The California Influencer Series

California’s biggest environmental challenges? Water. Climate change. Political hot air.

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The California Influencers Series

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California Influencers, a group of the state’s most respected experts in public policy, politics and government, weighed in on this question: What is the biggest environmental challenge facing the state?

Angie Wei – Chief of Staff, California Labor Federation

“Climate change. How it affects our ecosystems, our plant and animal life, nature’s balance. Human and capital impact on the earth and our limited resources. How managing climate change will foster a sustainable economy that creates good jobs.”

Kristin Olsen – Stanislaus County Supervisor, Former California Assembly Republican Leader

“Water supply. To help improve our environment, economy, health and well-being, California must build water storage facilities, desalination plants, stormwater capture systems, water recycling plants, and other infrastructure projects. We must become more innovative in increasing and delivering water in order to meet our state’s present and future ecosystem needs. It is unacceptable and unnecessary to pit the needs of the environment against the needs of people. It need not be a zero-sum game if we create and store more water!”

Janet Napolitano – President, University of California

“The biggest environmental challenge facing California is climate change. From rising sea levels to changing weather patters to the forest fire epidemic, we can already see the impact of global warming on our state. The University of California has taken a leadership role in mitigating these impacts, pledging to become net carbon neutral by 2025 and leading UC3, a coalition of 15 universities across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. UC3 is dedicated to research universities using their considerable expertise to assist their local communities in mitigating the effects of climate change while themselves reaching the goals of the Paris Accords. But make no mistake: the pace of global warming is an existential environmental threat that will require a massive effort by all of us to curtail.”

Aziza Hasan – Executive Director, New Ground Muslim-Jewish Partnership

“In my line of work, bringing differing groups together, I am accustomed to different perspectives holding their truth in the same space. Among the diverse group of Muslims and Jews I surveyed regarding this question, however, there was resounding agreement. Water. Rising ocean waters, arctic ice melting, water pollution, lack of water in our vegetation due to extra hot weather-- making it easier for fires to unleash great fury. I heard great concern among these Angelenos that climate change will further exacerbate our water supply challenge along with other environmental issues like air quality. We all have a role to play in water conservation and drought resilience preparation for the future.”

Antonia Hernandez – President and CEO, California Community Foundation

“Climate change.”

Renata Simril – President and CEO, LA84 Foundation

“Water! Antiquated infrastructure and inefficient water management policies. We are using old water policies and systems and not adequately adjusting to the real impacts of climate change.”

Barbara Boxer, United States Senator (1993-2017)

“California and the nation face many environmental challenges...clean air, clean water, safe drinking water, to name a few. But the biggest challenge by far is limiting the damage caused by too much carbon in the air. This excess carbon cannot be absorbed by the forests and the sea and is warming and endangering our planet. Most scientists say we have lost the battle to totally win this fight but that there is still time to keep the temperature rise to a level where our home...Planet Earth, can still be habitable. But that is no sure thing.

“In 2008 when I took the gavel of the Senate Environment committee, the first hearing I held was on Climate Change. Al Gore was the star and he was treated badly by most of my Republican colleagues as he called for a commitment to clean energy. Later, a panel of scientists predicted what we are all seeing with our own eyes: historic fires, droughts, floods, and brutal heat waves. With total disregard in Washington, D.C., this crisis goes on. But our great state, with leadership from our governor Jerry Brown and before him Arnold Schwarzenegger, must not turn away from the challenge. Here’s the good news: when we move to clean energy and away from polluting oil and coal , we create good jobs, clean the air and eventually lower energy prices. This is the moment. Time is not in our side. We owe our children and grandchildren a livable planet. This is one of those moments where history and our grandchildren will ask. ‘Where did you stand when you had a chance to save our planet.’”

