Editor’s note: Cambria author, journalist and wild-life enthusiast Christine Heinrichs uses a hybrid crystal ball and news wire to bring back a retrospective news story from a couple decades into the future.
July 2030: Last week, Cambria, California, welcomed an international committee to learn how the community of 6,000 people became a model of sustainability. “Cambria is exceptional in its natural resources, but the way they have used them without using them up is what makes it an example to the world,” said United Nations Secretary General Moise Ndube. “They’ve eliminated the water shortage that divided the community in 2012 and now sell power back to the grid.” The community’s energy innovations are credited with helping the region wean itself from nuclear power. California’s last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, closed in 2024 when its license expired.
Cambria came to the United Nations’ notice when its marine environment was threatened by the utility’s seafloor earthquake fault mapping project in 2012. Since local officials were unwilling to enforce local, state and federal laws, international law was marshaled to protect the area’s unique and precious ecosystem. Piedras Blancas, one of only three mainland elephant seal rookeries in the world and the only one easily accessible to the public, was protected as a World Heritage site.
“The international community stepped in where local officials were unable or unwilling to act,” said Ndube.
The events galvanized Cambria’s citizenry. The 250-decibel air guns, blasting away every 15-20 seconds nonstop, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 42 days, would have effectively sterilized the coastal community’s marine life. Animals that didn’t die outright would have been chased from the area by the blasts. Since prey species would have also been wiped out, whales, dolphins, porpoises and seals would have had to leave the area for other feeding areas. Despite the area’s status as a Marine Protected Area, local and some state officials approved the company’s plan.
Cambria sits right on the California coast, including the beaches and a marine park within its boundaries. More than 50 marine mammal species are known to live in the area, 23 of them abundant. The marine mammals sit at the top of a complex ocean ecology, a food web that includes fish, sea turtles, birds and inverte-
brates, from abalone to jellyfish. One state public official at the time described the seismic testing project as “The end of life as we know it.” County commissioners blandly approved the project, even requesting more testing in their quest to make the nuclear plant and its stored spent waste, perched at the edge of the ocean, palatable to the community.
Harbor seals give birth to their pups in a rookery overseen from a boardwalk in Cambria’s State Marine Park, also a Coastal National Monument. The seals, sea lions and otters live close to the surface. The elephant seals that visitors watch on the Piedras Blancas beach spend most of their lives at 1,000 feet and deeper in the ocean, surfacing for only minutes to breathe.
Gray whales, pregnant and swimming to Mexico’s warm lagoons to give birth, would have been chased from their routes, if they survived. Blue whales, the largest animal ever to live on earth, would have been no match for the non-stop explosive blasts. The iconic sea otter and the Morro Bay harbor porpoise, because of limited ability to escape, would either be killed outright or disabled by partial or complete deafness. Many endangered species, and all marine mammals under legal protection, would have been affected.
When the project’s nature became clear to the community, residents banded together to fund the first community windmill. The abandoned Air Force station south of town had a hill that proved an excellent site. Generating local power reduced the need for nuclear power. That proved helpful when electromagnetic techniques launched on Remotely Operated Vehicles became available for geologic fault mapping without damage to the marine environment in 2014. Those studies revealed unstable fault lines beneath the plant that could have been shifted by the air-gun method.
Community leaders directed tax revenues to renewable energy, identifying programs to support both the community and Individual homeowners in reducing dependence on nuclear and fossil fuels. Community buildings added solar panels to their roofs, leading the way for businesses to go solar. Residents eagerly embraced solar power on private homes.
Cambria now funds its park programs with revenues from the sale of power back to the grid. All utility lines were placed underground last year. Cambria looks perfect, but the residents remain grateful for the income, sharing maintenance with State Parks.
“It required political vision to change the dialogue,” said Cambria environmentalist Mary Webb. “We’re grateful to all those who shared in bringing Cambria to a better future.”