Climate on the front burner

Locals weigh in on new national reports confirming change is upon us

Robyn DiFalco of the Butte Environmental Council says we must be willing to change human behaviors in order to help the ecosystem.

Robyn DiFalco of the Butte Environmental Council says we must be willing to change human behaviors in order to help the ecosystem.

photo by Melanie MacTavish

Read the reports:
National Climate Assessment:
IPCC Assessment Report:
Watershed event:
The Butte County Groundwater Forum will be held at 6 tonight (May 22) in Chico City Council chambers.

When the White House recently released its third National Climate Assessment, the basic findings didn’t surprise anyone who’s stepped outside on a regular basis. The Southwest portion of the U.S., including California, has been decreed in the report as “the hottest and driest region.”

What isn’t so obvious, of course, is exactly what the future will bring. But the outlook is not positive. According to the federal report, the Southwest “is expected to get hotter and, in its southern half, significantly drier. Increased heat and changes to rain and snowpack will send ripple effects throughout the region. … Drought and increased warming [will] foster wildfires and increased competition for scarce water resources for people and ecosystems.”

The NCA, unveiled May 6, comes on the heels of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releasing the third phase of its Fifth Assessment Report. After looking at the science and impacts of climate change, the IPCC focused on ways to mitigate emissions of greenhouse gases and other effects.

“Generally, I think it’s certainly frightening but not necessarily unexpected,” said Fletcher Alexander, sustainability coordinator at Chico State. “This is confirming what we’ve known for some time, but things are getting worse and happening more quickly than we realized.

“Just looking at this last winter and the decreased rains and snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas, water tables are low and we’re feeling that right now—and the [NCA] report confirms we’re going to be seeing less and less water in the future.”

The snowpack factor has multiple effects. Barbara Vlamis of local water advocacy organization AquAlliance says the decreases in rain- and snowfall “make it more urgent to protect our groundwater from transfers and overuse in our region.” She added, “There’s very little vision in California at the level it should occur for water. Engineering or plumbing is all they can see as a solution. Until they break away from these paths, we’re going to continue to have serious water problems.”

Ironically, as officials grapple with storage and shortage issues, they also have to deal with flooding. As Robyn DiFalco, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, explains, shifts in precipitation patterns throughout the country, but even in California, can mean more intense rain and snow in places not accustomed to such levels, and warmer winters mean greater—and earlier—ice melts in California mountain areas.

Water may be a prime concern, but it’s not the only concern. BEC has a three-pronged approach to environmental advocacy: land, air and water, and the interrelationship between the three. As explained by Chico City Councilwoman Tami Ritter, a member of the county’s Air Quality Management District, dry land breeds a greater risk of wildfires, which breeds greater air pollution.

As a result, DiFalco says her organization is pushing all three elements as Chico and Butte County implement climate action plans, and the recent reports haven’t shifted BEC’s priorities.

“We do have a problem that’s human-caused that we need to respond to,” she said. “The question is whether or not we can modify our human behaviors and reduce our carbon emissions—as the [IPCC] report puts it, mitigate—effectively, in time, enough to make a difference.

“The studies continue to show: probably we can, [at least] some of what’s needed.”

For those involved in climate action planning in the North State—at the city, county and university levels—the takeaway from the NCA and IPCC is we’re already on the proactive path.

Mitigation has been a longstanding local priority. The city started climate action planning a decade ago, while Butte County and Chico State CAPs have been years in the making.

For even longer, North State farms and orchards have been conservation sites. Colleen Cecil, executive director of the Butte County Farm Bureau, says microsprinklers have replaced flood irrigation for many agricultural operations, and solar panels power many pumps.

Yes, agriculture is the single-biggest greenhouse gas emitter in Butte County, but “it’s also the single-largest industry to reduce greenhouse gases as well,” Cecil said. So, she added, farmers aren’t inherently against climate action—they just have a different take on the discussion.

“What we call ‘drought’ and ‘fire’ and ‘weather impacts,’ everyone else calls ‘climate change,’” she said. “A lot of things that the county is taking credit for are things we’re already doing as a responsible community because it makes sense—because it makes business sense.”

Chico State’s mandate comes from the California State University system’s chancellor as well as the campus president. Alexander said the university has myriad goals that include reducing water use by 20 percent and becoming environmentally neutral by 2030. Faculty members also are integrating sustainability more fully into the curriculum.

“These reports underscore the reasons we’ve been doing this and add some urgency to it,” Alexander said, “but we’ve been really moving in this direction and there are a lot of people engaged in these processes right now.”

Ritter, meanwhile, hopes the reports spur people who’ve been skeptical about climate change.

“I think it makes it harder for them,” she said. “Climate change is something that’s on pretty much everyone’s mind at this point, and I think as we look at the potential impacts, it’s affecting the elements most crucial to our existence: our food supply and our water source. The more focus we get on it from higher up is going to have an effect on the state and local level.”