As pandemic restrictions eased across America last year, Californians faced other problems. Amid historic drought conditions, statewide mandates imposed strict water-conservation measures, backed by fines of up to $500 per day. Wildfires led to evacuation warnings near the state’s dense and overgrown forests. Power shortages from heat and fires resulted in a statewide grid emergency. And air-quality alerts kept some residents sheltered indoors from wildfire smoke so thick that it prompted school closures in parts of the state. The San Francisco Chronicle dubbed it the “cruelest summer yet,” adding drought, fires, smoke, and rolling blackouts to the list of reasons people were fleeing the state. While other states returned to a post-Covid normal, California was still reeling—not from the pandemic but from environmental policies that have left it parched and vulnerable to devastating wildfires.
California is defined by its rich, beautiful natural environment, from sun-drenched beaches in the south and towering redwoods in the north to the scenic Sierra Nevada forests in the east. But the very things that make California unique are becoming liabilities that undermine its future. Its Mediterranean-style climate, desirable for both comfortable living and agricultural production, is increasingly drought-prone and fickle. Its rivers and streams, the lifeblood of its cities and farming communities, are diminished and overallocated. And its serene forests, praised by the likes of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, have become fire-prone tinderboxes.
Before heavy rains and snowfall caused flooding in parts of the state this spring, California had suffered its driest three-year period on record, resulting in unprecedented water shortages. Some scientists believe that California may be in the middle of its worst drought in more than a millennium. With less precipitation, the state is setting new wildfire records almost every year. Six of its seven largest fires have occurred since 2020, which marked its worst wildfire season in modern history.
As California becomes more susceptible to extreme drought, it has become increasingly clear that mismanagement of the natural environment contributes to the current crisis. From water rules that cause shortages to red tape that fuels extreme wildfires, state and federal policies have deepened California’s most pressing environmental challenges. As a result, the Golden State now confronts the consequences of these choices, with destructive effects on its natural landscapes, its economy, and its residents.