A City, If You Can Keep It: Unintended consequences, Nothing useful

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A Winters Express opinion column

By Richard Casavecchia
Special to the Express

Should we be spending time and money protecting a species whose population is at the maximum level our local environment can support, when doing so directly increases the cost of building new homes?

Many issues in California are often a result of second and third-order effects from solutions to other problems. Solutions that are often viewed one-dimensionally in the analysis of their effect. “Fixing” one problem quite often results in the exacerbation of another, so cost-benefit analysis must be undertaken with a big picture focus.

The Yolo Habitat Conservancy is responsible for setting environmental impact fees to protect and preserve threatened and endangered species in our county. The Swainson’s Hawk is high on their list of species. It was listed as threatened by California in 1983, but it is at carrying capacity in Yolo County. I understand that to mean that basically, if the population increases the birds will begin competing with each other for food and territory.

A report for Yolo County by Jim Estep states that alfalfa fields are high-value foraging habitat for the hawk. He presents some data on acres of alfalfa and total hawk territories in Yolo County from 1991–2000.

His work is some of the only work on the hawk that I have seen referenced in California which means he is both the established expert, and largely unchallenged in his assumptions.

Whether that is good or bad I cannot say, my skills run to data, logic, analytics, and common sense — not ecology. Estep’s report also heavily references his own studies which is a bit too much circular supporting evidence for my comfort but we work with the info we have. I attempted to contact him to learn more, but the email I have for him returned undeliverable.

His report states that “[b]ecause changes in the number of active territories do not correlate well with changes in alfalfa acreage … [suggest that other factors are regulating the nesting population and that the threshold for alfalfa acres lies within these values.” He then proceeds to use maintaining a minimum acreage of alfalfa as a recommended conservation strategy, despite saying it is not correlated to the number of active habitats.

I took his provided data and ran a regression on it. To get nerdy, the R Squared value (the percent of the change in territories that is explained by the change in alfalfa acreage) was 0.06 … so alfalfa fields are nearly entirely disconnected from the number of foraging territories.

Assuming it is correct that alfalfa is a high-value foraging territory (I’ve read conflicting opinions on this in trying to learn more about the hawk), I would presume that the minimum number of acres of alfalfa is well below the acres that existed in the years he examined given the lack of any correlation. So why does alfalfa become the focus when it has no measured effect?

The study goes on to state that “it is evident that agricultural patterns in the plan have provided sufficient suitable and high-value foraging habitat for Swainson’s hawks over at least the last 25 years.”

Looking at future habitat loss to development, Estep states that “…this relatively small amount of loss is distributed throughout the county and is unlikely to have a substantial effect on the nesting population.”

So, we have a bird that is at capacity in the county, whose habitat is stable over a quarter-century, and whose future is not expected to be significantly impacted by development. From that, the Yolo Habitat Conservancy concluded this bird needs our intervention to save it, by encouraging the farming of a crop with nearly zero measurable impact on population size in Yolo County.

There seems to be some flawed logic here. Why are we spending money on this?

The Conservancy has a planned budget of $425,000,000 over 50 years, $62.9 Million of which is administrative overhead. $282,408,000 of that is expected to be funded through mitigation fees paid by development. That is a direct cost to the price of affordable housing that is specific to Yolo County.

I was listening to one of our local Councilmembers talk at a Rotary Club lunch recently. He commented that the problem with getting more affordable housing is getting someone to build it. The cost to build doesn’t line up with selling homes at prices that are affordable.

The Winters Highlands Subdivision paid out $1,556,339.40 in mitigation fees for the 102.6 acres it covers; everything adds up.

In 2020, the Grand Jury investigated the Conservancy and determined there was significant mismanagement of the money, and as a result, the county took over. They also looked into the Swainson’s hawk but in their opinion, “The habitat needs of several of the other covered species overlap significantly with the habitat needs of the hawk. Accordingly, the specific habitat requirements of several other covered species will be incorporated and met within the land reserve system components that provide Swainson’s hawk habitat.”

The implication seems to be that removing the hawk from the list would not result in significant cost savings.

I cannot verify this since I have been unable to find financial reports from the conservancy showing specific expenditures. I would be inclined to disagree as any change in scope should at the very least nominally reduce the administrative overhead if not other direct costs. However, based on condition of approval “40. Mitigation Measure 4.3-3(a)” between the City of Winters and Winters Highlands, removing the hawk would certainly reduce revenue.

These are the things we need to be looking at if affordable housing is something we want to encourage in Winters. No problem, program, solution, nor idea can be looked at one-dimensionally. But for now, we are increasing the price of new homes to save a bird that doesn’t need saving.

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