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From Forest to Faucet: The Health of Headwaters Determines Tap Water Quality 

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Depending on where in California you live, some of the water from your faucet probably traveled hundreds of miles from its origins: either a melting snow bank in the high Sierra Nevada or a winter rainstorm that doused its foothills.

That origin point, California’s headwaters, on average receives 60% of the state’s annual precipitation falling as rain or snow. Californians consume roughly the same amount of water after it flows through streams and rivers into reservoirs, accounting for half of the state’s surface water storage.

However, the harsh reality of destructive wildfires that mar every California warm season — especially this year — can also hit these headwater forests. When these catastrophic blazes, which are driven by climate change, burn through forests, they can affect water treatment because ash is washed into watershed streams and rivers.

Intense heat from these fires bakes the ground into hardpan. Seasonal rains wash ash off the surface into streams leading to reservoirs that feed water treatment plants. Water providers can still treat and deliver safe drinking water, but the ash makes the job more difficult because it adds sediment to the reservoirs.

The good news is there are solutions within our reach. Work to achieve those solutions is underway in many parts of the Sierra Nevada and requires reversing a hundred years of well-intentioned, but ultimately destructive forest management.

During most of the last century, wildland firefighting focused exclusively on preventing forest fires from starting. And when one did start, minimizing its size at all costs was the main priority. However, this strategy ignored the natural role of fire over millennia.

Ignited by lightning or set by Native Americans who understood its value, natural fire kept forests thinned and healthy by removing excess undergrowth. These fires tended to creep along the forest floor and burn less hot and in more controlled patterns than today’s raging and record-setting conflagrations.

However, large swaths of forests kept largely free from fire have overgrown. Instead of larger trees spaced apart, much of the Sierra Nevada headwater forests have become a thick carpet of smaller trees packed together and growing over dense underbrush.

Years of severe and intermittent drought have cooked this vegetation into bone-dry kindling, explosive fire fuel that feeds all-consuming fires such as the ones that swept through California and the Pacific Northwest this year.

Removing this undergrowth, thinning headwater forests back to their natural state and restoring the role of fire within the ecosystem represents a massive undertaking, but is not impossible.

In California, public water agencies, environmental nonprofit organizations, as well as local and state agencies and the federal government are collaborating on many levels to enhance headwaters health, and in doing so protect the quality and reliability of our water supplies.

Natural fire has partially returned through what are known as prescribed burns. Set outside of the height of fire season and closely monitored, this tactic has successfully cleared out overgrowth in limited sections of forest. There are risks, and these fires do affect air quality, but the alternative is far worse.

Another tactic, although labor intensive, is employing work crews to manually thin sections of forests. These projects often use heavy machinery, such as masticators, which are tractor-mounted wood chippers.

One example can be found in the Northern Sierra Nevada. The Placer County Water Agency (PCWA) is leading a public-private partnership that treated more than 1,000 acres of forest in the Lake Tahoe area during 2019.

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Activism

MAYOR LONDON BREED NOMINATES CITY ATTORNEY DENNIS HERRERA TO LEAD THE SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC UTILITIES COMMISSION

As the new General Manager of the SFPUC, Herrera would bring decades of experience serving San Francisco residents and advancing the fight for significant environmental policies.

