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July 2023, Volume 29, Number 3

California: Water

Record precipitation in 2022-23 led to flooding in spring 2023 as deep snow that fell in the Sierra mountains melted; some levees that were weakened by years of dry weather and animals burrowing holes in them broke. The State Water Project offered 100 percent allocations to its 29 public agencies and farmers with 750,000 acres for the first time since 2006, and the federal Central Valley Project offered 100 percent of promised water allocations for the first time since 2017.

Tulare Lake, once the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi, re-emerged in 2023. Water covered 168 square miles in summer 2023, reducing the acreage devoted to cotton and other crops, as snow melt from the Kern, Tule, Kaweah and Kings rivers prevented planting on the land south of Corcoran. Tulare Lake re-appeared in 1969, 1983, and 1997, which were also wet years.

California may have an El Niño weather year in 2023-24 if the trade winds that blow west off the coast of South America do not bring cold deep water to the Pacific coast of the western US. When South American trade winds are weak, the warmer water often leads to heavy rain and intense storms. El Niño years, as in 2015-16, accelerate erosion along the California coast.

Cycles of droughts and deluges may be the new normal and strain the water infrastructure that was built for past weather patterns. Most experts call for more preparation for megafloods, better groundwater storage, and fewer water-intensive crops such as rice and alfalfa.

California is the most biodiverse US state, with coastlines, mountains and deserts that are home to the world’s tallest and oldest trees and of environments and habitats that include the highest and lowest elevations in the lower 48 states.

California’s population, which was almost 40 million in 2020, shrank to less than 39 million in 2022. For several decades, less-educated workers have been leaving the state, and some were replaced by immigrants. Covid and remote work encouraged even college-educated residents to move to Texas and other places with cheaper housing and lower taxes. California’s median house price was over $700,000 in 2023, compared to less than $300,000 in Texas.

California made it easier to build accessory dwelling units on lots with single family homes, prompting some homeowners to construct ADUs or granny flats for relatives or renters. In many cities, there are five or six ADUs permitted for each new family home. ADUs of up to 850 square feet must be permitted by cities.

Legislature. California had a $100 billion budget surplus in 2022-23, and faces a $30 billion deficit in 2023-24. The top one percent of California taxpayers pay over 50 percent of the state’s income tax, and their taxable incomes are largely tied to the performance of the US stock market, which had a down year in 2022. The state has a $300 billion a year budget.

Governor Gavin Newsom wants to leverage the California effect, the fact that California is the largest US market for goods and services. This means that state regulations can sometimes become federal regulations, as with auto emissions and egg and pork production rules, as producers make products that satisfy California standards. California has more people than the smallest 21 states, many of which are led by Republicans, and Newsom wants state laws that regulate guns, LGBTQ rights, and school texts to set national standards.

California’s minimum wage is $15.50 in 2023. Unions led by the SEIU want a higher minimum wage of $25 an hour for those employed by or in health care facilities, including food service and janitorial staff, covering up to 500,000 workers. Many hospitals said they could not afford a $25 minimum wage.

A guaranteed income experiment in Stockton that paid over 100 residents $500 a month in 2019 and 2020 found that recipients reported improved health and well-being due to the extra income. However, after two years the recipients did not have higher rates of full-time employment and the well-being benefits disappeared. Supporters of guaranteed incomes emphasized that recipients did not stop working, while detractors noted that the benefits from the extra income was short-lived.

Homeless. California has an eighth of US residents and almost a third of the 580,000 US homeless people; the number of homeless in California rose 50 percent between 2014 and 2022 to 170,000. The state has been spending $4 billion a year on homelessness, and counties and cities more. Most homeless money goes to action plans, service providers, and owners of hotels and motels without changing the underlying addiction and mental health issues that often lead to homelessness.

Activists say that the homeless are pushed from one place to another. Many want cities and counties to guarantee housing for the homeless (Housing First) before enticing or forcing them to seek treatment for drug or alcohol abuse. Others say that the answer is “tough love” policies to force the homeless to deal with personal problems so that they can live independent lives.

San Francisco’s homeless issue may be connected to a downtown business district that has been slow to rebound after covid. Whole Foods closed a large store on the edge of downtown in April 2023 after a year due to problems with people attacking shoppers and store employees, the largest shopping mall in downtown San Francisco closed in June 2023. Elon Musk, owner of Tesla and Twitter, has become one of the city’s harshest critics.

Critics say that San Francisco’s toleration of property crimes and mental illness make many people feel unsafe in downtown San Francisco. Several large hotels that catered to conventions defaulted on their loans, making the future of up to 5,000 hotel rooms uncertain.

San Francisco has a $14 billion annual budget. A 15-member task force made 111 recommendations to pay reparations to the five percent of residents who are Black, including one-time payments of $5 million to each eligible person. California’s statewide reparations task force proposed cash payments that would total at least $500 billion, and there are calls for federal payments of at least $14 trillion to Blacks descended from those who were enslaved (CA GDP is $4 trillion; US GDP is $27 trillion).

Most Blacks support reparations, while most whites, Asians, and Hispanics oppose cash payments to Blacks. Some argue that 1960s civil rights laws, affirmative action, and an expanded social safety net are reparations.

Los Angeles will host the 2026 World Cup and the 2028 summer Olympics, and some labor leaders want to raise the minimum wages of tourism workers to $25 an hour immediately and to $30 an hour by 2028. An estimated 36,000 workers, two-thirds Hispanics, are employed in facilities on city land such as the airport and airport hotels that would be affected.

Some 15,000 hotel workers represented by Unite Here Local 11 went on strike for three days in July 2023 to demand an increase in their minimum wage, currently $20 to $25 an hour. The 60 hotels affected offered an immediate $5 an hour increase, and at least $31 an hour by 2027.

Compton, a city of 93,000 in southern Los Angeles county, is 70 percent Latino with an all-Black city council and school board. Two-thirds of Compton residents speak a language other than English at home.

Beverly Hills 90210 has the most expensive homes in LA county and is behind only Atherton CA and Aspen CO in average home price.

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