Beyond the Brink: California’s Watershed


By Melina Paris, Editorial Assistant

Beyond the Brink: California’s Watershed, an educational video, will screen on KCET at 10 a.m. on May 30. The program is cosponsored by the Association of California Water Agencies, or ACWA, the largest statewide coalition of public water agencies in America and produced by Jim Thebaut, president of The Chronicles Group, a nonprofit that communicates the critical issues facing the earth through media.

ACWA’s nearly 450 public agency members collectively are responsible for 90 percent of the water delivered to cities, farms and businesses in California.

In under 30 minutes, the video discusses the function, importance and demise of the California watershed. It describes how climate change and drought are causing dangerous, life-threatening fires and the melting snowpack. It also points out that these conditions impact vital California water supply — and it argues national security.

As it progressed, the video presented like an infomercial rather than for edification.  Environmentalists and public agencies charged with facilitating the California water supply understand these important issues mentioned above. Further, the world is transitioning into the ensuing effects of climate change. If you’ve been paying attention, you have already learned this information. So, it begs the question, what is the solution, or more specifically, the reason for this video?

Looking at Biofuels

Beyond the Brink stressed that forest overgrowth of trees from a century of fire suppression has degraded the ability to store water, but it did not indicate if it was describing the forest’s ability or human efforts to store water. After doing more research through the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency that leads California’s efforts to restore natural resources and communities of the Sierra Nevada, it seems that the video may refer to both human and environmental efforts. The conservancy’s website discusses past and present characteristics of the Sierra forests.

 “Historically, streams and floodplains acted like sponges, soaking up snowmelt, filtering it, and releasing it slowly — extending runoff into the summer. Today, Sierra forests have grown more dense. Many meadow floodplains are channelized, so Sierra headwaters are less capable of providing these beneficial services to the state water system.

Overcrowded forests threaten the water supply infrastructure and are less resilient to drought, beetle infestation and wildfire. Forests of dead trees create challenges for water management, including increased flooding and landslides and reduced water quality and reservoir capacity.”

Beyond the Brink linked the suppression of fire to impacted, overgrown forests, which then severely affect California’s water supply. In terms of agriculture, this impacts the nation as a whole. It also posited that “going forward, either wildfires are going to clear the forests or we can manage our forests in a sustainable way.”

It then presented biofuels — a renewable energy source, made from organic matter or wastes  as the solution. Biofuels will be produced through selective burning of forest trees, which “results in wildfires being better controlled.” According to National Geographic, the idea behind biofuels is to replace traditional fuels with those made from plant material or other feedstocks that are renewable.

The biofuel solution has its merits — and issues. National Geographic reports that using farmland to produce fuel instead of food comes with challenges and solutions that rely on waste or other feedstocks that haven’t yet been able to compete in price and scale with conventional fuels. 

Unfortunately, for an educational piece, Beyond the Brink does not present both sides. It does however further discuss the benefits of how the biomass sector would revitalize rural economic districts in the Sierra Nevada, develop technology to benefit the economy and repair infrastructure. It discussed creating public private partnerships between federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (which Sierra Nevada is under the control of), hydropower agencies, water providers and the University of California Merced, which will provide the technology tools to create biofuels.

The video noted also that “selectively thinning forests through managed burning is a forest that produces timber and biofuels and recreation and wildlife.”

This statement rings as though they want to make everyone happy, particularly with “recreation.”

The struggle between those who want to keep the forests as close to their natural state and those whose activities don’t involve recreation that utilizes the forest’s natural resources, [like off-road vehicle users], has long existed. While various types of recreation and tourism stimulate the  Sierra Nevada economy, its activity is dependent upon the condition of the Sierra Nevada ecosystem.

Beyond the Brink makes a good case for biofuels, but does not specifically state what the biofuels will be used for. Its merits deserve to be considered, but must be done so in combination with other viable solutions for the mounting need for energy, food and water.