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San Francisco, CA — Today Mayor London N. Breed nominated City Attorney Dennis Herrera to serve as the next General Manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). Herrera was elected as City Attorney of San Francisco in 2001, and will bring decades of experience serving City residents and advancing environmental policies through his nationally-recognized office.
The SFPUC provides retail drinking water and wastewater services to the City of San Francisco, wholesale water to three Bay Area counties, green hydroelectric and solar power to Hetch Hetchy electricity customers, and power to the residents and businesses of San Francisco through the CleanPowerSF program.
“I am proud to nominate Dennis Herrera to serve as General Manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission,” said Mayor Breed. “Dennis has been a great champion in San Francisco across a wide range of issues from civil rights to protecting our environment, and most importantly he has been someone who always puts the people of this City first. By bringing his experience in office and his commitment to public service to this new position, I am confident the SFPUC will be able to deliver the high-quality services our residents deserve while continuing to advance nationally-recognized programs like CleanPowerSF and pursue ambitious efforts like public power. Dennis is the right leader for the hard-working employees of the SFPUC and this City.”
“I will always cherish the groundbreaking work we have done in the City Attorney’s Office over these nearly 20 years,” Herrera said. “We advanced equality for all, pushed affordable housing at every turn, gave our children better opportunities to grow and thrive, and took innovative steps to protect the environment. We never shied from the hard fights. Above all, our approach to government has had an unwavering focus on equity, ethics and integrity.”
“It is that focus that drives me to this new challenge,” Herrera said. “Public service is an honor. When you see a need, you step up to serve. The test of our age is how we respond to climate change. San Francisco’s public utility needs clean, innovative and decisive leadership to meet that challenge. I am ready to take the lead in ensuring that all San Franciscans have sustainable and affordable public power, clean and reliable water, and, overall, a public utility that once again makes them proud. I want to thank Mayor Breed for this unique opportunity to stand up for ratepayers and usher in a new era of clean leadership at the top of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.”
The next step for the nomination is for the five-member commission that oversees the SFPUC to interview City Attorney Herrera and forward him as a formal recommendation to the Mayor. After this, and once a contract is finalized, City Attorney Herrera would be officially appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the Commission. This process will take a number of weeks.
For nearly two decades, Herrera has been at the forefront of pivotal water, power and sewer issues. He worked to save state ratepayers $1 billion during PG&E’s first bankruptcy in the early 2000s and has been a leading advocate for San Francisco to adopt full public power for years. In 2009, he reached a key legal agreement with Mirant to permanently close the Potrero Power Plant, San Francisco’s last fossil fuel power plant. The deal also included Mirant paying $1 million to help address pediatric asthma in nearby communities. In 2017, Herrera sued the top five investor-owned fossil fuel companies in the world, including ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell, seeking billions of dollars for infrastructure to protect San Francisco against sea-level rise caused by their products, including large portions of the SFPUC’s combined sewer and stormwater system.
In 2018, Herrera defeated an attempt to drain Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, the crown jewel of the SFPUC system, which provides emissions-free hydroelectric power and clean drinking water to 2.7 million Bay Area residents. He is also leading efforts before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the courts to fight PG&E’s predatory tactics to grow its corporate monopoly by illegally overcharging public projects like schools, homeless shelters and affordable housing to connect to the energy grid.
Herrera was first elected City Attorney in December 2001, and went on to build what The American Lawyer magazine hailed as “one of the most aggressive and talented city law departments in the nation.”
Herrera’s office was involved in every phase of the legal war to achieve marriage equality, from early 2004 to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark rulings in June 2013. Herrera was also the first to challenge former President Trump’s attempts to deny federal funding to sanctuary cities. He repeatedly defeated the Trump administration in different cases as it sought to punish sanctuary cities, deny basic benefits like food stamps to legal immigrants, and discriminate in health care against women, the LGBTQ community and other vulnerable groups. He brought groundbreaking consumer protection cases against payday lenders, credit card arbitrators and others. He also brought pioneering legal cases to protect youth, including blocking an attempt to strip City College of San Francisco of its accreditation and getting e-cigarettes off San Francisco store shelves until they received required FDA approval.

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Activism

The Lookout: Three Bills Test Sacramento’s Political Climate for Green Change

Newsom suggested that climate change has increased the severity of drought conditions in California, a sentiment shared by the Public Policy Institute of California.

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Following Earth Week, celebrities and lawmakers alike have come together to discuss the climate crisis ravaging our planet. However, with the political climate as charged as it is, not everyone agrees on the best approach. 

On April 21, California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency.

Newsom suggested that climate change has increased the severity of drought conditions in California, a sentiment shared by the Public Policy Institute of California.

“What is different now is the extremes. What’s different now is the climate-induced impacts of these droughts,” Newsom said. “We’ve barely been out of those drought conditions and here we are, entering back into these drought conditions.”

