California’s precipitation paradox

This story appeared on Calmatters

Accumulated snow is seen around this fire danger sign in El Dorado County on March 1, 2023 . Photo by Andrew Innerarity, California Department of Water Resources

California has two seemingly contradictory and potentially devastating problems:

  1. We have more water than we know what to do with — and more is on the way.
  2. We still don’t have nearly enough.

More atmospheric rivers are due to wash over us this weekend. These are the same kind of state-spanning bands of wet air responsible for dropping 32 trillion gallons of water on the state in January. 

But in a bit of irony that Alanis Morissette might appreciate, the coming rain could actually complicate things in drought-plagued California by melting its snowpack too early.

This latest plume is now forecast to hit the northern and central regions of the state late Thursday. And unlike some prior storms, this one — a subtropical “Pineapple Express” — is expected to be fairly warm.

That’s good news for those of us still recovering from our astronomically higher January natural gas bills, sent skyward in part by the unusually cold weather.

But it could be bad news for those counting on California’s nearly unprecedented Sierra snowpack — or for those living downstream.

There could be even more rain in California’s long-term forecast. New estimates from the World Meteorological Organization put good odds on the Pacific Ocean breaking from its three-year La Niña pattern and ushering the return of El Niño. In California, that generally means more rain and accompanying landslides, floods and coastal erosion.

Shored up? If coastal erosion in the face of rising seas is a public policy concern, you wouldn’t know it from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s draft budget. As CalMatters’ environment reporter Julie Cart explains, the governor proposes to cut funding for coastal resilience projects by 43% in the face of a more-than-$20 billion deficit.

For all the talk of rain and flood, Californians are still battling over who has claim to the water flowing through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. 

From CalMatters’ water reporter Alastair Bland:

Environmental groups on Monday asked state water regulators to rescind their controversial decision to weaken Delta flow rules to increase storage in California’s reservoirs.

The petition to the State Water Resources Control Board was submitted by 10 environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Save California Salmon and San Francisco Baykeeper.

The controversy centers on last month’s decision to waive basic flow standards for the Delta. The groups in their petition said the waiver would cause “irreparable environmental harm and loss of fish,” including Chinook salmon and tiny Delta smelt. 

  • The petition: The order is “arbitrary and capricious, contrary to law, and is not supported by substantial evidence.”

What’s at stake? 

Water that’s delivered to growers in the Central Valley and to cities, mostly in Southern California. Newsom and the water agencies have been under pressure to capture more water during storms instead of letting it flow into the ocean via San Francisco Bay. Growers and many Central Valley elected officials call this “wasted water.” But the state’s rules require a certain amount of water to flow into the bay to assist fish, such as migrating salmon.

Water agency officials told CalMatters they are reviewing the petition, as well as other comments and current conditions, to see if any changes are warranted.

The water board’s executive director, Eileen Sobeck, has acknowledged the waiver could harm threatened and endangered species of fish, but said the potential for a dry winter and spring, and the importance of boosting reservoir storage, justified the move. Those concerns could be water under the bridge as another powerful storm system threatens to dump so much water that reservoirs, which were at barely a quarter of their capacity in November, fill.


Tracking California’s water: Our data team built a dashboard that explores California drought and water issues, including reservoir levels, water shortages, restrictions and more. It’s refreshed whenever new numbers are available, so you can stay up-to-date on the state’s critical water metrics.  


Bullet train budget busted

Construction on the High-Speed Rail above Highway 99 in south Fresno on March 6, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
Construction on the High-Speed Rail above Highway 99 in south Fresno on March 6, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

Remember in 2019, when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that there wasn’t a path forward for the full high-speed rail project — claiming that a San Francisco to Los Angeles project “would cost too much and take too long” — and instead ordered the state to prioritize a 171-mile span between Merced and Bakersfield?

It turns out the scaled-down version isn’t going all that well either.

CalMatters contributor Ralph Vartabedian has pored over a new report from California’s High-Speed Rail Authority. It’s heavy on the sticker shock: 

  • The estimated cost of connecting Merced to Bakersfield is now as high as $35 billion — $10 billion over budget.
  • The current price tag on the entire project is now $128 billion, leaving a funding gap of $100 billion, which even in California is a lot of money.
  • Reflecting a precipitous decline in public transit use during the pandemic, the authority’s projected ridership figures have fallen by a quarter, meaning less money for the train system if and when it gets up and running.

Republican legislators, who never miss an opportunity to hammer on a “boondoggle,” used the report as another opportunity to call for high-speed rail’s unceremonious end. Democratic lawmakers, who have been divided on the issue, mostly declined to speak to Ralph for this story. 

