Guest Opinion: Nature's way

  • by Jonathan Vigliotti
  • Wednesday April 17, 2024
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"Before It's Gone" is CBS News national correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti's new book about climate change in small town America. Image: Courtesy Simon & Schuster Inc.<br>
"Before It's Gone" is CBS News national correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti's new book about climate change in small town America. Image: Courtesy Simon & Schuster Inc.

In Northern California, a month's worth of rain poured on a burn scar in a single day. This violent runoff was so powerful, it caused mudslides and landslides, quickly inundated rivers, and shattered a levee near Galt, California, that had recently been restored to last until 2050. In a matter of minutes, entire communities were swallowed by floodwater.

I'll never forget the man who came up to me after I reported for Norah O'Donnell on the levee break. My team and I went live from New Hope Road, which had been flooded along with the vineyard it ran through. "By any chance have you seen a gray sedan on the side of the road while driving around today? My sister-in-law disappeared during the storm and we haven't heard from her," he said. He and his family had spent three days driving down country roads in a desperate search. "I'm sorry, I haven't, and this is as far as we were able to go down this road," I explained before his eye caught the top of what looked like a submerged car a hundred yards away, partially concealed by vines. My team and I had no idea a vehicle was even there. From our location, we watched as the man waded into the water and out to the car. He was too far away to hear, but I could read his body language as he slumped over, the palms of his raised hands on his shaking knees. His grief rippled the stagnant floodwater around him. Katherine Martinez was sixty-one years old when she drove off the road during the storm and drowned in its surge.

Water in a state that needs more of it should be a blessing, but not when that same state is so dry it can't store or even handle what's fallen. At the time of my reporting from the flood at New Hope Road, the state had been planning a new series of water storage projects, including expanding reservoirs, but saw the adaptive initiative held up by permitting issues for nearly a decade. In Los Angeles County, voters — recognizing the state's historic drought — approved extraordinary steps to avert crisis years ago. The Safe Clean Water Program, or Measure W, was passed in 2018 and allocates $300 million annually to projects that include adding cisterns and more green space to trap and absorb rainfall, while also removing asphalt and other "hardscape" that acts like a water park slide by shooting runoff into the Pacific instead of allowing the ground to absorb it. But like many things that involve government hands, Measure W has failed to make a splash. An investigation by the Los Angeles Times found that in three years, the county had only set aside thirty acres of land for conservation efforts. Californians — like a growing number of Americans — want action, but their leaders are hanging them out to dry. And the holdup has proven costly in more ways than one. The nearly 36 trillion gallons of water that fell in the winter of 2023—that's more water than what flows through the Amazon River every day — wasn't enough to bring a permanent end to California's drought. Much of the water was rapidly flushed into the Pacific.

While the West's historic drought, wildfires, and mudslides have led to a reckoning and wanting of beavers, with so many of them removed from the landscape, reintroducing them now requires help from humans. And that's how I first met researcher Nick Bouwes who, upon speaking with my producer Christian Duran, asked if we'd be up for building a beaver dam for a ranch owner in Utah and then releasing a few into their new home. Who says no to that?

Nick is the head of the Beaver Ecology and Relocation Center based out of Salt Lake City, Utah, and oversees a team of volunteers who travel across the West building "starter dams," what's technically known in the emerging industry as beaver dam analogues. That's how I found myself waist deep in a babbling creek on a mountainous ranch in Coalville, Utah, slinging handfuls of mud over layers of tree branches and sticks. The landowner had heard about Emily Fairfax's research and Nick's relocation project and wanted in. "Too much water can be a bad thing, but when there's none of it and crops are dying and ranchers are selling off their cattle and there's no end in sight, well, that's enough to change people's opinions," Nick said as he grabbed a pile of mud from the bank of the creek. "Beavers, what they do is they get in here and they scoop the mud up, they just come and grab a whole bunch, push it with their chest and hand and it into the crevasses. I would get on my belly and push it in, but I don't want to do that yet," he chuckled.

Nick had a thick crop of brown hair and a stubbled face. His brown eyes, which squinted even in the shade, remained focused on our project. He looked all business, but the occasional crack of a smile let me know he didn't take himself too seriously. It amazed me how much work went into something that should be — as it had once been — natural.

"A lot of these streams, if it's too shallow, beavers can't defend themselves. They're just kind of like walking hot dogs for predators. They need deep water to swim," Nick said as he handed me more branches that had been freshly cut by his volunteers. Decades without beavers meant there weren't deep enough streams to relocate them to without human intervention.

Building a beaver dam is wet and dirty work, but fortunately not an exact science. It took about thirty minutes to create a pool about four feet deep. "This should be a safe space for the guys we're releasing today." Those "guys," a male and a female if I'm being accurate, were resting in cages kept in the back of an air-conditioned van. Beavers are nocturnal animals. It's rare to see one, let alone see one just a few feet away. I was excited to get an up-close look.

I stared into the black, pebble-sized eyes of the beaver we'd soon be releasing. He looked like a cross between a guinea pig and a sea otter and was surprisingly cute. I've always loved animals, yet never gave the beaver much thought before. Why? "He's about ninety pounds, but at least he's not kicking around," Nick said as he wired the cage the beaver was in onto the wooden arm of a shovel. I grabbed one end and Nick the other and, in what looked like a makeshift gondola, we airlifted the beaver down the steep canyon to the analogue dam we had just built. "This guy came to us from another ranch, where it was causing trouble."

I was still looking into our beaver's tiny blinking eyes and could tell he was confused. Instinctively he must have known most beavers, once in cages, don't make it out alive. If we are to believe the sounds and gestures of an animal allow them to communicate on a basic, primal level, then it seems logical to think this guy's mother warned him of humans, just like his mother's mother warned her. That probably explains why, when we opened the cage near our handmade dam, he looked at us for a second before cautiously waddling out and slipping into the stream. The water flowed over his thick coat like melted chocolate. A pair of volunteers released the female beaver a few yards upstream. "The goal is for them to meet naturally and colonize this dam together. The odds are good for them here," Nick said as we watched them inspect their new home, and later, each other. "They look happy."

Jonathan Vigliotti, a gay man, is a national correspondent for CBS News. This excerpt is from "Before It's Gone" by Jonathan Vigliotti. Copyright © 2024 by Jonathan Vigliotti. Reprinted by permission of One Signal Publishers/Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster Inc. To purchase the book, go to

For an interview with Vigliotti, click here.

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