Senate Bill (SB) 45, also known as the California Drought, Water, Parks, Climate, Coastal Protection, and Outdoor Access For All Act of 2018, would authorize $4.1 billion in bonds to finance a drought, water, parks, climate, coastal protection, and outdoor access for all program.

SB 45 was originally voted in as Proposition 68 in 2018 and would also enact the Wildfire Prevention, Safe Drinking Water, Drought Preparation, and Flood Protection Bond Act of 2022, which, if approved by the voters, would authorize $5.5 billion in bonds to fund projects for a wildfire prevention, safe drinking water, drought preparation, and flood protection program.

A hearing on the bill is set for May 3 in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Senate Bill (SB) 582 focuses on decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

SB 582 would require the State Air Resources Board to make sure that statewide emissions are reduced to at least 80% below their 1990 levels. 

Also, it would focus on communities that are more vulnerable to climate change, according to Sen. Henry Stern (D-Los Angeles) and Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San Jose) who held a webinar to discuss the bill.

“The third piece [of SB 582] is what we call a just resilience framework to really put vulnerability to climate change at the centerpiece of the state spending strategy,” Stern said, breaking down the bill into three parts. “So, for the folks living in Sen. Cortese’s backyard who might be going through an extreme heat event who are elderly and maybe don’t have access to the proper air conditioning, or live right next to a floodplain, or, in my area, right next to the edge of a wildfire risk… those most vulnerable people, we believe, should be met first by a massive investment in climate infrastructure.”

Stern acknowledged some of the pushback he expects to get from the California labor organizations. 

“In organized labor and basically the employment sector, especially in the fossil fuel industry, there’s been a lot of discomfort that if California shuts down all these industries that we’ll put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage and we’ll put people out of work,” Stern said. 

There has been some hesitation, according to Stern. However, he asserts that it isn’t full-blown opposition.

 “There is no opposition at this point from organized labor,” Stern said. “And the environmental justice community is also not yet fully invested because there is some nervousness. Things like carbon capture, storage and oil fumes. Those kinds of questions are still looming, but we’re committed to this broader diplomatic effort and I think if we can solve that, anything is possible.”

The Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee has scheduled a hearing for April 27 on the SB 582.

Planning to Get Rid of Gasoline-Powered Cars

According to the California Air Resources Board, statewide greenhouse gas emissions increased by about 800,000 metric tons from 2017 to 2018.

Introduced as a way to combat this, Assemblymember Kevin McCarty’s (D-Sacramento) Assembly Bill (AB) 1218 aims to ensure that “100% of new passenger and light-duty vehicle sales are zero-emission vehicles by 2035.”

Jeremy Smith, deputy legislative director of the State Building and Construction Trades Council, wrote a letter to strongly oppose AB 1218.

“AB 1218 will prove devastating for the gasoline tax revenue stream dedicated to improving and maintaining California’s infrastructure and replenishing the general fund,” Smith wrote. “The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted social and economic activity in the state; reduced business activity and stay-at-home orders have decreased the amount Californians drive their automobiles.”

AB 1218 also proposes that the state provides incentives for Californians to adopt to zero emission vehicles. 

“This bill also sets up interim GHG emissions targets for manufacturers to achieve towards the 2035 100% zero-emission sales goal,” the bill text reads. “By reaching these targets, manufacturers would avoid having to pay a penalty. Manufacturers have stated support for the Governor’s executive order and understand the need for rebates to incentivize consumer adoption of zero-emission vehicles. The Assembly Appropriations Committee is currently reviewing AB 1218. 

In Washington, GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA-23) hosted a three-day event introducing House Republican sponsored environmental initiatives in response to the Green New Deal.

While legislators may not agree on the how, they do agree on the why: The planet is in danger and we have the power to save it. What we’re willing to give up in that pursuit, however, makes all the difference.

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Bay Area

Eerie Apocalyptic Sky in Bay Area Raises Concerns for Residents

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In addition to smoke from the August fires, the Bay Area branch of the National Weather Service noted on Twitter that lower temperatures and weaker winds compared to the last several days are allowing wildfire smoke suspended in the air to fall closer to the ground, contributing to the sky color change.

