A workforce corps is proposed by lawmakers to help restore and protect one of the state’s greatest – and most vulnerable – assets, the coastline.
Creation of a California Ocean Corps won the support of the California State Legislature last week and is now making its way to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk for a signature.
Newsom has until Sept. 30 to sign the bill, which would direct the 46-year-old California Conservation Corps to create the offshoot Ocean Corps in the next four years with the help of grants and local conservation groups in coastal counties.
The bill’s author, Senator Josh Newman (D-Fullerton), said the idea came from a conversation with Orange County Conservation Corps CEO Katharyn Muniz, who talked about the need for a trained workforce to respond quickly and efficiently to issues such as last year’s oil spill that dumped 25,000 gallons of the crude into the ocean off Huntington Beach.
“The impacts were quite considerable for us – tourism, fishing and the larger economy. If you can prevent these things or address them quickly, everyone is better off,” Newman said.
It was an idea Muniz thought of years ago, following an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, wondering why California didn’t have its own response team.
“The state borders the ocean, it makes sense to have a program like this,” she said.
When the October 2021 spill started washing oil up onto Orange County beaches, her Conservation Corps tried to help, she said. “We tried to lend our assistance. We called every single agency. We can have boots on the ground.”
But specific training is needed for oil spill response teams, she was told.
“The spill triggered an environmental catastrophe that devastated local wildlife, damaged the ecosystem and had a detrimental effect on the local economy,” Newman’s office said in an announcement about the Ocean Corps legislation. “The cleanup required more than 1,800 people and three months to complete.”
The Ocean Corps would have a trained force ready to respond, which could also be addressing ecosystem restoration and climate resiliency efforts the rest of the time.
The idea behind the Conservation Corps is training a young, at-risk workforce that is looking for jobs and skills, in return providing communities teams that can work on environmental projects and respond to natural and man-made disasters. The more than 25-year-old OC Conservation Corps has 75 members, all paid employees who range in age from 18 to 26, and 32 staff.
Muniz said the number of members is expected to increase to 200 within the next six months as the program expands.
Currently, the OC Conservation Corps does brush clearing around the region to help prevent wildfires, helps with wetlands restoration, tree planting and removing invasive species from wildlife habitats, as well as providing bottle, can, e-waste, oil and tire recycling.
The Conservation Corps is currently hiring for teams that will be addressing climate action, food insecurity and coronavirus relief, Muniz said. “We need a lot of people.”
In addition to emergency response, the Ocean Corps would have a long list of duties: restoring and enhancing coastal watersheds and habitats, providing public access to the coast and dealing with extreme weather events or other natural and man-made hazards that threaten coastal communities, infrastructure and natural resources.
“Here in Orange County, we have the three last jewels of the West Coast when it comes to wetlands that need consistent work,” Muniz said. “There’s so many issues arising … this is such an important time for all of us to work on climate action, personally in our own behaviors, but (also) to develop a workforce specifically geared toward restoration and protection of our coastline.
“It’s a great answer to some of our issues that are prevailing,” she added. “It gives our young people an understanding of what is taking place and the importance of what they do and to get trained to do this.”
Newman said the corps would provide needed training and insight into the working world, but also about the environment.
Coastal erosion is another area of concern that could be addressed, he said, referencing a railroad line that had to be shut last year for weeks because of damage from the sea, in part due to a shrinking sand buffer that protects the tracks. The corps could help with dune restoration to address erosion in some areas.
“These are the larger puzzle pieces for climate adaptation that will be necessary in coming years,” he said. “Hopefully we can do a lot to forestall climate change, but the impacts are already clear. It will be good to have plans and workers to start meeting those needs.”
While the legislation, if the governor signs off, would establish the program, the next step would earmarking the $40 million in funding needed from next year’s budget to start the statewide program, he said.
Throughout the state, there are eight local coastal Conservation Corps groups that would reach out to their partners to develop their own programs, as well as the California Coastal Commission to find out which coastal projects need attention.