Looking back at the environmental issues that grabbed headlines 20 years ago, it’s tempting to conclude that nothing at all has changed.

Here’s a sampling of the environmental topics covered in the first few issues of CP&DR: threats to Lake Tahoe’s fabled clarity from development and pollution; dissatisfaction over the Coastal Commission’s regulation of land use in seaside communities; suggestions that developers should be required to mitigate the air-quality impact of their car-dependent malls and housing tracts; alarm over plans to bury flood-prone land in the Central Valley under suburban sprawl.

Despite the superficial similarity of the controversies then and now, the past two decades have actually seen a significant shift in the debate over the fate of California’s environment.

One of the most significant changes has been geographic in origin. During the 1980s, population pressures were focused on the state’s urban coastal counties. But the focus of California’s growth has shifted in the past 10 years, migrating into the high desert of Southern California, the Central Valley — particularly those pockets within commuting distance of the San Francisco Bay Area — and the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Between 1986 and 2006, California’s population grew by 39%, as the state added 10.4 million residents. County growth rates were near or below the statewide level in the traditionally populous urban coastal counties. In the Central Valley, however, rates were higher than the state as a whole, ranging from 48% over 20 years in Tulare County to 92% in Madera. In the foothills, it was higher still: Placer County grew by a whopping 124%, Amador by 70%, El Dorado by 75%, Calaveras by 89%.

But it was the Inland Empire that saw the most dramatic population influx: San Bernardino County has added about 900,000 residents since the first issue of this newsletter was published, growing by 82%. And Riverside County has more than doubled its population, adding about 1.1 million people.

With these geographic shifts in population have come increasing conflicts over inland air quality, as the Central Valley’s smog, soot and dust have pushed it ahead of perennial pollution powerhouse Los Angeles for the dubious title of most unhealthy air in California. That’s led to crackdowns on nontraditional regulatory targets, such as farm and construction equipment — a dramatic shift from the focus on Los Angeles auto traffic that was the subject of a story in one of the first issues of CP&DR (see “Clean Air Act Legislation May Affect Development,” August 1987). It has also pushed the Central Valley into novel regulatory terrain, as the region attempts to reshape its urban fabric to reduce smog-causing emissions from automobiles.

New conflicts related to endangered species and habitat loss have accompanied the rapid expansion of urban development in the state’s interior. Desert-dwelling species such as tortoises and lizards have joined the roster of high-profile critters in peril, as have vernal pool plant species on once-remote rangeland and even creatures once thought to be relatively safe from potential extinction because they were so widespread, such as the red-legged frog.

Accompanying the growing list of imperiled California species has been a fundamental shift in the way such creatures are protected. Species-by-species recovery plans have been supplanted by comprehensive agreements that attempt to balance development and other habitat-wrecking activities with landscape-level conservation of entire ecosystems and multiple species.

The foundation of this balancing act is the habitat conservation plan (HCP), an idea born in California and subsequently exported nationwide, through which landowners promise to preserve and manage sufficient habitat to protect sensitive species in exchange for regulators’ permission to destroy other habitat. The first such plan was negotiated during the early 1980s to protect a Bay Area butterfly, and it established the template for most of the HCPs that followed.

Despite persistent criticism, the HCP process has become enormously popular. It was formally written into federal law in 1982 as an amendment to the Endangered Species Act. When CP&DR began publishing, only two HCPs had been negotiated in California. Now, there are more than 100 species plans in effect in California — more than a fifth of all the HCPs nationwide. California not only has more of these agreements than any other state, it also has the largest one ever negotiated, an ambitious plan encompassing a tenth of the state and covering more than 100 sensitive species in the Mojave Desert (see CP&DR Environment Watch, May 2005).

Like the growing importance of HCPs, which reflect a significant retooling of a landmark Nixon-era law, another far-reaching shift in environmental regulation over the past 20 years in California has involved revision of a statute dating from the 1970s.

The regulations are known as total maximum daily
loads, or TMDLs. They are a way of addressing water pollution from “nonpoint sources” — the diffuse runoff from agricultural fields and urban storm drains that, unlike emissions from factories and sewage treatment plants, lacks an identifiable discharge point where pollution controls can be installed and monitored with relative ease.

Although authorized under section 303 of the Clean Water Act of 1972, TMDLs and nonpoint pollution were largely ignored by state and federal regulatory agencies until relatively recently. The EPA did not even adopt implementing regulations for them until 1985, refining those standards further in 1992. And it has only been within the past decade that enforcement has begun, largely a consequence of a barrage of lawsuits by environmental organizations seeking to force the EPA and the states to adopt TMDLs for impaired streams and lakes (see CP&DR Environment Watch, February 2005).

The consequence will be to spread the pain of Clean Water Act compliance from factories and coastal sewer plants — the primary targets during the 1970s and 1980s — to everyone else.

That’s something Californians probably should get used to. As the past 20 years have demonstrated, the state’s enormous population growth has meant intensifying pressures on ecosystems and natural resources, even those once considered safe because they were either too abundant or too remote to be troubled by human activity. Those pressures in turn have translated into a heavier and more broadly shared regulatory burden, as laws drafted a generation ago have been updated to reflect new concerns about the state’s air, water and wildlife.

As there is no evidence to suggest California’s population will stop growing or spreading anytime soon, the 40th anniversary edition of CP&DR will probably carry a story very much like this one.