People all over the Bay Area woke up Wednesday morning to ominous, orange skies. Street lights stayed on long past what should have been daybreak that — under normal circumstances –would have been a clear, sunny day.

‘Surreal,’ ‘hell,’ and variants of ‘apocalypse’ were terms that peppered conversations on and off social media.

The cause, as reported by Bay City News, is smoke from the August Complex fires in Mendocino County that settled on top of a marine layer in the Bay Area Wednesday, turning the sky various shades of red and orange.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “ . . . [t]he ominous pallor of the skies, experts said, were a product of the plumes of smoke billowing from the historic number of wildfires burning across the state.  Wind conditions overnight pushed smoke into lower elevations, filtering sunlight and producing dark tints of red, orange and gray.  Still, air quality remained mostly unchanged.”

Bay Area Air Quality Management District spokesman Ralph Borrmann said the smoke is filtering out blue light, giving skies around the Bay Area a red-orange tint.

Borrmann said that while the air district extended its Spare the Air alerts through Friday, air quality is not being adversely affected by the smoke because the marine layer is, in effect, insulating low-lying areas.

Parts of the Bay Area at higher elevations may be more susceptible to poor air quality, but parts of the Bay Area that lie at or close to sea level were not being adversely affected like in previous days.  Updates about air quality in the Bay Area can be found at  baaqmd.gov.

This writer woke up to ash on my car and lawn and confused about the time of day and why it wasn’t lighter at dawn.  By noon on Wednesday, people were still driving with their headlights on.  Streetlights that turn off at dawn were still illuminated.  People complained of their eyes being irritated.

This writer received a text from a friend, Ange, about “ . . . the impending apocalypse and obvious undercurrent of anxiety” followed by  “ . . . seriously though . . . what is with the sky?”

Jim Tang tweeted: “If you told me that I was actually in hell right now, I would believe you.”

Connie Guglielmo of CNET tweeted “Strange skies over the Bay Area again this morning.  Ominous music optional.”

Will Tran of KRON 4 tweeted: “[o]range, dark and ashy bc of wildfires.  I was two days away from my 8th birthday when Mt. St. Helens shook the planet.  I’m from Seattle-Tacoma and I remember the sky looked just like this.”

(Mount St Helens is an active volcano in nearly 100 miles south of Seattle, Wash. It had a deadly eruption in 1980.)

News reports discussed how residents of Oakland, San Francisco, and the Bay Area were sharing images of the “apocalyptic morning light” as record heat continues to fuel local fires.

Wildfires are changing the weather of an entire region, meteorologists said. And forecasters don’t know when it will end.

“Fires create their own weather,” National Weather Service meteorologist Roger Gass explained, but usually only on a small scale, in areas close to the flames.

The smoke that upended the Bay Area on Wednesday, though, was coming from hundreds of miles away, according to reports from The East Bay Times. Most of it, Gass said, “was likely from the August Complex Fire in the Mendocino National Forest and the Bear Fire in the western Sierra. Smoke from other fires throughout California, Oregon and Washington was also mixed into the massive layer of haze,” the East Bay Times reported.

“We’re having such a large scope of dense smoke across the Bay Area and the West Coast in general, that it’s actually impacting our weather conditions,” Gass told the East Bay Times. “We’re kind of in uncharted territory right now.”

Meteorologists said that the air quality is not as bad as it appears to be, but that is not reassuring to some.

“I woke to an apocalyptic sky, orange haze elicits a sense of dusk rather than day.  I’m reminded of all the dystopian books I’ve read. I also sense that we are doomed. The world descending into chaos around me” said my wife, Natalie Devora Monifa.

“I think this weather is a ‘no’” added my 19-year-old daughter, Isabella Bolden-Monifa

“Since the beginning of this pandemic, I’ve been feeling as if I was in an apocalypse.  Today’s weather in the Bay Area is ‘outpicturing’ what I’ve been feeling” said another friend, Pamela Grimm.

But for my son, Benjamin Bolden-Monifa, “It’s cool.” My 17-year-old’s favorite color is orange and he wears it daily.

 

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