reversed the widespread urban and agricultural destruction of wetlands or freed rivers from the concrete and rock that straightened their course.

A new environmentalism is needed that can redirect and reconcile human activities to better support and even expand habitat for native species. Rather than insist on blocking human use to protect nature – a largely quixotic quest now – environmental reconciliation works in and with unavoidably human habitats.

A vivid example of this integration is the planned rejuvenation of the Los Angeles River. Deadly floods in the 1930s led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to straighten and pave nearly all 52 miles of the river channel in concrete. In recent years, however, a grassroots campaign to transform the giant, trash-strewn storm drain into something resembling a river has gained political traction. Illustrations in the city’s river revitalization plan show a natural and human-made hybrid. Flood protection would be maintained, but tons of concrete would be replaced with terraced tree-lined banks and wetlands that link bikeways, parks and neighborhoods. The goal is not so much to restore the river but to reintroduce nature to residents of a harshly unnatural environment.

More recently, in the Sacramento Valley, a consortium of private landowners, conservation groups, government agencies and researchers with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences is working to help struggling salmon populations in mutually beneficial ways. The group is investigating how the Yolo Bypass, long used for flood control and farming, could also be managed as a seasonal wetland for fish and water birds. Recent studies indicate the floodway would make a productive salmon nursery at relatively little cost to farmers. Test fish planted on inundated rice fields grew phenomenally faster and fatter than those left to mature in the Sacramento River, earning them the name “floodplain fatties.”


Scientists flooded and stocked thousands of baby salmon on a rice field in the Yolo Bypass in February 2013. Historically, river flooding gave salmon access to much of the Sacramento Valley. Photo by Carson Jeffres

Environmentalism with the more positive and proactive direction of reconciliation has potential to create new habitat for native species, rather than maintaining unsustainable remnants on hospice at great expense.

New environmentalism is about diverse interests working together to create more promising environmental solutions. In contrast, the politics and finance of classical environmentalism often require casting others as villains. Some environmental assaults demand a call to arms. But the public has grown weary of confrontation and standoff, such as the decades of stalemate over the Delta. The resulting inaction has cost both the environment and the economy. Earthquakes, floods, and sea level rise will act to transform parts of the Delta into open water – risking water supplies for millions of acres of farmland and millions of Southern Californians. So far, governing institutions have been unable to lead in responding to inevitable environmental change.

Classical environmental thinking pervades environmental regulation often to the point of impeding environmental progress. Regulatory agencies cannot agree on environmentally beneficial changes unless proposals are almost entirely without negative environmental impacts, often perpetuating an environmentally inferior status quo.

As most ecologists and even politicians now recognize, nature and human activities cannot be kept strictly apart. They must largely be reconciled and even integrated. To be sure, some habitat should remain off-limits. But classical environmentalism alone can only lead to increasingly expensive environmental decline and public derision.

To succeed, environmentalism must move from the era of “no” to an era of “how better.”

Jay R. Lund is director of  the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. This commentary originally appeared in The Sacramento Bee on June 30, 2013.

Further reading

Boxall, B. Oct. 25, 2013. “Can the Yolo Bypass floodplain be managed to nurture salmon?” Los Angeles Times

Leslie, J. Dec. 6, 2014. “Los Angeles, City of Water“. The New York Times

Marris, E. 2011. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. Bloomsbury, New York

Marris, E. and Aplet, G. Oct. 31, 2014. “How to mend the conservation divide.” The New York Times 

Moyle, P. and W. A. Bennett. 2008. “The future of the Delta ecosystem and its fish.” Technical Appendix D, Comparing Futures for the SacramentoSan Joaquin Delta. San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California

Suddeth, R. Dec. 2, 2014. “Reconciling fish and fowl with floods and farming“. California WaterBlog

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11 Responses to New environmentalism needed for California water

  1. Jacques Leslie knew that “it’s the water” as far back as the year 2000 when he penned “Running Dry” for Harpers Magazine, a very informative primer on the watr situation in the World, then … :

  2. Mollie Brown says:

    I still remember a drowning death of a teen boy in the early 90s, when I first moved here. He had gotten in the fast moving winter flood waters of the LA River, and he could not be saved. The video of his struggles stayed with me. They have changed rescue protocols since then, and I am glad to see the river may slow down by some of these changes.

  3. Scott Weldon says:

    Your proposal requires compromise. Whenever compromise is required for an environmental cause, politics and money trump the needs of the critters/ecosystem every time. This can be evidenced by the tug of war currently occuring between Northern CA and Southern CA politicians over the Delta.
    Further, 80% of water is used by ag. Of this, at least 40% is used for rice, alfalfa, and almonds by big ag. This is where we should look to curtail water waste. But there is no political will power to do so, as big money trumps everything.

