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Will CA’s Big Melt be a slow-moving disaster?

This story appeared on Cal Matters

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to the media at a press conference at Hansen Ranches outside of Corcoran on April 25, 2023. Newsom addressed the areas flooded farmlands during the winter storms in Kings County. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

Good news: California has a near-record snowpack in the Sierra, which could ease the impact of our deep drought. Bad news: There’s a heat wave coming this week. Really bad news: If the snow melts too fast, it could help cause devastating floods in the Central Valley.

Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom went to Tulare Lake to survey the damage, speak to officials about safety plans and address potential threats from an issue he called “profound and existential.” 

  • Newsom: “This is for me, a surreal experience…. Honestly when I’m in a place like this, it’s usually with the worst behind us in the rear-view mirror, when in fact, where we’re standing will likely be underwater in a matter of weeks, if not months. That’s very sobering in every way shape or form.”

On the way, the governor sat down with residents from Allensworth, California’s first town founded by Black Americans, which was threatened by this year’s unprecedented rains, to discuss emergency preparedness.  

Thousands of farmers, workers and residents near Tulare Lake have already faced flooding, and the threat of even more damage has officials and residents on edge. Many have been frustrated with the state’s slow response, according to Nicole Foy of CalMatter’s California Divide team, who monitored the governor’s Tuesday press event. 

And even as he tried to reassure residents, Newsom misspoke that families in Kings County are eligible for federal relief, when aid is only available for public damage. (A press aide told Nicole later that he couldn’t hear the question.) 

Also in Kings County, the 8,000-inmate Corcoran state prison is “in the path of potential destruction” according to the Los Angeles Times. Corcoran’s city manager Greg Gatzka has been struggling to secure state and federal emergency funds to reinforce the nearby levee, which is estimated to cost $21 million.

Last week, Nicole reported on how these floods impacted dairy farmers near Tule River. Dairy is California’s top agricultural industry, generating $7 billion a year in statewide revenue and Tulare, Kern and Kings counties are among the top-producing dairy counties. Locals had to evacuate their homes and their cattle.

In anticipation of more flooding, Yosemite National Park will shut down starting Friday and will stay closed until May 3, if not longer. And Chevron is shutting down some of its production in the Kern River Oil Field.

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California’s water crisis, explained: CalMatters has a detailed look at how California might increase its water supply, and a dashboard tracking the state’s water situation. Now we have a version of the water explainer especially made for libraries and community groups, as part of the CalMatters for Learning initiative.

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1
High drama at CA Legislature

The Senate floor at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Jan. 4, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters
The Senate floor at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Jan. 4, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

Two high-profile bills met two different fates at the state Capitol on Tuesday. 

The first was a bill by Democratic Sen. Aisha Wahab of Fremont, which aims to ban caste discrimination from housing and work opportunities. Though the proposal is contested by some Hindu community advocacy groups that view the bill’s language as unfair to the South Asian community, the measure cleared its first major legislative hurdle by unanimously passing through the Senate judiciary committee, prompting a celebration by supporters outside the Capitol.

 Wahab emphasized that if this first-in-the-nation law were to pass, other states could follow suit.

  • Wahab: “I stand here now with the world watching as California once again commits to protecting the most vulnerable and balancing power…. I urge you all not to feel pressured by opposition. But instead, feel proud of the domino effect you’ll start around the world where other jurisdictions will follow our brave stand against caste discrimination.”

Meanwhile, a bipartisan bill known as Alexandra’s Law (named for Alexandra Capelouto, 20, who died of fentanyl poisoning in 2019) is officially dead after being reconsidered by the Senate public safety committee. The bill would have required written notice to those convicted of a fentanyl-related offense that if someone were to die as a direct consequence of their crime, they can be charged with homicide. 

The bill was introduced by state Sens. Tom Umberg, a Democrat from Garden Grove, and Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, a Republican from Rancho Cucamonga, and co-authored by a majority of senators. San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, a Democrat, showed up to testify in support.

