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January 2023, Volume 29, Number 1

California: Water, Politics

California’s drought was broken after three years by a nine atmospheric rivers between December 20, 2022 and January 15, 2023 that delivered 15 to 25 inches of rain. California had four years of drought between 2012 and 2016, followed by a wet winter in 2017 (2006, 2011, and 2019 were also wet years). October 2019 through September 2022, three water years, was California’s driest such period on record.

The state’s largest dams rose from 30 percent of capacity in November 2022 to half of their capacity in January 2023. Shasta Dam has a capacity of 4.5 million acre feet, while Oroville Dam can store 3.5 million acre feet of water. By comparison, Lakes Mead and Powell can hold up to 50 million acre feet of Colorado River water.

Persisting drought prompted farmers to dig deeper wells for irrigation water, which accelerates subsidence in the San Joaquin Valley as the land compresses. The 614,000 acre Westlands Water District, which relied on groundwater for less than 10 percent of its irrigation needs in 2019, relied mostly on groundwater in 2022.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires local water agencies to ensure that water removals from underground aquifers is sustainable by 2040.

There are many proposals to use less water and to capture and store more water. Drip irrigation in agriculture and replacing grass lawns reduces the demand for water, while capturing storm runoff, desalination, and building more dams and moving water under or around the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta can make more water available during the summer months when demand peaks.

Sacramento has an estimated one million trees, and over 1,000 were toppled by drought that weakened root systems and strong northern winds in January 2023. Many of the trees that fell in January 2023 were evergreens, including eucalyptus trees, cedars, redwoods, pines, evergreen oaks, Italian cypress and acacias.

Wildfires burned fewer acres in 2022, about 362,000 acres in the first 10 months of the year, well below the average of 2.1 million acres. California’s worst year for wildfires was 2020, when more greenhouse gas emissions were emitted due to biomass burning than were eliminated between 2003 and 2019 by state policies to reduce CO2 emissions.

Politics. The Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act (FAST) creates a 10-member council to set minimum wages for workers in California fast food restaurants with at least 100 US outlets. The FAST council could raise minimum wages as high as $22 an hour in 2023, when the state’s minimum wage is $15.50.

Opponents qualified a ballot initiative in December 2022 to repeal FAST, which puts FAST on hold until voters have a say in 2024. Restaurants argue that raising wages and benefits above state minimums requires employer decisions or collective bargaining. Unions are proposing similar wage councils in other states.

The Latino president of the 15-member Los Angeles City Council, Nury Martinez, resigned after a recording was leaked in which she disparaged Blacks and Oaxacans. Latinos are half of Los Angeles’s 3.8 million population, and are the largest ethnic group in 10 of the 15 city council districts, but they hold only four of the 15 council seats. The recording involved discussions with a labor leader on how to maximize Latino political representation in city government, where whites (28 percent) and Blacks (nine percent) wield outsize influence.

Governor Gavin Newsom was re-elected in November 2022. Newsom in 2018 promised to build 3.5 million new housing units during his first term and to curb homelessness. Fewer than 500,000 new housing units were built, and over 100,000 homeless people sleep on California streets each night.

New home construction is slowed by high land costs, regulations that allow opponents to delay or block new housing, and local school and other impact fees that add up to $100,000 per new house. Homelessness is persistent due to “housing first” efforts, meaning that cities must offer permanent housing to the homeless before applying “tough love” policies such as requiring treatment for addictions.

The so-called YIGBY movement (Yes In God’s Back Yard) aims to counter NIMBY by enacting legislation to allow religious organizations and nonprofit colleges to build affordable housing on their property.

California voters considered seven propositions in November 2022. Voters approved preserving abortion rights in the state constitution, allocating money to art and music in K-12 schools, and banning the sale of flavored tobacco to children, but rejected propositions that would have allowed betting on sports, raised taxes to fund charging stations for electric cars, and required doctors in dialysis clinics.

Governor Newsom proposed a $300 billion budget for 2023-24, down slightly from 2022-23 as the state shifted from a $100 billion surplus linked to capital gains from the stock market boom to a $22 billion deficit. Half of California’s personal income tax in 2020 was paid by one percent of taxpayers, and capital gains accounted for 10 percent of income tax revenue in 2022-23.

California’s Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) has defenders and opponents. PAGA allows employees to sue their employers for labor code violations, and gives three-fourths of the penalties to the state’s Labor and Workforce Development Agency. Of the one-fourth going to workers, lawyers typically get a third. A pending case involving an Uber driver who claims to be an employee rather than an independent contractor may clarify whether workers who sign arbitration agreements can file PAGA suits.

An initiative planned for the November 2024 ballot, the Fair Pay and Employer Accountability Act, would replace PAGA with a complaint system through the Labor Commissioner, who would conduct investigations and give all monetary awards to employees.

Only half of California K-12 students satisfied English language standards and a third met math standards in 2022. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is considered more rigorous, found that only a third of California eighth graders met English standards and a quarter met math standards. California schools had among the longest periods of remote instruction in 2020 and 2021.

McFarland, a city of 15,000 in Kern county whose cross-country team was memorialized in the 2015 movie McFarland USA, has a library that the police department covets for more space. The city established its police department in 2010, and confronts growing gang violence; defenders of the library emphasize the need to give youth a place to study.

San Francisco’s downtown office buildings are at 40 percent of their pre-covid occupancy levels, one of the lowest US return-to-in-person work rates. Before covid, urban theorists such as Richard Florida argued that successful startups should locate in San Francisco to attract young professionals whose interactions would spur rapid growth. The cost of housing rose alongside homelessness, whose advocates argued that the city had to house the homeless before it could require them to be treated for addictions.

Catalytic converter thefts tripled between 2020 and 2021. Thieves receive several hundred dollars for the precious metals in each converter, but car owners must spend several thousand dollars to replace stolen converters. States including California have enacted laws to make it more difficult to sell stolen converters, such as requiring the seller to provide the vehicle VIN.

Some 1.5 million California homes and businesses have rooftop solar systems that provided about 10 percent of the electricity generated in the state in 2021. The state in December 2022 reduced the credit homeowners receive when they send electricity into the system, arguing that the credit went largely to more affluent residents.

California voters in 2008 approved a $9 billion bond to build a bullet train expected to take two hours and 40 minutes to travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The train was to be completed by 2020 at a total cost of $33 billion. However, the 171-mile San Joaquin Valley segment remains uncompleted, and the cost is likely to be over $100 billion.

Political deals made the rail project more costly and complex, including decisions to extend the route east into Palmdale and to follow highway 99 rather than I-5 in the San Joaquin Valley. Federal funds had to be spent quickly, so construction contracts were awarded before all of the land was acquired, leading to costly delays.

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