Analysts outside the halls of power say that even the abbreviated Central Valley leg is doomed without an additional inflow of cash. The big question is: from where?

  • Helen Kerstein at the Legislative Analyst’s Office: “Absent very significant additional federal funds, the state will need to contribute additional funding to get that segment from Merced to Bakersfield completed.”
  • UC Berkeley law professor Ethan Elkind: “It’s going to be harder to go back to the voters and ask for more funding, but I think that’s ultimately what’s going to be needed.”

Sen. Glazer vs the lobbyists

Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Contra Costa) speaks during a press conference in Orinda on Feb. 17, 2020. Photo by Jane Tyska, Bay Area News Group

Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Contra Costa) speaks during a press conference in Orinda on Feb. 17, 2020. Photo by Jane Tyska, Bay Area News Group

From CalMatters reporter Sameea Kamal:

Sen. Steve Glazer is taking names on why enough lobbying audits aren’t being done. 

The Political Reform Act of 1974 — passed by California voters — requires that the Franchise Tax Board audit a randomly selected quarter of disclosures from lobbying firms and those who employ them every two years. That’s in order to root out potential conflicts of interest and to make sure lobbyists are upfront about who is paying them to hawk legislation.

But, for at least the past decade, the tax board has fallen far below that 25% quota. That was the subject of a Senate elections committee hearing Tuesday chaired by Glazer, a Democrat from Walnut Creek. 

Of the approximately 300 lobbyist firms and lobbyist employers passed on to the board for examination for every two-year period since 2013, no more than 3% have been audited.

  • Glazer: “The failure to audit lobbying firms has a corrosive impact on the functioning of our democracy…When it comes to these gobs of money to influence the public sphere, you’re only seeing a piece of the elephant.” 

Jeanne Harriman, chief financial officer of the Franchise Tax Board, contended the agency lacks the staff to keep pace with demand.

  • Harriman: “With the resources we have, we have attempted to do all and everything we are able to do.”

She said the board has  asked the Finance Department for the money to double the unit’s staff, but hasn’t yet received approval — nor has the board sought more funding from the Joint Legislative Audit Committee.

Robert Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies who helped write the Political Reform Act, recommended transferring the job to someone else — the Fair Political Practices Commission, perhaps — or raising the threshold that triggers audits. But he also  pushed for pressure on the Franchise Tax Board to make the audits a priority.

The COVID vaccine wins in court

Jayden Elizondo, 5, gets his Covid-19 vaccine at one of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center mobile health clinics set up outside Helen Keller Elementary School in Los Angeles on Wednesday afternoon, March 16, 2022. Photo by Alisha Jucevic for CalMatters

Jayden Elizondo, 5, gets his Covid-19 vaccine at one of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center mobile health clinics set up outside Helen Keller Elementary School in Los Angeles on Wednesday afternoon, March 16, 2022. Photo by Alisha Jucevic for CalMatters

From CalMatters’ justice reporter Nigel Duara:

Matthew M., a boy who turned 12 in foster care during the pandemic, was rightfully ordered to be vaccinated against COVID-19 over his mother’s religious- and health-related objections, a California state appeals court has ruled

The ruling, issued Monday in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal, upheld a juvenile court’s finding that Mattew’s mother could not intervene and stop the vaccination. 

  • Matthew M.’s mother: “This mechanism for altering my God-given body is the equivalent of a prohibited ‘unclean food’ that causes harm to my conscience. COVID-19 vaccines are to me unclean.” 

When he turned 12 in November 2021, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services ordered that Matthew be vaccinated. His mother objected, citing her religion’s opposition to the use of fetal cells in vaccine development, and called a minister as her witness. Vaccines actually are developed using fetal cell lines grown in a laboratory. 

  • Nichelle L. Blackwell, juvenile court referee: “There is no evidence that the vaccination that would be implemented for Matthew is one that’s using aborted fetal cells. It’s just a statement by some ordained minister. There’s no scientific evidence.”

For the record: A recent Census Household Pulse Survey found that more than one in three Californians who fell behind on rent think it’s at least somewhat likely that they will have to leave their home in the next two months due to an eviction. Yesterday’s newsletter attributed the concern to a third of all Californians, based on a Public Policy Institute of California blog post that has since been corrected.

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CalMatters Commentary

Plane talk: Government subsidies for the dirty aviation industry need to be paired with accountability measures that protect communities harmed most by pollution, writes David Huerta, President of SEIU United Service Workers West.

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