Pete Wilson – California Governor (1991-1999)


“When I took office in 1991, I started the Cal-Fed process to fix the damages that were occurring from a then unprecedented drought and a dysfunctional regulatory regime that simply added new demands to a limited supply and stymied any efforts to expand water supply or its reliability for agricultural, municipal and environmental purposes. We approached this issue from a sense of emergency that eased in later years as the rains and snowfall returned. Since then, with the exception of some local supply enhancements, the state has simply added more population, and connected new areas to the existing water systems. Now, as a result of misguided current proposals and recent law our state is more vulnerable, and many of the options state and water leaders will need in dealing with the next drought are no longer available.

“Instead of learning the lessons from severe drought in the 1980s and 1990s .the state spent the next two decades rehashing the same old controversies and restudying the same old issues. The state has attempted to implement long needed Delta improvements and the Water Commission has finally released funds for some water supply storage. It should not take this long to make such investments as are so clearly required for the state’s economic and environmental well-being.”

Timothy White – Chancellor, California State University

“Nearly everyone agrees that climate change is the biggest environmental challenge facing California and the world. Communities across California are experiencing firsthand the effects of devastating wildfires, persistent droughts, agricultural anomalies and public health crises because of our changing climate. The next question is ‘What are we going to do about it?’ CSU campuses are at the front lines of confronting this challenge through outstanding research and partnerships with business, communities and government. Most importantly – and what encourages me to believe that we will all step up to this challenge – is the incredible spirit of sustainability and innovation inherent in our students, employees and alumni.”

Jim Boren – Executive Director, Fresno State’s Institute for Media and Public Trust

“The availability of water to serve all the needs of California’s almost 40 million residents. Water quality also is just as important. In some poor communities in the San Joaquin Valley, residents must content with ‘undrinkable drinking water.’”

Jim Newton – Lecturer of Public Policy, UCLA

“The biggest environmental challenge facing California — and the world — is climate change. The particular aspect of this challenge for California is defending a solid consensus here against a reckless, anti-intellectual attack from Washington.”

Andrea Ambriz – Chief of Staff, Service Employees International Union Local 2015

“California’s increasingly limited supply to clean water is a challenge not only for our communities, but for our nation’s financial health, as California remains one of the top five economies in the world. Sustainable access to water in California is essential to the health of our residents, agricultural production, and communities, and as one of the world’s biggest food suppliers, the impact of a water gap accounting for acres of fallowed land is devastating to our economic growth. We must continue to invest in developing clean water technologies and protecting our precious, limited commodity by reducing water waste and improving efficiency of use to ensure that California’s future water needs are met.”

Michele Siqueiros – President, Campaign for College Opportunity

“Global warming and a political environment that ignores science and solutions to protect our environment, reduce our carbon emissions, and decrease our reliance on fossil fuels.”

Jon Fleischman – Publisher of FlashReport

“California has a water availability problem that is staggering. But policy makers in Sacramento choose not to focus on it. It’s also worth noting that there is a tremendous amount of corruption in Sacramento, using ‘the environment’ as a way to fund pet projects like high-speed rail.”

Roger Salazar – President, Alza Strategies

“It has to be climate change. Climate change impacts everything - from wildfires to our water supply, our energy grid, our air quality, our coastline...everything. This is not a challenge the state can solve alone, but we must be (and are) doing our part.”

Harmeet Dhillon – Republican National Committee member and Partner, Dhillon Law Group

“California’s inability to balance environmental considerations with the needs of the human beings who live in the state are causing major safety and quality of life issues for Californians. For example, rigid opposition to thinning tree growth near residential areas, and to clearing dead trees/undergrowth, contribute to the catastrophic fires we are experiencing today. The government’s insistence on treating every wet area as a ‘waterway’ subject to EPA regulation prevents farmers and other property owners from being able to use their land efficiently. Our failure to store water and prepare for dry spells means we are made to suffer water rationing even when water is abundant, with increased fire risk around residential areas as a result. Californians love the environment, but protections must be balanced against the long-term needs of the people who live here too.”

