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January 2022, Volume 28, Number 1

California: Water, Migration

California received less than 11 inches of precipitation during the October 2020-September 2021 rain year, half of the average 24 inches received statewide, making 2020-21 the second-driest year since recordkeeping began in 1924. Lakes Oroville and Shasta, the lakes behind the largest state and federal dams, were at record low levels in Fall 2021.

An atmospheric river brought record rainfall to northern California in October and December 2021. In October, some cities received five inches of rain in one day, a quarter of their usual annual total rainfall. So-called precipitation whiplash, drought followed by heavy rains, increases the need for reliable infrastructure to prevent flooding and to store water.

Groundwater levels have been falling in the San Joaquin Valley since the 1950s, but the decline has been fastest since 2010 due to drought and the drilling of deep wells. During the 2012-16 drought, the state enacted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014 to slow the depletion of ground water.

The SGMA requires water districts to bring water pumping and replenishment into balance by 2040. Farmers have continued to drill deep wells for irrigation water, some 630 since 2014, including 40 percent in Tulare County. Drilling wells costs about $60 a foot for shallow domestic wells and up to $500 a foot for deep wells with stainless steel casings.

Shallow wells for household water are often the first to dry up when water levels drop. Critics allege that the doubling of almond and pistachio acreage in Tulare County since 2014 shows the ineffectiveness of the SGMA, which delays until 2040 the deadline for bringing the extraction and replenishment of ground water into balance. These critics want scarce water to be reserved for US households and commodities that are consumed in the US rather than exported.

There are several ways to measure water availability and usage. The most comprehensive measure emphasizes that half of the state’s water flows into wetlands and the ocean, so-called environmental water. The other half is used by agriculture (80 percent of the human half) and people and industry (20 percent of the human half). Most human water usage, about 100 gallons per person a day, is used to irrigate lawns.

Migration. Covid encouraged two major migration trends, from large cities to suburbs and from high-tax northern states to lower-tax southern states, as from California to Texas. The suburbs of Houston and Austin were the fastest growing US areas due to internal migration since 2020.

The median price of a single-family home in California exceeded $800,000 in spring 2021 and continued to increase. California has 13.5 million households. Over 500,000 of these households moved in 2020, including 130,000 that left the state. Most households that moved within California moved from coastal to inland areas to take advantage of lower cost housing and the ability to work remotely. A net 100,000 households left the Los Angeles metro area, often for Inland Empire cities in Riverside County. A net 44,000 households left the San Francisco area, often for the Sacramento region.

The city of Eastvale in northwestern Riverside County highlights the move from coastal to inland areas. Eastvale had 4,000 residents and a dozen dairies in 2000, and today has 70,000 residents and no dairies. Some 40 percent of Eastvale residents are Hispanic, 30 percent are Asian, and 20 percent are white; median household income is almost $120,000.

Bakersfield, the Texas of California known for agriculture and oil, was the fastest growing among the state’s 10 largest cities in 2020, bringing its population to almost 400,000. The median price of houses in Kern County was $340,000 in October 2021, less than half of the state’s average.

Susanville in northeastern California has two state prisons with about 7,000 inmates and 7,000 people in the city. The prisons employ about half of the adults in Susanville, the seat of Lassen county, and the mostly white residents are trying to block the closure of the minimum security facility that holds mostly inmates of color. California had a peak 160,000 inmates in the early 2000s, and today has almost 100,000 inmates.

Between 2016 and 2020, some 109,000 new homes a year were built in California, far fewer than the 500,000 new housing units a year promised by Governor Gavin Newsom.

Groups of thieves stole merchandise from luxury stores in the San Francisco area in November and December 2021, prompting discussion of why brazen retail theft is increasing. The reasons cited include the ease of selling stolen merchandise on internet marketplaces such as Amazon and Facebook as well as state laws such as Prop 47 that raised the amount of goods that must be stolen to at least $950 for the theft to be considered a felony crime. Prosecutors have difficulty following the thieves who are apprehended up the chain of command to the entrepreneurs who organize mobs to storm stores and steal merchandise for them to resell.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced in December 2021 that police would clean up the “nasty streets” of the Tenderloin beset by drug dealers and crime. Breed described thefts from luxury San Francisco stores as “mass looting events” and vowed to stop them. There were twice as many deaths from drug overdoses in San Francisco in 2020 as from covid.

Asian Americans operate many of the convenience stores in Black neighborhoods. Efforts to unite Asian and Black leaders against hate crimes have floundered over the issue of policing. Many Asian leaders call for more police to protect private property, while some Black leaders want to defund the police due to encounters that result in violence and death.

The US population rose by only 400,000 in the year ending July 1, 2021, down from the usual two million a year increase. Net migration was about 250,000, and there were 150,000 more births than deaths.

The state’s $263 billion budget for 2021-22 included $12 billion in stimulus payments to low-income state residents. California has a budget surplus because the rising stock market generated capital gains for wealthy residents and because consumer spending generated sales tax revenue.


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