Opponents of the bill include the California Public Defenders Association, which argues that drug sellers are often low-level drug users themselves and should not be charged with murder if they do not have a “mental state of malice” intended to kill another person. As legislators debated the bill on Tuesday, tensions grew high — residents who had family members die from fentanyl poisoning walked out of the room. The committee ultimately blocked the bill, dismaying supporters

We’ll learn the fate of more fentanyl bills on Thursday, when the Assembly public safety committee holds its special hearing on six other measures — including one that proposes sentence enhancements for dealers involved in fentanyl-related deaths. The committee chairperson agreed to schedule the hearing after receiving mounting pressure from Republicans lawmakers, who on Tuesday also sent a letter to the governor urging him to publicly support the six bills.

2
Newsom backs Biden in 2024

President Joe Biden arrives to speak at a voting rally for Gov. Gavin Newsom at Long Beach City College on Sept. 13, 2021. Photo by Evan Vucci, AP Photo

President Joe Biden arrives to speak at a rally for Gov. Gavin Newsom at Long Beach City College on Sept. 13, 2021. Photo by Evan Vucci, AP Photo

Rampant speculation that Gov. Newsom will run for president can finally rest, probably — at least for 2024. On Tuesday, after President Biden announced that he will be seeking reelection, the governor publicly supported Biden, tweeting that “there’s no one better to lead” and that he’s “looking forward to another 4 years.” He also urged supporters to donate to a Democratic committee.

Especially since he overwhelmingly defeated a 2021 recall effort, Newsom’s national profile strategically rose as he touted his leadership of liberal America and antagonized conservative governors, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. These public quarrels made national headlines (for better or for worse) and fueled talk that he was planning to run for president. He attempted to quash those rumors several times, but kicking off a tour of Southern states and creating a new political action committee in early April only renewed speculation.

Even Newsom’s unequivocal endorsement of Biden does not mean he will withdraw from the national limelight. Newsom will use funds from his “Campaign for Democracy” committee to support liberal candidates in red states for their upcoming elections and as the San Francisco Chronicle political writer Joe Garofoli muses, Newsom will be “a super surrogate… just in case Biden can’t complete his campaign and Harris falters.”

3
Key vote on electric trucks

A fleet of Tesla Semis on display at PepsiCo Beverages North America's Sacramento facility on April 11, 2023. PBNA hosted an event to celebrate the arrival of 18 Tesla Semi-trucks to its Sacramento location. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

A fleet of Tesla Semis on display at PepsiCo Beverages North America’s Sacramento facility on April 11, 2023. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

On Thursday, the California Air Resources Board will hold a public hearing on its proposal that would require companies to shift to electric big rigs, garbage trucks, delivery trucks and other large vehicles. It’s part of the state’s ultimate goal to end its dependency on fossil fuels and become carbon neutral by 2045. 

As CalMatters’ environmental policy reporter Nadia Lopez explains, the board first introduced the measure last September. It would set bold timelines for the purchasing and manufacturing of zero-emission trucks:

  • Ban sales of new diesel big rigs in California by 2036;
  • Require large fleet operators to electrify their fleets as early as 2024 and reach 100% zero-emissions by 2042;
  • Put an estimated 510,000 carbon-free medium- and heavy-duty vehicles on the road by 2035, 1.2 million by 2045 and about 1.7 million by 2050.

Trucking industry officials and local governments that own truck fleets, however, are concerned that the timeline is too ambitious. They argue that fundamental changes — such as the availability of more charging stations, longer vehicle ranges and more affordable electric models — need to be adopted first.

  • Chris Shimoda, senior vice president of the California Trucking Association: “The amount of chaos and dysfunction that is going to be created by this rule will be like nothing we’ve ever seen before. The likelihood that it is going to fail pretty spectacularly is very high.” 

Air board officials, however, told Nadia they are confident that the industry can adjust in time. After the hearing, the board is expected to vote on the proposal on Friday.

  • Steven Cliff, the air board’s executive director: “We want to be mindful of the concerns of those who are regulated, but we also know that we have health benefits that we need to achieve.”

Electric vehicles: CalMatters is publishing a series on California’s road to electrify its fleet of cars and trucks. Starting in 2035, no new gasoline vehicles will be sold in the state. Do you have questions about this transformation? Submit them here.

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CalMatters Commentary


CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: 2023 could be a watershed year as war for control of California’s water supply moves into the Legislature.

The failure to fix California’s landmark environmental law threatens the state’s future and is not due to a lack of solutions, write Tracy Hernandez, CEO of the Los Angeles County Business Federation, and Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council.

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