22 April 2009

Earth Day and Carbon Canyon

Today was the fortieth iteration (now there's a word you don't see every day) of Earth Day and each one seems, to some of us at any rate, to take on more urgency. In 1970, Carbon Canyon was a place still on the edge of suburbia and the environmental movement was on the fringes of American society. Four decades later, the Canyon is not only hemmed in by suburbia but it's vulnerable to, in many ways, being absorbed within it and environmentalism is more mainstream than ever; in fact, the deniers of our environmental challenges are now seen as more on the fringe, as well.

Already mentioned in this blog and covered in more detail in this week's Chino Hills Champion is the Metropolitan Water District's decision to impose mandatory water reductions (the first since 1991) of 10%, coupled with a nearly 9% increase in water rates--a direct result of declining reservoir and dam levels and a result (except for dissenters) of global climate change that is almost certainly (except for dissenters) significantly human caused. Now, of course, part of the water issue is federal mandates for environmental protections of Sacramento Delta areas that provide a large portion of exported water to southern California (here some can blame the tree-huggers and eco-nuts), but the fact is that snowpack levels and rainfall have been down in the last few years. As the president of the board of the Inland Empire Utilities Agency put it, "we don't know if we are very near the end of this drought or if this is just year three of a 15-year dry period."

NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies has noted that the eight warmest years recorded on the planet have occurred since 1998 and all fourteen of the hottest years have been since 1990.

Whether this is all or mostly "natural" or "human-caused" doesn't change the fact that there is an obvious overall warming of the planet (even if some places are colder, which leads a few to insist that global "warming" is a hoax, as if every place on earth had to be hotter for the overall temperature to increase.) Which, in turn, means that there are consequences.

Even Governor Palin, who clearly expressed doubt about global climate change as a primarily human-caused phenomenon during the recent presidential campaign is now saying that she can see (as clearly as she could Russia) that the effects of climate change are manifest in Alaska. As they have been with the recent flooding in North Dakota. As they have been with the incredible drought conditions in Australia, heavily contributing to the very deadly wildfires there earlier this year. As they have been with thinning ice floes ad rising water levels in the polar regions that are accelerating faster than previously thought. As they have been with the rising intensity of tropical storms (a scientist in the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration has stated that "it is likely that greenhouse warming will cause hurricanes in the coming century to be more intense on average and have higher rainfall rates than present-day hurricanes.")

And, as they have when we look at the Freeway Complex fires that ravaged Carbon Canyon, especially its Orange County/Brea portion, last November with the lethal combination of Santa Ana winds, hot temperatures, low humidity, drought, high fuel content in plant materials and so on. Our Canyon is vulnerable to many manifestations of climate change including continued fires, a change in the plant palate due to drought, and many others.

Which is why another Champion article from this week has relevance: "November fire intervened in plans for Canyon Crest." Now, not only did all 368 acres of the project area burn in November, which, in all fairness, would not happen if there was a landscaped housing project there, but the recent water restrictions, which might lead to "indefinite" measures if we are indeed in a long drought cycle, would have great bearing on a project that would generate 4-6 times the water use of an average home because of house and lot sizes. The particulate matter pollution generated from a year or more of grading would add to an already excessive level of that type of pollution, in which the Los Angeles Region continues to lead the nation (and, by lead, I don't mean in a good way!) The increased traffic, already at an F rating on an overburdened highway not built for the level of congestion that it now holds, would be another environmental black mark.

At any rate, Canyon Crest developer The Shopoff Group, which has been listing the property as for sale on its web site for a long time, has asked for a continuance on until 16 June concerning recent demands by the City of Brea that a new biological analysis in the wake of the fire be paid for by Shopoff. This analysis, which would cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, has not been paid for because "the applicant is working with its investors to come up with the funding." Yet, the article states, "given the current economic climate, the investors are a little reluctant to free up funds." The obvious question is: given how many millions of dollars have already been staked on this project, why would a few thousands of dollars be an issue? Whatever the answer to that (perhaps rhetorical) question, the 21 April Brea City Council meeting will include a recommendation to grant the continuance and then, as Brea's city planner succinctly states: "In the meantime, we'll wait."

On that note, back to Earth Day, because we can't wait to take the steps that need to be taken to address the enormous environmental issues that confront us. Considering the last forty years since Earth Day was introduced, we've made baby steps when long strides have been needed. We still can't get updated CAFE (fuel efficiency) standards for passenger vehicles. We still insist that the single-passenger gas-powered vehicle is a birthright. We still insist that swimming pools, golf courses, and high water need plants in a semi-arid desert is somehow sustainable. We still insist on generating as much pollution as China with four times fewer people. And, sooner than later, a paradigm shift will be an imperative. We've lived this way for about fifty years running and have made minor improvements, even then grudgingly by attacking environmentalists as pro-socialst, anti-American trouble makers before all-too-slowly making those small changes that the deniers later trumpet as progress.

As it is, environmental change on a place like Carbon Canyon, viewed as a microcosm of the wider world out there, is going to be challenging enough moving forward. To layer direct human impacts, like more housing, on top of that with water reductions, traffic increases, fire threats and other issues looming just makes the urgency that much greater.

And, on this Earth Day and any other looking ahead, one has to wonder about whether the commitment and the resolve is there to address the hard questions that face us. I, for one, would like to hope so, especially as I talk to my 7-year and 4-year old sons about Earth Day, which they talk about in school and scarcely understand. The questions we face are so vital for them more than for me, because the work of their generation will be so much harder in the absence of the action from ours.

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