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Governor Brown fails the environmental justice test

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California Gov. Jerry Brown releases his proposed budget for 2017-18 at the State Capitol building in Sacramento on Jan. 10, 2017. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
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Gov. Jerry Brown is one of those environmentalists, the kind that think globally and neglect locally.

Brown recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to emphasize the state’s commitment to climate change mitigation and nuclear disarmament. Those issues are important, and I admire his commitment, but California needs a governor who will vigorously address the environmental issues right here at home — and we lack that.

Brown is clearly concerned about the shrinking arctic ice and the increasing acidity of the oceans. In the meantime, we have lead poisoning in Los Angeles, the largest methane leak in United States history and eroding sediments underlying the country’s highest dam. All went unaddressed until conditions became catastrophic.

But the most serious environmental problem in the state is the one the Brown administration has completely ignored for years, namely, the decline of the Salton Sea and its impact on the health of hundreds of thousands of Californians.

The Salton Sea is California’s largest inland body of water. This vast, highly productive sea supports tremendous biological activity. The region around the sea supports more species of birds than are found in the entire rest of the U.S. east of the Rockies. Dozens of species of birds are dependent on the sea as a feeding and resting place on their migrations north and south along the Pacific Flyway. The Salton Sea has been compared to the Everglades and the Pantanal Marshes of Brazil, in terms of its biological importance to birds in the Americas.

Perhaps this last paragraph should have been written in the past tense, because during the Brown administration, the ecology of the sea has collapsed. And although these changes are tragic, the worst is yet to come.

In January 2018, under a contract referred to as the Quantitative Settlement Agreement, hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water will be transferred yearly from the Imperial Valley to urban regions, such as San Diego. This will lead to a rapid shrinkage of the Salton Sea, exposing thousands of acres of dry lake bed, referred to as playa. These playas will be the source of highly toxic dust contaminated with heavy metals such as cadmium, arsenic and selenium. Hundreds of thousands of California residents will be exposed and face highly increased risk of asthma, emphysema and lung cancer. The California Air Resources Board states that the individuals most affected will be children and the elderly.

The state has been aware of these consequences for nearly two decades. Scientific studies and reviews abound. Reports have been written by the Pacific Institute, the Public Policy Institute of California and the Little Hoover Commission. Environmental and public health experts have long urged meaningful action. Some would tell you that nothing could be done and that the changes at the sea are inevitable. This is only true if the state refuses to act. Short-term and long-term solutions existed in the year 2002, and they exist today.

In 2020, when the respiratory wards in El Centro, Palm Springs and La Quinta begin to fill up with children and the elderly, Gov. Brown will be out of office and dealing with global issues. But the legacy of neglect will remain in California. Failures to address the public health and environmental challenges facing California within our own state boundaries will remain and will have painful and long-lasting consequences.

Timothy Bradley is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the UC Irvine and has been studying salt lakes in California for several decades, including Mono Lake and the Salton Sea. The opinions here do not reflect those of the University of California.

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