Eric Bauman – Chair, California Democratic Party

“I can’t answer with a single challenge. Limiting the use of fossil fuels, ensuring our air and water are breathable and drinkable and cleaning up toxic and contaminated communities are the top issues facing our state. These challenges are equally critical for our future.”

Kim Belshé – Executive Director, First 5 LA

“Creating livable, healthy and sustainable cities is the biggest environmental challenge facing California. Why? With more than 90 percent of the state’s population living in urbanized areas, our cities are where we can make the biggest impact for the well-being of children and families. California has made important strides in core aspects of the built environment, including state and local measures to expand parks and open space and improve transportation and mobility, as well as state efforts to strengthen food security through CalFresh. The challenge ahead is ensuring state and local policies and resources address the environmental burdens disproportionately experienced by under-resourced communities.

“At First 5 LA, we recognize that place matters – particularly for our children. Where our children grow up has significant implications for their healthy development and well-being. We need healthy community environments, in every part of the state, where our children can thrive. Reducing extreme heat through creating more parks, improving air quality through enhancing opportunities to walk, bike and take transit, and lowering the carbon footprint of our food through increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables, benefit us all - today, and in the future.”

John Pérez – Speaker, California State Assembly (2010-2014)

“I believe that the biggest environmental challenges that we face is how we deal with equity when it comes to environmentally impacted communities. Specifically how we address air and water quality issues in communities where people are suffering severe health issues as a result of inadequate policies. Many times the focus of environmental challenges conjure images of preserving the beauty of the coast or the forests, which is critical, however I think we need to take a renewed focus on how we communities, whether they be in dense areas in Los Angeles or rural areas in the Central Valley, who have had to deal with disproportionate health impacts.”

Dorothy Rothrock – President, California Manufactuters and Technology Association

“Our biggest environmental challenge is fixing California laws and regulations. We all want to live in a safe and clean environment. Ironically, policies intended to improve public health and the environment often impose costs on consumers and businesses that exceed the benefits. That misallocation of resources makes us all poorer, hurting our ability to do more public health investments. For example, CEQA was intended to protect the environment, but costs to comply can skyrocket when litigation is used to kill or delay projects for non-environmental reasons. Clean drinking water? Water customers must pay for projects to deal with the drought, but they may also face bigger bills because California has imposed stringent drinking water standards without doing cost-benefit analyses. Wildfire prevention and clean up? Utility ratepayers could be on the hook for billions of dollars on top of the super-high rates they already pay compared to other states. This is partly due to our renewable energy policies, and we should reject efforts to achieve environmental purity such as ‘zero’ greenhouse gas emissions or 100% renewable energy. They don’t withstand cost-benefit scrutiny and they divert precious resources away from projects that could give us a bigger environmental bang for the buck.”

Bonnie Castillo – Executive Director, California Nurses Association

“Corporate greed and weak political will are the biggest environmental challenges facing California. Nurses witness daily the illnesses brought on by environmental injustice in our communities. We see disease from air pollution, inadequate access to clean water, substandard and polluted housing, and toxic dumping. At the bedside, we witness the end result of man-made disasters, as our patients struggle with asthma, cancer, chronic pulmonary disease, skin conditions, cognitive impairment and other ailments. The fires that have spun out of control in California are a good example of disasters that are driven by rising temperatures associated with climate change. Their frequency and severity can be traced back to corporate pollution. Whether their groundwater is contaminated by fracking, or they live adjacent to a refinery that doesn’t care about polluting their neighborhood, California patients’ health and safety is threatened by corporate greed. Even our own hospital corporations make cost-cutting decisions that contribute to environmental injustice, such as using ‘just in time’ supply stocking (modeled after the auto industry) that can result in inadequate supplies for wildfire patients suffering from burns or smoke inhalation. To address a host of environmental challenges facing California, legislators must have the political will to end the dominance of the fossil fuel and healthcare industries over politics and hold corporations accountable for public health and safety.”