  4. Jim Litts says:

    I would argue that we need both yes and no going forward. Fossil fuels are no. Habitat is yes. Habitat connectivity is yes. I think environmentalists have to listen carefully to each other and not rush to be “new environmentalsits.” I suppose adopting a polarized view (old v. new, yes v. no) makes it much easier to be on the side of multinationals that control politics and money, but it’s a little like pounding on the fingers of people trying to get in your lifeboat. Except those people in this case are trying to tell you about a hole in your boat below the waterline. We stand on the shoulders of a lot of old environmentalists, that though they may not have been correct at all times, we owe much to them. Denigrating their methods doesn’t help: it only polarizes. But that said, of course new approaches will arise and in places like LA and the Yolo Bypass, these proposals sound terrific. Times and places determine which methods are most appropriate.

  5. We in Sonoma County and the North Coast have been working from the perspective of what we call “Restorative Environmentalism”. The focus is not just on preventing future losses, particularly to functioning matrices of habitat and watersheds, for instance, but on how to create thriving habitat, watersheds and strong species populations. This is, and has been, way beyond “just saying No”.

    That said, do remember that environmental losses generally are “forever,” while victories are all too frequently still subject to unraveling through politics and big money.

    Unfortunately, paying for the restorative or the proposed “New” work frequently is beyond the capability – or political willingness- of local, state and federal jurisdictions, and many business interests, and their political and regulatory allies, aren’t willing to participate in covering the externalized costs of their projects and programs, no less investing in creative future more sustainable and restorative solutions.

    “Nah, we ain’t responsible for that, and we ain’t gonna pay.” Or, “No, we won’t force our businesses and developers to pay for something that they claim aren’t part of their project proposals.” Or – watch as the new court ruling exempting projects supported by initiatives secured with [paid] signature gatherers from CEQA review if the local agency just adopts the initiative’s approval of the project. That means No significant environmental review as a result of this destructive court ruling, initially prompted by WalMart.

    Jay Lund is definitely right on target about what needs to get done – but the politics and finances of what he is calling “new environmentalism” (or, restorative environmentalism) is still poorly conceived and poorly supported. That work needs to be developed, supported and put in practice as well.

    The City of Petaluma, for instance, still has the opportunity to really step up our flood management programs, to the major benefit to property owners, businesses, riparian and instream fisheries habitat, and city risk management. Or, it can minimize its commitment to future restoration and best flood management practices, and just continue the old ‘traditional’ (and very limited) practices. It will be interesting to see if Petaluma is willing to go the next major steps in re-conceiving multi-objective flood management, starting from Denman Flats and going downstream through the Corona Reach to Downtown.

    Take a look at flood management practices in Tulsa OK for an example of what we could be doing, minimizing risks, creating new habitat and new economic drivers for our city.

    Stopping and undoing the huge damages currently being inflicted by expanding marijuana cultivation on North Coast watersheds, including the Eel and Russian Rivers, also needs to be addressed. Where the solutions to these multiple problems will be will require creativity – and also the willingness to say “NO” to continued destructive practices and policies.

    • Rocko says:

      “That said, do remember that environmental losses generally are “forever,” while victories are all too frequently still subject to unraveling through politics and big money.”

      This is a very good point that often gets overlooked.

  6. Rocko says:

    Says the engineer!

    What exactly is an environmentalist? A realist? Someone who says no save the fish but screw the people? It’s hard to take your opinion serious without clearly defining what you are even talking about. Environmentalism and environmentalists are very broad terms with varying meanings depending on who you are talking to.

    The idea behind what you call “new” environmentalism” is not so new and at the very least has been an idea around for over a decade. It is well known in the environmental community and is cited in several peer-reviewed journals in environmental science. It is not new to say we need to reconcile habitat and human use, it’s just that UCD is trying to make this a buzz term. We are ALREADY doing this on central valley rivers, for example, by diverting water for agriculture while managing salmon habitat. The Napa River has been improved, not restored, for human and ecological use. Examples are all over the state, nation and the world. So not so new of an idea.

    “Environmentalism has not substantially reversed the widespread urban and agricultural destruction of wetlands or freed rivers from the concrete and rock that straightened their course.”

    This is a completely false statement. Environmentalism is why we have even care about these issues to begin with. It is why there is a watershed sciences center at UCD. It is why anyone even cares to read this blog. Further, it has yielded successes. Look at the increase in dam removals, the breaching of levees – environmentalism works. As you know in CA several species of salmon were on the verge of extinction. They are not fully recovered but there have been vast improvements in their habitats and populations.

    “NO” is needed sometimes. I don’t think people fully appreciate the impact of what we are doing to the planet. Globally 40% of reptiles are threatened, endangered or extinct. Freshwater fish are going extinct at a rate 1,000 times greater than the natural baseline. We are losing biodiversity every which way and the trends are highly non-linear and cascading out of control. Sometimes we have to say NO. If not the trend of homogenization of life on earth will continue. Our kids will not get to enjoy the same natural beauty we did, our parents did, and so forth.

    Call me an environmentalist, but I think everyone person born should have the same opportunities we did to see the amazing creatures and habitats on our planet.

  7. ravenstevens says:

    There are so few places that are pristine or close to it. Those places are worth the “no.” We need our wild places, free from human influence where we can go and remember what it is to ‘be human’ and for Nature to remain free.

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