Earth Day 2015: On Water, California Reaches Its Limit

Published on April 15th, 2015

By Joe Guzzardi
April 15, 2015

Until California residents confronted the reality of a worsening drought and acute water shortages, Earth Day’s original purpose to raise environmental awareness had slowly faded. Suddenly, conservation is back at the forefront even though politicians persistently ignore the link between population growth and dwindling resources.

When Earth Day was organized in 1970, the United States’ fertility rate was at replacement level. But in 1986, President Regan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act that opened the door to more than 1 million immigrants every year, a rate that has continued for nearly 30 years.  Include ever- expanding illegal immigrant demographic, and the U.S. population could, according to the Census Bureau, reach 500 million by mid-century, and California might be nearly as densely populated as China. Since the first Earth Day, California’s population has more than doubled to nearly 40 million, a total California historian Kevin Starr says is more than the state is ecologically equipped to handle.

The facts bear Starr out. Gradually, California has lost 99 percent of its native grasslands, 80 percent of its coastal wetlands, and 95 percent of its coastal redwoods. At least 73 plants and animals are already extinct in California, and more than 150 animals and 280 plants are listed as endangered, threatened, or rare.

From coast to coast, the loss of farmland, woodland and other natural habitat that once provided refuge from city life have been cleared, paved over, and filled in to sate the ravenous appetite for growth. The Natural Resources Conservation Service found that more than one-third of all open spaces converted from natural use and agriculture to development has occurred in the last 25 years.

In California, steady population increase has converged with years of below average precipitation. According to California Department of Public Health data, immigration and births to immigrants are leading factors in the state’s population growth. During the decade from 2000 to 2010, 2,580,000 immigrated to California and 2,474,300 births were to immigrants. Nearly five million new residents will drink, wash and shower using precious water. Between 1970 and 2008, California’s legal and illegal immigrant share of the state’s total population tripled from 9 percent to 27 percent.

In its annual April 1 manual survey taken at Lake Tahoe Basin, the California Department of Water resources found little snow. Jeff Anderson, U.S. Natural Resources Conservation snow surveyor, called the readings the worst in a century. The winter months that traditionally produce the most rain are over, and the summer is invariably bone-dry. Governor Brown signed two bills that he hopes will help the most severely affected residents cope. But Brown is still encouraging more immigration. Last year, Brown invited Mexican illegal immigrants to come to California, telling them “You’re all welcome.” President Obama has embarked on a new refugee program that will fly Central American minors to the U.S., many of whom will land in California.

Inserting immigration into a debate about population growth is always contentious. But denying the link between more immigration, urban sprawl, and environmental loss is disingenuous. Just like native-born, immigrants must have housing, schools and transportation. As immigration numbers increase, so does the need to build to accommodate them.

But immigration, a federal policy originally intended to benefit Americans, can and should be reduced. To continue immigration on autopilot will surely exacerbate the already considerable harm done to California’s ecology.

I was born and grew up in Los Angeles when it was the number one agricultural county in the U.S. Adjacent Orange County got its name from the abundance of orange groves that dominated the landscape. Those days are long over. But Californians and state leadership should be united in a collective effort to save as much of the state as possible for future generations.

Joe Guzzardi is a Californians for Population Stabilization Senior Writing Fellow. Contact him at [email protected]

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