Jon Coupal – President, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association

“The biggest environmental challenge facing California today is convincing our political leadership to adopt policies that actually help the environment. For example, a significant portion of Cap and Trade Revenue is being used to prop up the High Speed Rail project. However, even the Legislative Analyst has conceded that the construction of the project is a net GHG producer for the foreseeable future. If the project is never completed – something which many transportation experts believe is a near certainty – then California would have pumped millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the air using revenue from a program designed to reduce those emissions. The irony could not be more rich. California also suffers from a severe housing crisis. Part of the solution is to permit the construction of projects and planned communities that are more environmentally sensitive than more traditional housing construction efforts. However, labor interests often hold these valuable projects hostage to their demand for costly Project Labor Agreements. The weapon of choice by labor to force such concessions is CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act. Finally, the majority party in California has, for decades, been hostile to rational forestry practices rendering most timber harvesting in the state uneconomical. However, as California’s forest burn—putting tons of CO2 into the air—perhaps that hostility can be exposed for what it is – bad for the environment.”

Manuel Pastor – Director of Program for USC Environmental and Regional Equity

“Probably the biggest environmental challenge is the Trump administration -- it is leaning against every area in which California seeks to lead, including addressing climate change, reducing transportation-related pollution, and working to insure environmental justice. The state is fighting back and it will also have to defend, develop, and deploy: defend what we are doing against an overreaching federal administration, develop our environmental practice to be as effective and efficient as possible, and deploy our ideas and policies to other states to build the coalitions necessary to change national direction.”

David Townsend – Founder, TCT Public Affairs

“Donald Trump. His blatant and irresponsible attack on California’s air quality regulations and standards must be resisted in every possible venue.”

Ron George – California Supreme Court Chief Justice (1996-2011)

“The greatest threat to California’s environment comes from the hot air flowing from Washington, D.C.”

Kim Yamasaki –Executive Director, Center for Asians United for Self-Empowerment

“As someone who has worked extensively with California’s utilities and energies companies, one particular question we are always concerned about is the feasibility of our state’s environmental policy agenda for our community’s lower income and disadvantaged communities. Most notably, the state is looking to aggressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, which questions the future of natural gas. The reality is that sustainable living is a lifestyle choice that often has to come at the expense of an already strained pocketbook for low to middle income families. Your average family relies on their gas stove to put dinner on the table. As we strive towards a more sustainable future, we need our policy to consider the impact on the cost of housing and utility bills.”

Mike Madrid – Principal, Grassroots Lab

“The biggest environmental challenge facing California is securing a safe, reliable energy source that doesn’t compromise air quality or the economy.”

Ashley Swearengin – President and CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation

“The list of environmental challenges in California is long, but I believe the most immediate challenge is water quality and supply. There are entire communities in the Central Valley, for example, that are not plumbed and rely solely on groundwater. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires that groundwater basins work together to recharge and sustain groundwater, but for regions like the Central Valley that have limited access to surface water, it’s hard to see how we truly transition communities off of groundwater in a sustainable way.”

Daniel Zingale – Senior Vice President, California Endowment

“The bounty and burdens of California’s environment are not equally shared or shouldered. Our biggest challenge is to engage those hardest hit in decisions about the most fundamental elements of California living — air, water and land. Meaningful engagement means giving affected communities the facts about air pollution, lead paint, ground water, racial disparities and risks of cancer. It means giving people notice about hazardous waste sites, refineries and land fills. It means giving lower-income residents incentives and access to clean vehicles, clean energy and water delivery systems. Most importantly, engagement means the voices of those with the lived experience are heard in Sacramento and not stifled by Washington, D.C. That includes giving California’s Attorney General the resources to support local investigations and litigation to defend our way of life.”

Gray Davis – California Governor (1999-2003)

“President Trump’s misguided and legally questionable attempt to roll back California’s mileage standards is the biggest environmental threat to California and the nation. By any measure the transportation sector generates more GHG emissions than any other source, 41 percent here in California.

“In 2002 I was proud to sign the first bill in the nation to reduce tailpipe emissions. Those standards were later adopted nationally by President Obama.

