View of a burned out commercial building after the Dixie Fire tore through the town of Greenville. REUTERS/Fred Greaves

In California, our natural resource world has changed and continues to change faster than our policies and institutions can adapt.

Temperature records are being set annually, tinder-dry watersheds experience raging wildfire driven by high winds, and reduced snowpack often evaporates without running into rivers. Higher temperatures have put natural systems in a tailspin, and California institutions are too narrow, calcified and cautious to respond with the speed needed to protect us from natural disasters.

We can try to adapt to the floods, droughts, heat waves and sea-level rise now upon us with institutions built for a past regime. Or we can start doing now what we need to do — organize ourselves in new ways to match the speed of change and the size of the challenge. 

The natural resource system must be managed as a system from the top of the watershed to the ocean. California needs a climate-adaptation leader supported by an interagency, interdisciplinary unit whose only job is to identify critical projects and expedite their implementation. Such an integrated and authorized approach cuts across institutional silos to find projects that advance climate change resiliency in the face of rapid change. 

There are tens of thousands of acres of critical habitat projects that have been identified for decades and need to move forward now — not after years of regulatory proceedings and litigation. There are critical tidal wetlands projects, for example, that have languished for more than a decade while the ecosystem declines.  

The same goes for dozens of groundwater-storage projects. Let’s not forget what happens when drought and wildfire give way to rain: flooding, potentially of historic proportion. Expanded floodways can guard against flood damage, provide needed habitat and groundwater recharge, but only if we take a climate-adaptation approach. 

For this to happen, the Legislature needs to modernize statutes to allow for coordinated and expedited permitting of climate-adaptation projects. 

Over the past century, California has evolved a highly fragmented water and natural resource management system with institutional silos of local, state and federal entities. These institutional silos each have different management, regulatory and geographic authorities and jurisdictions. To adapt to climate change, the silos must be breached. 

Additionally, the state has an extensive array of statutes and regulations developed to protect our environment. In general, the system of policies, laws and institutions is designed to keep bad things from happening, but it is much less adept at expediting programs and projects that must happen quickly and at a scale to address a rapidly warming Earth. This must change.

It must be clear that projects must move forward and will be adjusted through adaptive management. In short, we need to get moving and adjust as knowledge about the environment increases.

Today, it takes us far too long to develop and implement projects and programs to adapt to the rapidly changing reality. We are falling behind. And we aren’t falling behind because people don’t know what to do, but because they are trying to manage a climate-impacted natural resource system with policies and institutions designed to manage a system that no longer exists.

Let’s stop pretending our natural world will return to normal. That option is long gone. 

We need to stop waiting for the drought to be over and the fire season to end. We need to start demanding the administrative and legal changes necessary to get out in front of the ever-increasing effects of climate change. And we need to do that now.

Lester Snow is the former California Secretary of Natural Resources. He wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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