Eager Beaver

No water, no life. No blue, no green.” – Sylvia Earle

Aside from humans, beavers are the only mammals that will significantly reorient entire ecosystems to create the habitat they need to thrive. They fell trees, dam creeks and streams, and create vast wetlands that countless other species benefit from. In so doing, they often help regions retain water that might otherwise find its way into oceans or distant large lakes. North America used to be practically saturated with beavers, and the environment would look quite different had humans not driven them to near extinction in the quest to harvest pelts for commercial trade.

For reasons that extend beyond economics and into geopolitics, the extinction of beavers was near total in California. As this fascinating history of the rise and fall of the species in that state explains, in the early 1820s “the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company set out from its bases in the Pacific Northwest to search as far south as the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys with orders to denude the lands of all fur-bearers so that the Americans would ‘have no inducement to proceed hither.’” It only took a few decades from there to decimate the population of Castor canadensis.

Perhaps recognizing their value in countering California’s chronic water challenges, state leaders have begun the process of rejuvenating the local beaver population through direct intervention:

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has launched the initial phase of its beaver translocation activities, recently conducting the first beaver conservation release in nearly 75 years. Working with the Maidu Summit Consortium, CDFW released a family of seven beavers into Plumas County, in a location that is known to the tribal community as Tásmam Koyóm.

The new family group of beavers join a single resident beaver in the valley with the ultimate objective of re-establishing a breeding population that will maintain the mountain meadow ecosystem, its processes and the habitat it provides for numerous other species.

Welcome back! | CDFW

One significant advantage of outsourcing water management work to beavers is that they need not be encumbered by environmental opposition to their activities. Permitting delays, frivolous lawsuits, and endless impact studies present no issue to nature’s carpenters, something we suspect provokes envy from current California Governor Gavin Newsom.

Newsom is just the latest in a string of Golden State governors struggling to solve the issues that plague California’s water systems. At its core, there has long been a pronounced mismatch between water supply and demand. Much of the rain and snow that falls in the state does so in the north, whereas 80% of water demand comes from the heavy population centers and vast farmlands in the south. California also swings wildly between years of precipitation abundance and drought but lacks the requisite infrastructure to bridge between the two. When excess water is available, much of it simply runs off into the Pacific Ocean, leaving the state scrambling during the inevitable dry years.

White gold | Andrew Dixon/CDWR

A large volume of California’s water exits into the Pacific by way of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers converge inland and eventually flow into the San Francisco Bay and out to sea under the Golden Gate Bridge. Building a structural bypass that diverts some of this precious water further south has long been an obvious solution, and Newsom has been supporting just such a project for the entirety of his time as governor. In December, the idea passed a critical milestone:

Despite years of strong opposition from environmental groups and local leaders, the California Department of Water Resources approved the controversial Delta Conveyance Project — also known as the Delta Tunnel — on Thursday.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and his administration have long advocated for the 45-mile-long tunnel to be built beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The tunnel would pipe water from the Sacramento River, bypassing the Delta, and redirect it into the Bethany Reservoir on the California Aqueduct. That water would then be delivered to Southern California.

The Delta Conveyance Project is a quintessential example of the difficult tradeoffs involved when formulating environmental policy. It pits the needs of tens of millions of humans against the sanctity of nature, stretches the ability of government to execute major public works projects in the modern era, and tests whether a governor with clear national ambitions can bend key members of his own political coalition to his will. What are the stakes for Californians and how might this play out? Let’s investigate.

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