“Despite tales of economic Armageddon, California has proven, in and outside our boarders, that we can preserve consumer choice, reduce emissions, and have vehicles that travel greater distances using less fuel. Think about it: less pollution and less money spent at the gas pump... Mr. President, those are good things!

“There was a time - not so many decades ago when the air was orange, particularly in Southern California. We can’t and won’t go back to those days. So Mr. President, get ready because California will fight and win this battle with the continued leadership of Governor Brown and Attorney General Becerra. And when we win, the rest of the country will benefit from our leadership.”

Sal Russo – Founder, Tea Party America

“California needs to escape from the ‘feel good’ solutions that either don’t work or aren’t worth bringing economic havoc to most people. Too many of California’s environmental laws are an open invitation to make costs nearly unbearable for poor and middle-class families. No better examples exist than politicians falling all over themselves to enact more measures to “arrest” climate change, while reality is that they make little progress to deal with a worldwide problem even though the economic burdens cripple California families. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) has become an economic tool by nay-sayers and competitors to stop almost any construction or development with exorbitant litigation costs, thereby pushing up housing costs for everyone. The California recycling laws have become outmoded and it is now a standing joke as “sorted for recycling” waste is dumped into landfills, all at considerable ratepayer cost. While California was a pioneer in hiking fuel economy standards to deal with horrendous smog, now the argument is California should tighten standards because of climate change, which would be little affected by making fuel, cars and trucks more expensive to consumers. We already pay 84 cents more for a gallon of gas than the national average.”

Chet Hewitt – President and CEO, Sierra Health Foundation

“California’s biggest environmental challenge is its need to ensure every citizen has access to clean, safe and affordable drinking water. While the tragic fire season we are experiencing is a reminder of why we must continue to do our part to confront global environmental concerns, drinking water is an issue we as a state have the ability to address ourselves and we should do so now. While the idea of meeting this goal is so well supported that it recently became a provision of the state constitution, we still seem unwilling to do what is legislatively required to finance the infrastructure required to achieve our stated goal. As a consequence over 360 thousand Californians don’t have assess to safe drinking water and 6 million receive water from systems that are out of compliance with state standards. Solving this environmental challenge is not just a good thing to do, as it has health and economic consequences for millions of Californians. For example, contaminated drinking water can predispose children to cancer and other health problems later in life. Researchers found increased incidence of lung and bladder cancer in adults exposed to contaminated water as children, even up to 40 years after high exposures ceased. It is also associated with metabolic diseases, such as diabetes, and intellectual development. And to avoid these dreaded and costly health implications, millions of low income residents are forced to buy bottled water while still being required to pay water bills. Politicians working this issue say be patient, a fix is not far off after many years of slow to no progress being made. But when it comes to safe, clean and affordable water access, patience is posture Californians should not accept or tolerate.”

Mindy Romero – Founder and Director, USC California Civic Engagement Project

“The greatest environmental challenge facing California is the Trump Administration’s assault on our environmental policies. Wild fires are ravaging vast tracts of our state, confirming the ever-widening footprint of climate change. Yet our nation’s top leader and his appointees show nothing but contempt for environmental laws, once absurdly arguing that climate change is a ‘hoax’ perpetuated by China. The Trump administration’s actions will literally fan the flames of future wild fires in our state. First, we endured the reckless policies of the now-disgraced Scott Pruitt as EPA head. Known for suing the very agency he was later appointed to lead, Pruitt has now been replaced by former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler. The impact on California’s environmental efforts is huge. In July, the administration set out to revoke California’s ability under the Clean Air Act to impose vehicle emissions standards stricter than those set by the federal government. It now plans to open more land in the West for mining and drilling. California’s leaders, California’s leaders, regardless of political affiliation, must fight these changes in the courts and in the policy arena. They must work closely with leaders in other states to uphold environmental policies that are truly in the best interests of our state, nation, and planet.”

