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April 2023, Volume 29, Number 2

California: Water, Housing

After the driest three years since record-keeping began, California received near-record precipitation in 2022-2023, including record levels of levels of snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains that melts in summer and provides water for people and crops. California reservoirs that store winter precipitation and summer snowmelt and convey water south via the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta filled to capacity in 2023, up from very low levels during the previous three years of drought.

Farmers want to capture more winter rain and snow to irrigate crops. Some flooded fallow fields so that winter rain can replenish the aquifers that can hold 10 times more water than all of the state’s dams and reservoirs The aquifers in the San Joaquin Valley have been depleted by pumping during dry years, with water levels dropping hundreds of feet in some areas due to overpumping.

Can more winter rainwater be captured in northern California? A $16 billion, 45-mile tunnel could take Sacramento River water under the Delta where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet and flow into the San Francisco Bay, thus moving water south of the Delta without disturbing the fragile Delta ecosystem where fresh and salt water merge. The long-delayed $4 billion Sites Reservoir in northern California is scheduled to begin construction of two dams in 2024 and be completed by 2030, with a capacity to store 1.5 million acre feet of water, a third as much as Shasta Dam, the state’s largest reservoir.

California lost almost 875,000 residents due to more people leaving than moving to the state between April 2020 and July 2022, making California one of 18 states that is losing people to other states. California has enacted laws that require cities to permit the construction of more housing, but many cities resist or charge such high fees that developers do not build. The top destination for people moving between states in 2021 was Florida, followed by Texas, California, and Colorado.

Wheelchair user and serial litigator Chris Langer has filed over 2,000 suits against small businesses in California, sometimes filing up to six suits a day alleging that businesses violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many of California’s 33,000 ADA suits filed since 2013 are settled for less than $5,000, sometimes by law firms that did not obtain the consent of the person on whose behalf they are suing.

The Unruh Civil Rights Act permits additional awards to plaintiffs that begin at $4,000, and a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in February 2023 that those who sue California businesses can recover both federal and state awards. Critics want complaints about non-compliance with the ADA to allow businesses 60 or 90 days to fix the problem before suits can be filed.

Labor. California workers filed a record 40,000 wage theft complaints with the state Labor Commissioner in 2022. Understaffing pushed the average time for a hearing to 800 days; four times the LC goal of dealing with claims within 200 days. Many workers who win wage theft claims after LC hearings never recover wages because their employer went out of business.

California voters in 2020 approved Prop 22 to keep gig workers such as Uber drivers independent contractors. Unions sued and a state judge ruled that Prop 22 was unconstitutional, but an appeals court in March 2023 overturned the judge, ruling 2-1 that most of Prop 22 was lawful, so the state’s estimated 400,000 gig workers remain independent contractors.

Since 2015, California has allowed unauthorized foreigners in the state to obtain driver’s licenses. Between 2015 and 2022, 1.2 million of the estimated two million unauthorized foreigners received California driver’s licenses, including almost 400,000 in 2015 and 350,000 in 2016, and 700,000 renewed their driver’s licenses at least once. California is one of 19 states that issue driver’s licenses to unauthorized foreigners.

Silicon Valley Bank collapsed in March 2023. Almost 90 percent of SVB deposits were over the $250,000 FDIC guarantee, but the FDIC reimbursed 100 percent of depositors; SVB had 400 winery clients. The five largest US banks have $13 trillion of the $23 trillion in US banking assets; the SVB had $200 billion in assets, making it the 16th largest US bank.

Housing. California has taken steps to reduce housing costs by limiting zoning for single family homes and making it easier to build 600 to 1,000 square foot accessory dwelling units or granny flats on single family lots. There are an estimated 1.4 million ADUs in the US, half in California, Florida and Texas. Some 20,000 ADU permits were granted in California in 2021.

California has both high housing and utility prices. Housing prices stabilized and fell in some areas in 2023, but gas and electric charges doubled in many areas due to higher prices and colder weather.

California has 25 million vehicles, and aims to stop selling gas-powered cars in 2035. Owners of electric vehicles are mostly affluent suburbanites who have chargers in their homes; most observers are skeptical that poor and more rural residents can make the transition from gas-powered vehicles.

California spent about $10 billion to provide services to almost 600,000 homeless people between 2018 and 2021 as the number of homeless residents increased.

Legislature. The California Legislature is known for expanding individual rights and freedoms in some areas, and restricting them in others. Laws and regulations aim to give workers more rights to organize into unions, ensure women have access to abortion, and reduce felonies and ease re-entry into society. On the other hand, Californians may be banned from buying gas-powered cars or stoves or owning and carrying weapons.

Legislators approved about 60 percent of the 2,000 bills introduced in 2022, and 50 percent were signed into law. Some 2,600 bills were introduced in 2023.

California has the highest share of households that use natural gas for cooking, 70 percent. Since Berkeley took the lead in 2019, 50 California cities and counties have passed laws banning gas hookups in new buildings to reduce carbon emissions. The California Air Resources Board in September 2022 banned the sale of all new gas furnaces and water heaters by 2030.

California has expensive gasoline due to state taxes and clean-air regulations that make the state’s gas $0.80 a gallon more expensive than in other states. However, the price gap between average gasoline prices in California and other states is $1.25 a gallon, which may reflect less competition between gas stations in California, which earned an average $0.80 a gallon on gas in 2022, compared to $0.45 a gallon in the rest of the US. State and city regulations make it hard to open new gas stations in California, limiting competition.

The city of Manhattan Beach used eminent domain to seize Bruce’s Beach in 1924, closing a beachfront resort available to Blacks. The city returned the land to the descendants of the Bruce family in 2022, and they promptly resold the land to Los Angeles county for $20 million. The return and sale of previously Black-owned property may influence the California’s Reparations Task Force.

Los Angeles public schools, which serve 422,000 students, closed in March 2023 when the 30,000 support workers represented by SEIU Local 99 went on strike; many of the 35,000 teachers stayed away to support the LAUSD strikers. The SEIU is demanding a 30 percent wage increase; the LAUSD offered 23 percent. The teachers are demanding a 20 percent wage increase.

San Bernardino county, the largest in the lower 48 states covering over 20,000 square miles, began as a 50,000 acre Rancho San Bernardino Mormon settlement after over 400 Mormons trekked 600 miles from Utah over the Cajon Pass. A Mormon legislator in 1853 carved San Bernardino county from Los Angeles county, and today the county includes the Mojave Desert and some of Joshua Tree National Park.

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