A California Ocean Corps could shore up coastline when disasters strike

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Katharyn O. Muñiz. | Photo by Calmatters

California State

Katharyn O. Muñiz and Terry Tamminen | Contributed

A bipartisan bill awaits the governor’s signature to establish the Ocean Corps to protect our coast and support workforce development for our most disenfranchised populations. In October 2021, the Orange County coastline suffered a catastrophic oil spill, damaging the coast and its wildlife and prompting Gov. Gavin Newsom to declare a state of emergency.

More than 25,000 gallons of crude oil were released into the ocean. Beaches and harbors throughout the region were closed, harming the local ecology and economy that depend on tourism. For the second time since its opening in 1984, the Huntington Beach Wetlands endured an oil spill affecting more than 90 species of shorebirds that rely on its rare feeding and resting grounds. Unfortunately, this oil spill was not an isolated incident. California’s coastline is still vulnerable. While we can’t predict the next disaster, we can prepare to address issues quickly when disaster strikes and give our local partners the tools necessary to respond.

The California Conservation Corps is the natural fit to respond head-on to coastal disasters. However, under its funding structure, the CCC cannot offer coastal conservation grant funding to local conservation corps, such as the Orange County Conservation Corps. Senate Bill 1036 would establish a California Ocean Corps through grants given to local conservation corps. When the 2021 spill occurred, the Orange County Corps could not assist in emergency response. This is a big problem when local crises arise, especially when communities have a trusted resource in their local conservation corps. We must empower our local corps members with the skills and knowledge necessary to react swiftly in an emergency, helping mitigate greater damage.

For nearly 30 years, local conservation corps have invested in our state’s most disenfranchised young adults by providing crucial work experience and job training skills that build self-sufficiency while delivering community benefits. Corps members have proven their skills and abilities to respond quickly. With deep knowledge and understanding of the community, they are the right people to serve in times of disaster. For example, the Orange County Conservation Corps demonstrated its ability to meet a separate emergency during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when, as part of a statewide conservation corps activation, the Orange County corps mobilized to help deliver 25 million pounds of food to families throughout Orange County.

It also supported local COVID testing and vaccination sites, assisting in administering 320,000 COVID tests and 3,000 vaccinations daily. The Orange County oil spill amplified the need for a trained and readily accessible workforce such as the Orange County Conservation Corps to preserve and restore our coastline. SB 1036 seeks to do just that. The Ocean Corps will focus on crucial restoration and climate resiliency along the coast while providing young people with training and work experience. The program will be open to people ages 16 to 30 and offer participation options ranging from volunteer to paid skill development, creating pathways toward quality employment, career prospects and financial stability for our most disenfranchised young adults.

Terry Tamminen. | Photo by Calmatters

Investing in creating the Ocean Corps through SB 1036 is a smart move for California in its efforts to address coastal conservancy and workforce development—and will ultimately be a cost-saving for the state. When disaster strikes, as in the case of an offshore oil spill, the Ocean Corps crew members will be trained and prepared to engage quickly, leading to less devastating environmental and financial impacts. By allowing coastal communities access to a local workforce, they can better ensure a timely and effective response to future coastal disasters while expanding access to education and job skills training for their community’s most vulnerable populations. We encourage Gov. Newsom to sign SB 1036 to protect our coasts and build economic opportunity for California’s young workforce.

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