In this issue and the one coming up, Coast & Ocean covers some of the ways that coastal activism has changed over the years, viewed through the lens of various activists. One great shift that has happened largely unremarked has been the rise of the restoration economy (see Coast & Ocean Autumn 2004).
In the beginning, activists struggled to save special places from destruction. It soon became apparent that many saved places were in fact quite damaged ecologically, and needed some tender loving care. Although debates continue to rage regarding what “restoration” means, what state of nature we are trying to restore to, and whether a restored landscape can function in a completely “natural” manner, California has made major investments in bringing degraded ecosystems back to health, with highly satisfying results, both ecologically and economically. In San Francisco Bay over 40,000 acres of wetlands are being restored, with another 5,000 in southern California. Major dam-removal projects are under way all over California, and scores of watershed restoration projects and groups are active throughout the state.
It takes a lot of people and a lot of work to restore a wetland, or to repair any other seriously degraded natural resource. We estimate about 100 jobs per million dollars of restoration funding, which pays to hire everyone from accountants, botanists, biologists, engineers, foresters, heavy equipment operators, and hydrologists, to laborers, nurserymen, social scientists, truck drivers, writers, and zoologists. Dollar for dollar, restoration employs just as many people as any other kind of infrastructure work, and may well require a wider variety of jobs and professions than many other sorts of spending.
This is why the shutdown of bond-funded projects in California came at the worst possible time. On December 18, the Coastal Conservancy was compelled to order 435 projects stopped, worth a total of $300,000,000. As of this writing, it does not appear that much of this work will be able to go forward for months, maybe longer.
Even the budget adopted two months later, on February 18, may not restore confidence in California’s status in the bond markets. Just when our economy may be spiraling down into the deepest recession since 1932, we have done our share to send it down even faster.
Hundreds if not thousands of people have lost jobs because of the bond freeze, and many smaller nonprofit organizations are heading toward bankruptcy. In addition, there are penalties to be paid for stopping and restarting projects. Contractors must remove all their equipment, tidy up, and in many cases fence off the area before they leave. This is called demobilization, and if the project resumes, there is remobilization; both of these cost money. Over all, stopping and restarting Coastal Conservancy projects (which are only part of the big picture) will undoubtedly add tens of millions of dollars in new costs.
Even worse, some of our work will be delayed for years, or maybe forever. Many restoration projects have relatively narrow windows when work can happen, dictated by weather, the presence of endangered species, breeding seasons, or all three. Missing even a few months of work now may mean losing years of time in the field. As a result of the bond freeze we have probably already lost forever the opportunity to remove the San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River in Monterey County. Work on the dam can only happen during the summer, but because of the bond freeze we will miss our first summer of work, delaying the project for at least a year. Unfortunately, the company that owns the dam, and the regulatory agency involved, are unwilling to wait any longer and have told us they are abandoning this removal effort.
All in all, it has been a dreary four months since my last column . . . which bemoaned the lack of a timely State budget. As it turned out, no sooner had our Legislature passed a budget (September 23, 2008, a mere two and one half months late) than we were in deep fiscal trouble again, to the tune of a $42-billion deficit.
Not to mention the fact that we are in year three of the worst drought in decades. I hope I will have better news to report in my next column. But for now, at least it is raining.
Sam Schuchat is the executive officer of the Coastal Conservancy.