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July 2021, Volume 27, Number 3

California: Drought, Population

California is experiencing a drought, which also raises the risk of wildfires. The Sierra snowpack, which provides a third of the state’s summer water for irrigation, was 60 percent of normal levels on April 1, 2021, and the major dams that store winter rain and snowmelt were half full.

In July 2021, a drought was declared in 50 of the 58 counties, and residents were asked to reduce their water consumption by 15 percent.

California experienced drought between 2012 and 2016, and drought returned in 2020. Dry forests and grasslands, combined with extreme heat, increase the risk of wildfires and make it harder to fight them. The Beckwourth Complex fire caused by lightning strikes in Plumas National Forest quickly expanded to become one of the largest in the state’s history in July 2021 as temperatures in Death Valley reached 130F or 54.4C.

Over 80 percent of California’s water is used to irrigate crops. When there is less surface water available, farmers pump more ground water, reducing water levels and drying up residential wells. Laws enacted in 2014 require groundwater recharges to match withdrawals by 2040, but farmers can continue to over pump groundwater until local water districts develop plans to regulate pumping and to recharge aquifers.

The 22,000-resident city of Corcoran in Kings county is sinking due to the over pumping of ground water. Soil subsidence occurs when water is extracted from deep wells, compacting the soil. The Corcoran Bowl highlights the problems that arise when ground water is extracted faster than it is replenished, including the need to drill new and deeper wells to obtain drinking water and to rebuild levies to prevent flooding.

J.G. Boswell, the major farming company based in Corcoran, has the most irrigation wells that are deeper than 1,000 feet. Boswell sold some of its surface water to other farmers during droughts in 2015 and 2016, raising questions about whether Boswell substituted pumping from deep wells and accelerated soil subsidence. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires California’s water basins to be balance by 2040, meaning that the pumping of ground water must not exceed its replenishment.

Farmers want more water storage facilities, such as the Sites Reservoir in Colusa county and a Delta Conveyance Project to move Sacramento River water around the delta estuary that flows into the San Francisco Bay. Environmentalists want to “right-size” agriculture by reducing the production of commodities in the San Joaquin Valley that require large amounts of water, including alfalfa hay.

Many economists advocate water marketing, which means allowing farmers who have access to low-cost water to sell the water to other farmers willing to pay more. There are normally about 500,000 acres of water-intensive rice grown in the Sacramento Valley with low-cost water. In 2021, over 100,000 acres of the rice land was fallowed, and the three- to four-acre feet of water that would have been used to grow each acre of rice was sold for $500 to $600 an acre foot to almond growers in the San Joaquin Valley.

The Klamath Project has since 1907 delivered irrigation water from Upper Klamath Lake in southern Oregon to farmers in the Klamath basin, but will deliver no irrigation water in 2021. During a previous drought in 2001, the federal Bureau of Reclamation announced there would be no irrigation water but relented after farmer protests.

Population. California’s population shrank by over 192,000 in 2020 to 39.5 million, the first year the state’s population fell since annual state counts began in 1900. Between 2016 and 2020, some 631,000 white residents left the state while 850,000 minorities moved to California.

California lost one of its 53 Congressional seats after the results of the 2020 census were announced in April 2021 because its population grew only six percent during the 2010-20 decade, slower than the seven percent growth of the US population. California’s population rose by over 30 percent during each of the decades of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Between 2010 and 2020, some 6.1 million people left California and 4.9 million people moved to California. Those moving to California were better educated than those leaving. There has been a significant migration within California, especially from the San Francisco Bay area to inland areas such as the foothills of the Sierras east of Sacramento.

One reason for leaving California and moving within California is high housing costs. The median price of California homes was over $818,000 in May 2021.

Governor Gavin Newsom proposed a $268 billion budget for 2021-22 that includes a record $14,000 per pupil in K-12 school funding and a raft of subsidies, incentives and cancellations of bills, such as unpaid traffic tickets accumulated by low-income residents. The rising stock market in 2020 increased state revenues, which prompted plans to deal with homelessness.

Newsom promised that at least 500,000 new housing units would be built each year to reduce the state’s housing affordability problem, but 103,000 new housing permits were issued in 2020. Newsom faces a recall vote in September 2021. Governor Gray Davis was recalled in 2003 and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The University of California in May 2021 agreed to stop using SAT and ACT test scores to determine admissions, settling a suit that alleged the college entrance tests are biased against poor and mainly Black and Hispanic students. UC has 225,000 undergraduates and 10 campuses.

San Francisco experienced a wave of shoplifting in spring 2021 that led to the closure of several drugstores, adding to the issues in a city that had twice as many deaths from drug overdoses as from Covid. Nonviolent thefts of goods worth less than $950 were reclassified as misdemeanors in 2014, which prompted organized gangs to use the homeless and others to steal from chain stores.


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