Catherine Lew – Principal and Co-Founder, Lew Edwards Group

“The headlines keep coming: Biggest Fire in California History! Hottest July on Record! Massive Flooding and Tsunami! We’re destroying the earth before our very eyes—and while human error has played a role in triggering some fires—climate change and our inability to address it is undoubtedly the biggest threat not only in California, but around the world. In California, this means drought (affecting our farming economy), fire (lost lives, property, and forestlands), floods and sea level rise affecting our habitats and coastal communities. Unfortunately, some of the nation’s most powerful representatives are still under the delusion that none of this is real—while Rome is literally burning.”

Monica Lozano – President and CEO, California Futures Foundation

“We have to be much more intentional in understanding the impacts of climate change, landfills, hazardous waste sites, lead poisoning and water contamination on low income and communities of color. Policymakers have the tools to address these environmental injustices with effective policies that safeguard all neighborhoods as places where people can live without fear of exposures to toxic surroundings.”

Eloy Oakley – Chancellor, California Community Colleges

“Greening the economy is both the biggest environmental challenge facing California and also a major economic and workforce challenge. Creating a ‘Green’ economy that reduces greenhouse gases and creates livable wage jobs for Californians of all backgrounds is a must if we are going to maintain a Golden State. Improving the environment and producing good jobs is a must so that all Californians benefit. The California Community Colleges will need to play a pivotal role in educating the workforce for the new ‘Green’ economy.”

Rob Stutzman – Founder and President, Stutzman Public Affairs

“Water. Water policy is extremely complex to manage and, like most enviro reg issues, we’ve vested far too much power in faceless and unaccountable appointees on the state and regional water boards. We must be storing more water off stream for supply and also flood control in the Sacramento Valley. The matter of a conveyance from the Delta to the south will continue to be a massive political quagmire, as it has been for decades. On their websites, Mr. Cox doesn’t appear to address water policy and Mr. Newsom vows to improve drip irrigation. We should be having a more robust discussion by the candidates about water.”

Cesar Diaz – Political and Legislative Director, State Building and Construction Trades Council

“When California was in the midst of the Great Recession, it was strong environmental policies that helped our members provide food on the table for their families. During those extremely difficult years most construction ceased, but renewable energy projects helped provide jobs when our local unions were suffering up to 50 percent unemployment.

“The Building Trades members support environmental policies that improve transit, allow people to work closer to home and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Our transportation system is already overburdened and our state’s population will pass 50 million by mid-century. Greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise and our climate is changing, affecting thousands of Californians. This is one of the reasons we support the high speed rail project. Building more roads and airport runways to meet California’s travel demands is unrealistic, unsustainable, and less affordable than high-speed rail. The question is no longer whether we can afford to build high-speed rail, but whether we can afford not to.

“We have learned from places like Spain, France, China, Japan and many other countries that high-speed rail is the most efficient and preferred mode of transportation between population centers 100 to 500 miles apart.

“California has always been the nation’s environmental leader, and our persistent effort to tackle the most pressing issues facing our state is what has attracted so many millions of people to the Golden State. Our predecessors made big investments and took on bold endeavors to build a strong, green and sustainable economy that naysayers proclaimed impossible. I believe it is our responsibility to continue this work in order to ensure a sustainable environment and a strong economy for the next generation.”

Carl Guardino – President and CEO, Silicon Valley Leadership Group

“’Fires, Floods & Fever - Is This California’s “New Normal?”’ At the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, we know this is California’s ‘present’ scenario, but it is up to us collectively as to whether it is our future scenario. Climate change is real, and the reality most of us recognize is that we must address it while also adapting to it. Historically, under the bi-partisan leadership of our past two Governors—Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown—California has been a climate leader both nationally and globally. It is incumbent that our next Governor build on their successes. The good news for most Californians should be that addressing climate change is good not only for our environment, but is also a winner for job creation, innovation and California’s economy—with 542,000 clean energy jobs in all regions of our state today, growing by an additional 10 percent this year alone.”