The Gold Crush

With Its Population Growing Faster Than That of Bangladesh, California’s Environment Is Approaching A Crisis Point.

It’s Monday morning in Los Angeles, population 3.8 million, and the great commuter crawl has begun. If struck by temporary insanity, you might have taken the 405, also known as the San Diego Freeway. At any time other than the brief window between 1 and 3 p.m., the 405 is socked in by the kind of gridlock that well justifies the "parking lot" nickname. Of course, being stalled in the car is a relief for some, because the state’s well-publicized on-again, off-again energy crisis has turned off the power—and the air-conditioning—at home.

"California doesn’t have a power shortage," wrote Ric Oberlink in a San Diego Union-Tribune opinion piece when the rolling blackouts were paralyzing the state earlier this year. "It has a population "longage."" In all the media hoopla over the power deficit in California, very little attention was paid to the explosive increase in electricity demand due to the state’s rapid population growth. In 2000, California added a breathtaking 571,000 people, a 1.7 percent growth rate that outpaces Bangladesh.

Owens Lake, seen near Lone Pine, California, largely dried up as a result of water diversions to the Los Angeles area, creating health hazards from wind storms laced with arsenic.© AP Photo / Damian Douarganes

Immigration has also contributed to California having one of the highest fertility rates in the U.S.: 2.4 births per woman (up from below replacement level, 2.0, in the 1970s). The state, already 40 percent more densely populated than Europe, now has a birth rate comparable to Sri Lanka or Chile.

This huge increase did not occur because Californians decided to have large families or because people moved there from other states. Of California’s 35 million people, nine million of them are immigrants. California is the destination of a third of the immigrants who enter the United States every year. Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) estimates that, when all factors are weighed, immigration accounted for an incredible 96 percent of California’s population growth from 1990 to 1997. Largely because of immigration, the U.S. Census Bureau says the state will have nearly 54 million people by 2025.

What’s true for California is true for the nation as a whole. As the New York Times recently wrote, citing United Nations population projections, "Alone among major industrial countries, the United States will continue to grow markedly in population during the next half century, a result of the largest intake of immigrants anywhere
" Fertility is also a factor, since it is higher in the U.S. than in other developed nations, although the national fertility rate is still just above 2.0. Without immigration, Census figures show, the U.S. would achieve the zero population growth that is much sought after by environmentalists.

Population has had an impact on California’s inherent optimism. According to a Public Policy Institute of California poll, a nearly 2-to-1 ratio—43 to 25 percent—say the state will be a worse place to live in the next 20 years than it is today. Most expect to see a degraded environment. Three-quarters of those surveyed see a growing gap between the rich and the poor by 2020. Only four percent actually know California’s current population (35 million), but the study shows that "people are wildly fearful that the population is going to be out of control," with almost 25 percent believing there will be 60 million or more Californians by the close of 2020.

California ranks first among agricultural states in the U.S., with eight million of its 100 million acres devoted to crops. But each year, reports Cornell University Professor David Pimental in a report entitled "Rapid Population Growth in California: A Threat to Land and Food Production," some 122,000 acres, or 1.5 percent of what’s left, are lost to relentless urban sprawl. California’s agricultural sector produces an annual income of $20 billion, but that could change dramatically. "All told, California stands to lose a substantial amount of available farm land, at a substantial economic loss, if the population continues to grow," Pimental wrote. He predicts that development could swallow half of the state’s remaining farm acreage in 30 years.

High Impact

To demonstrate the impact of high population growth on the environment, there is no better microcosm than California, which is staggering to accommodate its onrush of new residents. California’s cities are expanding relentlessly outward. Los Angeles grew 25.1 percent in land area between 1970 and 1990. Other California regions that sprawled in that same two-decade stretch include: Oxnard-Ventura (40.9 percent); Fresno (67.8 percent); Riverside-San Bernardino (48.6 percent); and Stockton (57.7 percent).

Between 1979 and 1999, the state’s per capita electricity use declined from 7,292 kilowatt-hours per year to 6,952 kilowatt-hours. But in the same two decades, its population grew from 23 to 33 million, easily obliterating any gains from conservation. Just between 1996 and 1999, power demand grew 12 percent.

Obviously, other factors besides population growth influenced California’s energy crisis. But the crisis would have been much less severe without population-fueled growth. "The power "shortages," traffic congestion, sprawl and the depletion of habitat for wildlife—virtually every environmental problem in California—are due primarily to population growth," Oberlink wrote in the Union-Tribune.

The San Jose, California post office was one of the casualties during  the rolling blackouts of January 2001, which cut power to hundreds of thousands of customers.© AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

The organization Population-Environment Balance notes that Southern California’s limited amounts of imported potable water are "increasing the pressure to build ever more pipelines to bring water from ever-greater distances. The public at large, stalled in gridlock and waiting for rain, is beginning to perceive the absolute limits on the population carrying capacity of such areas."

California today is in a constant water crisis, and it’s projected to worsen. The San Francisco Chronicle says the state’s "ballooning population" is a major factor. "California is teetering on the edge of a profound water shortfall that experts say could rival this year’s power shortages for economic and social disruption," the paper wrote. And it predicts that by 2020, "the dams and aqueducts that make up the world’s most elaborate water-moving network will fall short of California’s needs by as much as 4.2 million acre-feet in a good year and nearly twice that in a drought." The projections are based on Department of Water Resources estimates that forecast a modest increase in supply, but soaring demand fueled by population growth.

