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July 2022, Volume 28, Number 3

California: Water, People

Water. California experienced its driest three months on record between January and March 2022, prompting new restrictions on water use. The state’s snowpack was 20 percent of normal in May 2022, Shasta Lake was 40 percent full, and Lake Oroville was 55 percent full. The snowpack was 200 percent of normal in 1983.

There are several ways to think about California’s water. In total flows, about half of the state’s water usage is environmental, meaning that water flows via rivers into the ocean. The other half of the state’s water is used by agriculture (40 percent) and people and businesses (20 percent). Most of the water used by people is for yards.

California’s “first in time, first in right” water system gives senior water rights to the first people who put available water to beneficial use. Henry Miller, the Cattle King of California, acquired over a million acres of land along the San Joaquin River for a cattle empire on the western side of the Central Valley in the 19th century, which gave him senior rights to the river’s water.

During the 1930s, the US Bureau of Reclamation diverted San Joaquin River water from the northern to the southern side of the valley, and compensated the water users who relied on San Joaquin River water with Sacramento River water. The northern valley water users who received Sacramento River water could get San Joaquin River water in dry years, since they had senior water rights.

These “exchange contractors” are entitled to 875,000-acre feet of water a year. Until 2014, they always received Sacramento River water, but when drought reduced deliveries to the Friant district in the southern valley in order to deliver water to the northern valley, Friant sued the US Bureau of Reclamation.

Governor Newsom supports a $16 million and 44-mile-long tunnel to convey water from the Sacramento River around and under the Delta to ensure that more winter rain is moved south in ways that protect Delta fish and other wildlife.

Warmer and drier weather prompt farmers and homeowners to irrigate more. Farmers planted less rice and other water-intensive crops, and some cities banned lawn irrigation.

California has over two million wells to extract groundwater, and over 10,000 additional wells are drilled each year. The 2021-22 drought prompted the state to require local groundwater sustainability agencies to approve the drilling of new wells.

California’s fire season normally peaks between July and October, when dry brush catches fire from lightening, electricity lines or human activities. The 2022 fire season began in May, with many fires spreading fast due to gusty winds. Four out of the five largest fires in modern California history occurred in the past two years, including the August Complex fire in 2020 and the Dixie Fire in 2021.

Drought affects most western states in 2022. Lake Mead near Las Vegas, the largest reservoir in the western US, was less than 30 percent full in June 2022 and approaching a surface elevation of 1,000 feet, down from over 1,200 feet in 2000. Lake Powell is less than 30 percent full.

People. The state government in 2013 predicted that California would have over 50 million residents by 2050. However, population growth slowed between 2010 and 2020, and California had fewer than 40 million residents in 2020 and lost population again in 2021, giving the state 39.2 million people in January 2022.

California has lost residents to other states each year since 2001, and a slowdown in immigration and fewer births may lead to the state’s population stabilizing at 40 million. People leaving California for other states often have less education and lower incomes, while those moving to California are often well-educated high earners. Many of those leaving California cite high housing costs.

California K-12 school enrollment dropped to 5.9 million in 2022, as young families moved to states with lower housing costs and taxes and more parents moved their children to private schools. California anticipates a $98 billion budget surplus for 2022-23, when the state proposes to spend $301 billion.

About six percent of California residents are Black. California was admitted to the US as a free state in 1850; a state-mandated task force in June 2022 called for “comprehensive reparations” to Black residents due to slavery, Jim Crow laws, redlining and other government policies that locked Black Americans into “failing schools and over-policed communities.”

In January 2020, five percent of US workers were employed only remotely. By June 2022, about 20 percent worked remotely full time, including 50 percent in San Francisco and a third in New York City. Covid reversed the movement of young people to cities, prompting questions about whether the march toward urbanization will continue and raising questions about what will happen to lower-skilled workers in urban hospitality industries.

San Francisco voters recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin in June 2022. Boudin was elected in 2020 and promised to minimize penalties for minor offenses, including car break ins and open-air drug dealing. However, well-publicized shoplifting thefts from stores as well as unprovoked attacks on elderly Asian Americans fueled the push to recall Boudin.

In February 2022, SF voters recalled three school board members who kept K-12 schools closed during covid, switched admissions to Lowell High School from tests to a lottery, and tried to remove the names of the founding fathers from local schools because they owned slaves. In June 2022, the new board voted 4-3 to return to merit-based admissions at Lowell, where half of the students were Asian under test-based admissions.

San Francisco’s downtown area has been slow to recover from covid. There were about five million vacant square feet of office space in the city of San Francisco in the first quarter of 2019, and almost 20 million vacant square feet in 2022. With less than 30 percent of office workers working in person in June 2022, closed restaurants and shops may not reopen.

The Times Square neighborhood in New York City’s Manhattan generated 15 percent of the city’s economic output from 0.1 percent of the city’s land area, attracting up to 400,000 people a day. The $2.5 billion TSX Broadway development is a 46-story entertainment venue and luxury hotel atop the Palace Theater, which was lifted 30 feet to make room for TSX.

By summer 2022, Times Square foot traffic topped 300,000 a day as tourists returned, although the total number of tourists is not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels of over 67 million a year until 2024. The Partnership for New York City says that many office workers are worried about their safety on New York City subways.

In New York City, the top one percent of earners, those who earn over $800,000 a year, pay over 40 percent of the city’s personal income taxes. Some left during covid and, if they move to states such as Florida without state and city income taxes, New York City may have to adjust to less tax revenue. New York City’s population was 8.8 million in 2020 and 8.5 million in mid-2021.

Homeless. California has 160,000 homeless people, a quarter of the US total, and a median house price of over $800,000. Sacramento is debating idealistic versus practical compassion to deal with almost 6,000 homeless residents. In 2018, a federal court prohibited the county from clearing homeless camps unless it could offer beds to the homeless.

A 1967 law closed most of California’s state mental institutions, but replacement local mental facilities were never fully built. The state plans to spend $14 billion to deal with homelessness over the next two years by adding to the stock of affordable housing, leaving unanswered the question of whether the homeless can be compelled to accept beds and mental health services.

About 56 percent of California residents own homes; only New York at 55 percent has lower home ownership rate.

California has state and local laws that permit opponents of development to delay new housing, so-called NIMBYism or not in my back yard. The state enacted laws that permit homeowners to build additional dwelling units or granny flats in their yards, relaxed regulations requiring parking spaces in developments near transit centers, and weakened regulations that generally prohibit apartment buildings in suburban neighborhoods in a bid to increase affordable housing.

Americans had $28 trillion in home equity in spring 2022, making the value of equity in homes more than the $24 trillion GDP. The value of home equity fell between 2005 and 2012 before beginning to increase at an accelerating pace.

President Biden says that the US lacks 1.5 million housing units, and aims to reward states and cities that allow more housing to be built. The YIMBYism movement is trying to deal with homelessness and high housing prices by increasing supply or build baby build. Livable California is the umbrella group for the NIMBYs who oppose the state taking power away from local governments to control development.

Developer Rick Caruso won more votes than Rep Karen Bass (D-CA) to replace Eric Garcetti as mayor of Los Angeles in the June 2022 primary. Many Los Angeles voters were frustrated by crime and homelessness, and some embraced the tranquility of a major Caruso project called The Grove.


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