Society & Environment


Content Cover Image

Oak savanna river terrace, Sacramento River. @ C.Michael Hogan

caption State of California. Source: Wikipedia

California, situated on the Pacific coast of the USA,  is the third largest state of the United States in land area and most populous state. The 2009 population estimate pf the U.S. Census Bureau for California is 37.0 million or 12% of the U.S. population.

It has a rich prehistory of Native American habitation that extends to the earliest Holocene, and a vibrant period of European settlement and resource exploitation that began about three centuries ago. Since the mid twentieth century, California has become a major world technology center in the aerospace, environmental science, biotechnology, agricultural sciences and other related fields. Resource outlooks for water supply, energy independence and biodiversity are problematic due to a rapidly expanding population and governance mistakes; however, air quality and water quality have shown steady improvement in the last four decades.


caption Topographic map of California. Source: State of California

California has an extensive western coastline formed by its boundary with the Pacific Ocean; moreover it is  bordered by Oregon to the north, Nevada to the northeast, Arizona to the southeast and Mexico at the south. The state can be divided into eleven distinct geomorphic provinces: Klamath Mountains, Cascade Range,  Modoc Plateau,  Basin and Range,  California Coast Ranges, California Central Valley, Sierra Nevada, Transverse Ranges, Mojave Desert, Peninsular Ranges and Colorado Desert. The Pacific Ocean coastal zone including the Channel Islands and Farallon Islands can be considered a twelfth marine province.

There are numerous significant rivers in California. North coast rivers draining to the Pacific include the Klamath, Smith, Eel and Russian Rivers. The Central Valley is drained by two primary great rivers, the Sacramento River and San Joaquin River, which merge to form the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta, whose flow discharges to the San Francisco Bay. Central coast watercourses discharging to the Pacific include the San Lorenzo and Salinas Rivers. Major drainage basins of the South Coast include the Ventura and Santa Ana Rivers.

The state's three major population centers are the Los Angeles Basin, San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego metropolitan area. Many allude to Southern and Northern California as distinct places, althought this terminology is more cultural than geographic; generally, locations north of Santa Barbara are deemed to be Northern California.


caption California fan palms, a threatened species, in a desert wash at Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Source: C.Michael Hogan

The state of California extensive diversity of ecosystems including desert, grassland, chaparral, coastal oak woodland and Sierra Nevada forests, some coastal areas and the far north state. Remarkably, much of the landscape, particularly riparian forests, have been little changed from a period from 20 million years before present[1] until 1700 AD.

Specific ecoregions of California are: Northern, Central and Southern Coastal Regions; North Coast Ranges; Klamath Mountains; Modoc Plateau; northwestern Basin and Range; Southern Cascades; Central Valley; Sierra Nevada and Sierra Nevada Foothills; Central Coast Ranges; Mojave, Sonoran and Colorado Deserts; Southern California Mountains and Valleys; Mono Basin; southeastern Great Basin.

Wiithin the system developed by Dr. Robert G. Bailey, a geographer for the U.S Forest Service who developed one of the most widely used systems to define, describe, and map the world's ecoregions; herein we are using a modified version of Bailey, in which the San Francisco Bay Area is not considered within the Central California Coast, but assigned to its own domain, in keeping with modern ecological mapping practices:

caption Morro Bay viewed from a prehistoric Chumash tribe settlement site within the Elfin Forest. Source: C.Michael Hogan


caption Sonoma Valley vineyard with the Mayacama Range on the horizon. Source: C.Michael Hogan

Although California Native Americans are known to have cultivated a number of grains and other crops since the mid Holocene, a dramatic change in the landscape did not occur until the late 1700s with the arrival of the Spanish missionaries and other European settlers. Major production of cereals, fruit, almonds and viticulture ensued, as well as the beginning of widespread livestock cultivation. As early as the end of the 19th century some claimed that California agricultural productivity per acre exceeded Europe by a factor of two, due to superior climate and soils.

Wine production was viewed as the Holy Grail of crops from a very early time, with Sonoma, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles Counties all claiming early plantings. Arguably a Montecito vineyard dating to at least 1795 may have been the oldest documented. Cuttings from Spain via Mexico and others originating in Central Europe were some of the first sources of vine stock introduced into California. At the present time California wines offer some of the greatest diversity and quality of any world wine region.

Livestock grazing propagated rapidly in the early 1800s predating most intensive cropping activity. Cattle prospered chiefly between the Russian and Stanislaus Rivers, both in the Central Valley as well as coastal prairies and sheltered vallies of the Coast Ranges. Winter rains led to lush spring grasses, with a more sparse grazing diet after the summer dessication. After the grasslands and savanna had been sacrificed, numerous forests were cleared to make way for the profitable business of cattle, and to a lesser extent sheep. By the mid 1900s there were many instances of overgrazing leading to massive topsoil loss, sediment water pollution and reduction of natural species richness.

By 1879 the culitvation of fruit crops became very significant with leading counties being Santa Clara, Alameda, Sonoma and Los Angeles.[2] Major fruits produced early in large quantities were the orange, apple, pear, peach, cherry and strawberry. Along with the success of agriculture came destruction of vast tracts of grassland and savanna habitat, particularly in the Central Valley, where today only a few refugia such as Butte County's Table Mountains serve to protect vestiges of once thriving expanses of biodiversity.

Resource outlook

caption Color enhanced Chumash rock art, Santa Barbara County.

