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October 2021, Volume 27, Number 4

California: Fires, Drought, Housing

California had four megafires that each burned more than 100,000 acres and one gigafire that burned a million acres in 2021. The Dixie fire, likely started by a tree branch falling onto a power line, was the largest in California history, burning the Gold Rush town of Greenville and 963,000 acres. The Caldor fire in August-September 2021 burned over 222,000 acres and led to the evacuation of South Lake Tahoe.

The Dixie and Caldor fires began on the western slopes of the Sierra mountains and crossed to the eastern slopes.

Six of the 10 largest wildfires in California history occurred in 2020 and 2021. The August complex fire in northern California began with lightning strikes in August 2020 and destroyed a million acres, a quarter of the four million acres burned in 2020. Some 15,000 lightning strikes over the weekend of August 15, 2020 began many of the fires.

California wildfires emitted an estimated 75 million metric tons of carbon dioxide between June and August 2021, a significant contribution to global CO2 emissions of 33 billion tons a year. Sacramento and Fresno topped the list of US cities with an increasing number of smoky days due to wildfires.

Pacific Gas & Electric, which has at least 100,000 miles of power lines above ground that can spark wild fires, announced plans in July 2021 to bury at least 10 percent of its above-ground lines in northern California. PG&E, which has about 27,000 miles of buried power lines, says that the cost of burying power lines that are now above ground is about $4 million a mile. Almost 20 percent of US power lines are buried, as are almost all power lines in new subdivisions.

Drought. The drought of 2021 led the State Water Resources Control Board to restrict the access of 5,700 of the 7,700 users of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to prevent the intrusion of saltwater into the Delta. When the state tried to take a similar step in 2015, six irrigation districts sued and a judge agreed that the Board did not provide them with due process.

About 80 percent of the state’s developed water, that is, water than can be stored in the ground or dams and pumped or conveyed, is used by agriculture. In 2021 more irrigation districts agreed to restrict pumping from upstream rivers to prevent saltwater intrusion into the Delta. The lack of surface water meant more pumping of ground water for irrigation, which accelerates land subsidence.

The effects of drought are likely to persist in 2022. Lake Oroville and Folsom Lake were less than a third of their average water levels in Fall 2021, and Lake Shasta dropped below 30 percent of its capacity. Less water was released from Shasta in 2021, which raised the temperature of the Sacramento River toward 56F and threatened the declining run of winter-run Chinook salmon. Only 10,000 Chinook salmon a year return, down from over 100,000 a year in the 1960s.

Some 500,000 acres of rice is grown north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta, and over half of the state’s rice is exported. California’s first in time, first in right water laws mean that most rice growers were able to divert water from the Sacramento River in 2021.

Some farmers elected not to farm rice and instead sold their water to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. Many economists want the state’s water rights system to change to allow federal and state agencies to codify existing water rights so that current water rights holders can sell their water. Governments could buy water rights and create a system to allocate scarce water to the highest bidder.

California voters approved a $7.5 billion bond in 2014 to build more water storage facilities. None were completed by 2021, including the $4 billion Sites Reservoir to be filled by water pumped from the Sacramento River in wet years. California has about 1,500 reservoirs, and the sites that remain for dams and water storage are less attractive.

Housing. House prices continued to increase in summer 2021. The median California home price approached $830,000 in August 2021 and raised fears of another housing price bubble as occurred in 2007. The average price of a US home is $360,000.

California has 14 million homes, and builders construct 100,000 new homes a year. The major reasons for rising house prices include rising demand as more workers work further from their jobs, difficulties adding to the housing supply due to labor shortages and rising lumber prices, and low interest rates that keep monthly payments manageable for more people.

The state enacted laws in 2021 to promote affordable housing. Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 9, which allows lots zoned for single family homes to have two units, joining Oregon as a state that has effectively banned single-family housing. Two-thirds of California residences are single family homes, so the effects of SB 9 could be revolutionary if developers create neighborhoods of duplexes. By one estimate, up to 2.5 million new housing units could be built as a result of SB 9.

Newsom also signed SB 10, which allows local governments to build up to 10 units on single-family lots near public transit.

Other new laws require new California homes and buildings to have solar panels and batteries and the wiring needed to switch from heaters that burn natural gas to electric heat pumps. Solar panels and batteries add at least $20,000 to the cost of a new home, making the transition from fossil fuels to electricity generated from renewables costly. A third of California’s electricity was from renewable sources in 2021.

By one count, the Legislature in 2021 approved 836 bills and Newsom signed 770 or 92 percent of them into law.

California voters in 2008 approved $10 billion in bonds to build high-speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles by 2030. Instead of beginning in urban areas, the project began in the central valley, and had not completed a 119 mile stretch between Madera and Shafter by 2021. Proponents of spending more on high-speed rail point to the construction jobs that are created, while opponents believe that rail monies would be better spent to improve transportation in urban areas.

California’s population in 2020 was 39 percent Hispanic and 35 percent non-Hispanic white, joining Hawaii and New Mexico as the three states where non-Hispanic whites are not the largest population group. Some 18 percent of California residents were Asians; Blacks and others were eight percent.

California is losing people to other states: 653,000 residents left in 2019, while 480,000 people moved from other states to California. Those leaving tended to have less education and lower incomes than US residents moving to California.

Almost 64 percent of California voters rejected efforts to recall Governor Gavin Newsom in a September 14, 2021 election. Newsom is expected to focus on affordable housing and early childhood education until he faces voters again in November 2022.

On October 1, 2021, many of California’s emergency covid protections ended, including the bans on evictions and water and power shutoffs for nonpayment of rent and bills. The state’s paid sick leave program ended, and health care workers were required to be vaccinated. By one estimate, some 725,000 California residents owed $2.5 billion in back rent in October 2021. California has the country’s second-highest unemployment rate at 7.5 percent, which many employers attribute to federal and state pandemic assistance programs that discourage work.

California in summer 2021 became the first state to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students in public K-12 schools. Federal programs make free school lunches available to children from families with incomes below $34,000 a year, and provide discounted lunches to children from families with incomes less than $48,000 a year. Before universal free lunch, 60 percent of California’s K-12 pupils qualified for free or discounted lunches.


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