It Is Never “Just” Water

I recently finished a short stint interning with the Sierra Business Council in Truckee, California. With them I researched and wrote a series of advocacy white papers to help build support and form a coalition for an allocation from the proposed 2014 state water bond measures for upper watershed land management, specifically for the Sierra Nevada mountain region. The goal of these papers is to inform state representatives and their staffs about the potential benefits for the entire state of California if forests in the mountainous upper watersheds were to be maintained differently, by thinning tree density which is at abnormally high rates right now. The main thrust of the papers was that by reducing tree density by at least 25% and having removal of forest litter such as leaves and branches there would be an increase in total water delivered to the cities of California, water would be delivered later in the dry season, wildfire risk would decrease, overall carbon sequestration would increase, air and water quality would increase, energy delivery would be more secure, and the economically disadvantaged communities of the Sierra would have financial and health benefits.

Writing these papers required me to learn a ton of information in a very short period of time about the ecosystems of the Sierra, as well as the politics of water in California. I also was taught a lot about the importance of language as it pertains to intended audience. As someone who has been involved with sciences for a long time, the idea that using terms like sublimation or evapotranspiration was alienating to others was somewhat off-putting at first, but made sense in the end. Even with all this information and tactics to writing, the most important thing taught to me during this internship was the importance of presenting everything as an interconnected system.

Since these papers were for advocating for money to be allocated out of a water bond, my initial thoughts were to make the water-based benefits first and foremost the main idea of every paper and mention everything else as a co-benefit. I was immediately corrected on this line of thought by my supervisors. Water may be the reason this particular legislation is being proposed, but it is not necessarily the reason it gets passed and enacted. As the saying goes, all politics are local, and every representative wants to bring something home to their district. I had to argue how having their constituents give tax money to somewhere else in the state would bring any benefit to them.

When thinking linearly, this is not an easy task, and it is human nature to follow one premise to its most logical conclusion. But the environment is an interconnected system, where changing any one thing will have an impact on everything else in the ecosystem. It is the current mindset in California that a water project is an engineering project, such as building a reservoir, a dam, or aqueducts and irrigation. Managing forests is generally not entertained as a water project, because most people cannot visualize how a tree can affect the water that comes out of their tap. It fell upon me to create papers that showed this connection, but also how this would provide a whole slew of other benefits, many of which were mandated to be considered under state law. I made the arguments that thinning the forests of the Sierra Nevada, and all of the upper watersheds of California, back to historical and healthier levels would provide more water to the more urban areas of the state. There would be less risk of wildfire that would spread to these urban areas, but also disrupt the attempts of controlling carbon emissions for the entire state, and that these healthier forests could help strengthen power delivery as well.

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Not actually a healthy forest, sure is pretty though.

None of these were new and unique ideas. All of my research was drawn from other primary and secondary sources, but no one was putting together all these other ideas into the understanding of the system as a whole and making the appeals on the benefits to the entire state, which was the goal of my brief work with the Sierra Business Council. It may end up being that my work on these papers was in vain and this provision is not inserted into the newest water bond legislation, but I have learned the importance of being able to see and relate as much of the entire system as possible at once.

About Gregory McAuliffe