Sobering reality

Climate change projections for Chico not rosy; planning underway

During visit to Bidwell Park, CivicSpark fellow Molly Marcussen explains that cities have to address how to better protect natural spaces and neighboring urban centers, which will be more prone to wildfires due to climate change.

During visit to Bidwell Park, CivicSpark fellow Molly Marcussen explains that cities have to address how to better protect natural spaces and neighboring urban centers, which will be more prone to wildfires due to climate change.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

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To view the Chico Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment, visit

Some of Molly Marcussen’s fondest memories from her childhood days on a dairy farm in Petaluma are of warm summers spent swimming in a nearby creek, tadpoles at her toes.

When she went off to Chico State, she intended to study agricultural business, but her first summer back home stopped her in her tracks.

The frogs—where did they go? Her mother’s rosebushes usually were crowded with croaking amphibians. That year, there was silence.

What could have caused the frogs’ disappearance? Marcussen did some digging (academically speaking). The answer had to do with something she did not expect: climate change. The waters of the creek had been getting warmer and more shallow. The frogs couldn’t survive there anymore.

“I was kind of scared,” Marcussen said. If the creek had become unsuitable for frogs, might it become unsuitable for her?

When Marcussen returned to college, she shifted her studies to environmental planning. Post-graduation, Marcussen, 24, has become an expert in Cal-Adapt, climate-modeling software developed by the California Energy Commission and the UC Berkeley Geospatial Innovation Facility. It forecasts what Butte County will be experiencing by 2050 and 2100 based on projections of high and low greenhouse gas emissions.

Using Cal-Adapt in conjunction with data from local agencies, Marcussen has created climate change vulnerability assessments for Chico and Butte County. The reports—mandated by Senate Bill 379—aim to answer essential questions about the future of California communities: namely, how will the changing climate impact the people, natural environment and infrastructure, and what strategies can be used to adapt to those changes that are already cemented, while preventing even harsher ones from coming?

The assessments represent the bulk of her work as an AmeriCorps CivicSpark fellow—her one-year assignment ends in August.

Last Thursday (May 31), Marcussen presented a draft of the Chico report to the city’s Sustainability Task Force. She is working on the strategies portion; once complete, the assessment will make its way to the Planning Commission for review and eventual integration into the general plan.

The report describes a Chico many people wouldn’t recognize. This includes hotter temperatures in general, with more frequent scorching heat waves and wildfires. Average annual rainfall will increase, but in the form of brief, intense storms causing massive flooding; coupled with a melting snow pack, this will mean less water storage and recharging of groundwater.

“You look at it and go, Oh my god, everything is a problem,” Mark Stemen, task force chairman, told the CN&R. “If it doesn’t get really bad, we’re going to be OK—we have the capacity to deal with the [Cal-Adapt] low-emissions scenario.”

Health impacts are one reason these climate changes are so troubling. The increase in extreme heat days alone is projected to increase cases of nausea, dizziness, stroke, dehydration and heat exhaustion, according to the assessment.

Sherry Morgado, Butte County Public Health assistant director, told the task force her department is very concerned about the impact on vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, children, people with chronic illnesses (e.g., diabetes), those who work outdoors, homeless individuals and low-income families.

Morgado is already on board to help create an extreme-heat preparedness plan for Chico next year with the next CivicSpark fellow.

Another major health concern is wildfires, which release harmful pollutants; increased exposure will lead to more cases of asthma, cardiovascular disease, bronchitis and congestive heart failure. Reduced staffing of the county and city fire departments only adds to the growing concern about fire safety, Stemen said.

Of course, the impacts of climate change are also felt by other living beings. Plants are expected to become prone to disease and overwhelmed by invasive species. Woodlands and animals in the foothills will be at extreme risk of catastrophic wildfires as well.

Flooding can distribute hazardous pollutants, degrading ecosystems. Reduced water flows, diversion for agriculture and warmer water temperatures can cause stress on fish, insects, crustaceans and other animals. Species such as chinook salmon eventually may no longer be able to mate and spawn. Chico’s vernal pools may never recover.

“The seasons are getting longer and the resources are getting fewer. It makes planning all the more important and valuable,” Stemen said. “All of these [projections] are not an ‘if’ but a ‘when’ kind of thing.”

After Marcussen’s fellowship ends, a new CivicSpark fellow will continue the momentum. In fact, that’s similar to how Marcussen got the ball rolling: She built off of research from a Chico State community service geography course, taught by Stemen, which dove into the same climate projections. (See “Beyond the grade,” Greenways, Dec. 17.)

Marcussen is aware that her incomplete assessment is quite bleak, but she’s confident that “we’re going to be able to get through this.”

The city already has some plans underway, ahead of her full report. A good example is the urban forester’s mission of planting 700 trees citywide in the next three years. (See “Power Planting,” Greenways, May 17.)

“It is an investment, but it’s an investment for our lives and our infrastructure,” Marcussen said, “to keep people in Chico.”