In California, dams and other water projects designed for flood control, irrigation and the public water supply diverted water that had naturally flooded wetlands. According to the Water Education Foundation (WEF), the channelization of thousands of miles of natural waterways has altered, degraded or destroyed wetlands. For example, the Santa Ana River once flowed through a 3,000-acre marshy estuary into Lower Newport Bay. In 1921, the river was rechanneled, leaving only the 114-acre Huntington Beach Wetlands. This story was repeated along the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers.

In the 1780s, with a population numbering in the hundreds of thousands, California had an estimated five million acres of wetlands. After just two centuries of population growth, there are more than 32 million people and only a

bout 454,000 acres of wetlands, a 90 percent loss.

In California, says WEF, wetlands support 41 of the state’s rare and endangered species. This includes 55 percent of the animal and 25 percent of the plant species designated as threatened or endangered.

The San Francisco Bay-Delta exemplifies the richness of and also competing demands on wetlands. The Nature Conservancy says the Bay-Delta has become the second densest hot spot of imperiled species in the U.S. Simultaneously, the lands around the Bay-Delta support 6.8 million Californians, one of the greatest concentrations of humanity in North America.

Traffic moves across the Mexican border from Tijuana. The San Ysidro crossing is the world"s busiest, with 50 million people passing through annually.© AP Photo / Denis Poroy

Species Threatened

To help understand the price overpopulation exacts on endangered species, consider the fate of the desert tortoise, which inhabits California’s forbidding Mojave Desert. According to the Sierra Club, the tortoise was once widely distributed through the Mojave, Colorado and Sonoran deserts, but it’s seen only sporadically in the historic range today. Some local California populations may be decreasing by as much as 20 percent per year despite conservation plans.

The desert tortoise is only one of many species that have met the immovable barrier of human overpopulation and expansion. According to the group Negative Population Growth, 34 species of animals and 46 species of plants have been extirpated since the 1880s. Endangered plant species in the state now total 330, although officials admit there are far more candidate species identified. In fact, one of every three vertebrate species in the state and one in 10 native plant species are in serious danger of extinction.

Needed: Room to Breathe

Overpopulation has also exacted a price in state air quality. Southern California, where population growth is concentrated, has the highest density auto population in the world, and it has produced what is often measured as the highest smog levels in the U.S. (rivaled only by Houston, Texas, another city with an overpopulation of both cars and people).

Smog, a combination of industrial smoke and fog, wasn’t seen in Los Angeles until 1943, when California’s ready availability of jobs in weapons factories added population and cars at a rapid rate. In 1930, California had six million people and two million cars. By 1950, both figures had doubled, with the car population growing faster than the human one.

As the U.S. was celebrating the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, California was choking with an ozone (a main ingredient of smog) concentration five times the national standard. By then, there were 20 million people and 12 million cars in the state.

Southern California’s air has gotten cleaner since then through strict enforcement of the strongest emissions laws in the country. But the incremental gains are threatened by massive population growth, which is putting millions of new cars on state roads.

Urban sprawl in Laguna Niguel, California relentlessly pushes against the area"s remaining open space.© H. Armstrong Roberts

A Combination of Factors

Of course, population increase is not the sole cause of environmental problems in California, and immigration is not the only driver for the swelling number of new state residents (see sidebar). California would face pressing natural resource issues even if its population rates were declining. In Europe, rising immigration levels have created dramatic tensions even though, due to record low fertility among the native-born populations, they are helping to stem what would otherwise be significant population losses.

Immigration is not the only, or even the most important, source of worldwide population growth. The driving force in much of the Third World, where the largest population increases are occurring, is high fertility rates. In much of Africa, for instance, even though birth rates are falling, women continue to have an average of five or more children. U.S.-funded birth control assistance programs to help Third World women have the smaller families they say they want have proven successful. However, the Bush Administration’s "global gag rule," which links birth control with abortion, has largely cut off funding to any nonprofit agency that provides abortion services.

In New York City, record high immigration has been a largely positive phenomenon, providing a steady source of labor for a booming economy. Since the 1990 census, the city added more than 450,000 people and became "the engine of state growth," as the New York Times described it. The influx has helped turn around the blighted Bronx, which enjoyed a seven percent population increase in the decade between the 1990 and 2000 censuses. Queens and Staten Island have had double-digit growth, again largely welcome.

Some environmentalists support moderate immigration levels, because they help preserve the multi-cultural identity that has made the United States such a dynamic force in the world. The U.S. is a nation of immigrants, they say, and it cannot build a wall around itself or develop in isolation. Population problems are global problems, and the world’s reigning superpower could be part of the solution by providing affordable birth control aid to the Third World.

What worked in the past, when the country was new and looking to expand, may not work in the 21st century, when the population has swollen to 275 million. Whereas many western countries have zero or even negative growth, the U.S. has an annual population increase of 1.2 percent, or three million people. The U.S., with the third-largest population in the world after China and India, could actually double its population, to 571 million, by 2100.

As the destination for a third of all U.S.-bound immigrants, California is leading that unprecedented population increase, with deeply troubling implications for the environment.