There are numerous resources under great pressure within California, chiefly due to the rapidly expanding human population. These population pressures exert enormous demand upon water, energy and agricultural resources,[3] and create irreversible adverse impacts upon the state's once vast biodiversity. Some have argued that these resources may eventually become self-limiting to population growth, but history illustrates that technology coupled with advancing resource exploitation finds methods of serving population expansion at the expense of the environment.


As early as 1976 a severe imbalance was present in California's water use, with only three crops (rice, hay and citrus crops) consumed 45 percent of all freshwater supply, including industrial and human uses.[4] The first two of the crops are very low economic value commodities; thus political power was and still is used to subsidize and promote excessive water use for commodities of questionable priority to the state's success. In the last four decades the California water crisis has compounded by the large population explosion, particularly in Southern California, which has the least water resources. Diversion of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has strained the wetland ecosystem. With continuing subsidies to maintain water delivery to economically marginal crops, and with no let up in population growth, the water crisis can be expected to continue. Longer term, massive desalination plants may be required to bridge the resource gap.


caption Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, San Luis Obispo County, California. This plant was found to have produced kills of abalone and other marine organisms, when thermal discharges were inadequately analyzed or mitigated. Source: David Searls

California's energy dilemmas are twofold: regulatory failure and inadequate generation/distribution. With regard to California's now legendary failed regulatory scheme energy expert McGrew asserts: "California's energy crisis is the poster child for how not to restructure the electric utility industry".[5] The state is still recovering from an obscure set of regulations begun in the late 1990s, having cost consumers and embroiled many parties in extraordinary legal battles; these mistakes in regulation by legislators and attorneys lacking an understanding of the electric utility industry have sapped intellectual resources that could have been advanced to the planning and production of energy. In terms of fundamentals, there are some bright spots in progress with renewables and conservation, but overall there is a growing shortfall of supply, notably in nuclear power that is most proven and least in greenhouse gas production. Solar power in integrated building design has fallen woefully short of its potential, largely due to a decades long inconsistency and inadequacy of governmental encouragement to homeowners and businesses; unfortunately this lack of stimulus to the integrated solar industry continues into 2010, with cutbacks and restrictions on solar installation incentives. The green building program has also not lived up to its potential by neglecting some of the most leveraged strategies of attacking building energy wastage, such as over-illumination reduction; the program has instead focussed on a number of dogmatic elements such as lighting retrofit, which while of some use, have ignored some of the faster payback energy savings that can be achieved by aggressive use of natural light and avoiding overlamping.


caption Juvenile California Condor, a critically endangered species having the largest wingspan of any North American bird. Source: Scott Frier/USFW

California has been a leader in providing structure for preservation of open space and developing habitat protection plans for endangered species. The issue ahead is a mathematical equation that weighs the pressure of an expanding population with the limited resources available for species protection. To date California has destroyed proportionately more of its wetlands than any other U.S. state.[6] Before California's initiatives that began to aggressively protect the natural environment, a full ninety percent of coastal wetlands had been lost; goals for the next two decades may provide for restoring about ten percent of the loss. A near term threat to biodiversity is a 2010 proposed suspension of the California Environmental Quality Act with respect to a large number of major projects; while this measure is backed by labor and business groups, it rolls back environmental protection standards by four decades. Another major threat to biodiversity is the initiative for large photovoltaic arrays in the Mojave Desert; while well intentioned for energy, the proposals would destroy and fragment large areas of sensitive desert habitat. More effective programs lie in smaller scale integrated solar assemblies that can collectively achieve much greater installed capacity with virtually no impact on biodiversity.

Pollution indices

caption San Francisco International Airport, whose operations generate considerable noise pollution on the San Francisco Peninsula

California laid the groundwork in the early 1970s for effective environmental protection in the fields of air quality, water quality and community noise control. These methods rely upon relatively simply regulatory elements, most of which are effectively integrated into the planning process. In the case of air quality, pollution levels have steadily declined[7] from emission controls on vehicular and starionary sources as well as intelligent actions in urban design. Similarly in the case of water quality, important strides have been made in cleaning up rivers and streams as well as coastal estuaries. Much of this progress was due to communities aggressively planning for secondary wastewater treatment in the 1980s, but considerable advances are due to more intelligent methods of managing surface runoff in urban areas, as well as reductions in use of pesticides. With regard to sound level reduction for sensitive receptors, California has led the nation in establishing planning methods which minimize noise exposure to the general population; since 90 percent of community noise is transportation generated, many of these efforts have involved suitable acoustical technology[8] to assist in zoning decisions, urban highway design, use of transit and traffic management techniques.


  1. ^ Richard E.Warner and Kathleen M. Hendrix. 1984. California riparian systems: ecology, conservation and productive management. 1035 pages
  2. ^ H.H.Bancroft. 1890. History of the Pacific States of North America: California
  3. ^ Joseph B.Knox and Ann Foley Scheuring. 1991. Global climate change and California: potential impacts and responses. 184 pages
  4. ^ Ernest A.Engelbert. 1982. Competition for California water: alternative resolutions. 208 pages
  5. ^ James H.McGrew. 2009. FERC: Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. 294 pages
  6. ^ Michael G.Barbour, Todd Keeler-Wolf and Allan A. Schoenherr. 2007. Terrestrial vegetation of California. 712 pages
  7. ^ Ronald E. Hester and Roy M. Harrison. 1997. Air quality management. Royal Society of Chemistry (Great Britain) 160 pages
  8. ^ C.Michael Hogan. 1973. Analysis of highway noise. Journal of Water, Air & Soil Pollution. vol.2. no.3. pages 387-392, Springer Netherlands


Hogan, C. (2010). California. Retrieved from


To add a comment, please Log In.