When California imposes another round of funding cuts on its higher education system, state leaders will certainly claim that such cuts are necessary. Yet one only needs to consider a series of Golden State environmental projects to recognize the hollowness of such words.
Across California, billions of dollars are being committed to habitat re-creation water projects, part of the environmental movement’s fixation on re-creating long-absent natural salmon conditions. Lacking meaningful benefit to the people of California and being implemented while the state is gutting higher education with billions in funding cuts and enrollment reductions of more than half a million students, these projects represent the inherent shortcomings of California’s system of unconditional environmentalism.
Consider the Department of Fish and Game’s Battle Creek salmon restoration project near Red Bluff, Calif. The project entails the removal of five hydroelectric dams built between 1900 and 1912 that annually produce $13 million of clean energy and constructing infrastructure to bring salmon back to waters they haven’t inhabited since the early 1900s. With the cost of construction, total foregone power, and bond interest totaling $303 million, the state could give 14,333 students a four-year CSU scholarship.
Or the $1.3 billion San Joaquin Restoration Plan that—in addition to fish ladders, screens, and bypasses—includes reconstructing 60 miles of riverbed that has been dry since 1942. With construction and financing costs totaling $1.38 billion, California could have avoided most of the $2 billion funding cut it imposed on higher education this year or given another 61,500 students four-year scholarships.
Supporters contend that these projects will help re-create natural salmon conditions, facilitating seasonal migration and encouraging natural reproduction. That may be true, yet these projects and others like them are hardly necessary. California’s rivers and streams were modified long ago, and the notion that their return to natural conditions is an immediate necessity is far from compelling.
Equally unsubstantiated are calls that such projects stimulate California’s struggling economy. The salmon will never purchase goods or pay taxes when they swim up hundred-million-dollar river sections while the benefits of marginal fishing gains are dwarfed by the $14 of economic activity generated by every $1 invested in the University of California system.
Meanwhile, funding cuts are making higher education less accessible for an entire generation of California students. Tens of thousands of eligible applicants are being denied admission to the only universities they can afford, denying them better jobs, better lives, and making them more likely to end up in prison, while those who do get accepted are faced with tuitions two and three times pre-2008 levels.
However, California’s system of unconditional environmentalism gives no weight to the broader needs of society when environmental issues are evaluated. Instead, thousands of pages and hundreds of millions of dollars are spent studying environmental impacts while relevant issues such as water shortages and budget crises are entirely ignored. Such an uncompromising system produces billion-dollar habitat re-creation projects while the state’s higher education systems are going bankrupt, and has generated numerous instances when renewable energy projects were blocked by California environmental laws.
This narrow system of analysis is inadequate when considering the challenges we face as a state. When determining what environmental imperfections justify protection or taxpayer money, we need to move away from trying to do everything and instead focus on the fundamentals: what is necessary and what is not. This shift could begin by amending our rigid environmental laws to account for instances when society would be better served in other ways. With projects like the San Joaquin Restoration Plan and the Battle Creek restoration, such an analysis would look like this:
A long time ago, humans modified California rivers, and salmon conditions have never been the same. This is bad, but the negative consequences of denying so many California kids an education are worse; they include poverty, crime, and ignorance. It’s not possible that these things will devastate our society. It’s guaranteed.
Jackson Minasian is a 2012 Cal Poly grad who majored in history and minored in political science. He now lives in his hometown of Chico. Send comments to Executive Editor Ryan Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.