Good morning, California.

“The company believes it is probable that its equipment will be determined to be an ignition point of the 2018 Camp Fire.”—PG&E Corp., acknowledging Thursday that its equipment likely sparked the deadliest wildfire in California history.

The bill comes due for PG&E

Last year's historic Camp Fire claimed 85 lives.

Raising ominous questions for investor-owned utilities throughout California, the state’s largest power provider admitted Thursday that its equipment probably sparked last year’s historically lethal Butte County wildfire.  

  • Pacific Gas & Electric, already in bankruptcy and on probation for a criminal conviction related to a deadly 2010 gas explosion in San Bruno, said it was recording a $10.5 billion charge in anticipation of costs related to the November Camp Fire. It warned investors it may not be able to operate as a “going concern.”  
  • More than 16 million customers across 70,000-square miles of Northern California rely on PG&E to keep the lights on.

Some of PG&E’s current problems stem from longstanding public distrust, as CALmatters’ Judy Lin has noted, but some are just as relevant to utilities such as San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison. 

 PG&E’s statement: “The charges represent a portion of the previously announced estimate of potential wildfire liabilities, which could exceed more than $30 billion.”

The Wall Street Journal: “Analysts and experts say PG&E’s fate may now lie with California lawmakers and regulators, who will have to find a way to help all of the state’s utilities survive as wildfire risk grows throughout their service territories.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom—who spent Thursday declaring states of emergency in Northern California counties because of epic flooding—did not comment on the PG&E filing. But he has established a strike team that is working on wildfire policy as such infernos become more common with climate change.

  • No legislator has proposed changing the state law on “inverse condemnation,” which essentially makes utilities liable for fires sparked by their equipment whether or not there was negligence. But there is support for creating a catastrophic wildfire fund, similar to one for victims of major earthquakes.

Jeff Cassella of Moody’s Investors Service:“This a statewide problem and not just a utility problem. State leaders recognize that there is an inverse condemnation issue and that actions need to be taken.”

Sen. Jerry Hill, whose district includes San Bruno: “There is no effort to bail out PG&E.”

CA's dangerous blooms

Wildflowers at Malibu Creek State Park could worsen future fires.

Grass and dazzling wildflowers are returning to California’s charred hillsides after last year’s fires. Good news? Not necessarily.

  • Many of today’s fast-growing plants are non-native and fire-prone, making it likely the hills will be burned black again sooner rather than later, CALmatters’ Julie Cart writes.
  • Many non-native plants and grasses are not only fire accelerants, but also add to the threat of erosion because they don’t hold soils well, scientists say.

UC Santa Barbara ecology professor Carla D’Antonio: “I see grass surrounding remnant chaparral scrub and I just think, ‘Oh shoot, if another fire comes through here, those guys are toast.’ ”

The San Francisco Chronicle: “Despite the rain and snow this winter, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is already warning that the wet weather will create an abundance of grass fuels that could burn easy and fast.”

Putting atmospheric rivers to use

The proposed Sites reservoir just got a bipartisan boost.

California’s effort to build a large reservoir west of the Sacramento River got a potential boost in the form of congressional legislation championed by a Democrat, with backing from a Republican.

  • Congressman John Garamendi, a Democrat and a rancher from the Delta town of Walnut Grove, introduced the legislation to prompt the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to take steps necessary to construct Sites Reservoir in Colusa and Glenn counties.
  • Congressman Doug LaMalfa, a Republican rice farmer who represents the Sites area, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

The state and various water districts, regional and local, are taking the leading role in funding what would be a $5.2 billion project. Garamendi, LaMalfa and others in Congress have been pushing for a federal contribution.

  • Citing the atmospheric rivers that have deluged California this rainy season, Garamendi said Thursday that Sites, to be built in a valley 14 miles west of the Sacramento River, would fill during periods of high water flow.

Garamendi: “The real benefit is its potential for freeing water held in other reservoirs. It creates flexibility for every reservoir north of the Delta.”

Other Sites supporters: At least some environmentalist groups see the project as a way to help better manage Sacramento River flows and help depleted fisheries. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California also is a major funder, seeing it as a way to stabilize water supply, writes The Sacramento Bee.

Round 2 on data privacy

California is in the thick of the fight over your online data.

An unusual buffer is built into California’s landmark law giving consumers control over their personal data: an extra year to tweak the legislation before it takes effect in 2020.

  • Lawmakers and lobbyists are making use of the time, submitting at least 20 bills in recent weeks that could gut California’s privacy protections or broaden them, CALmatters’ Laurel Rosenhall reports. 
  • Rosenhall notes the parallel debate shaping up in Congress, and notes three big ways the data privacy fight is shaping up.

Jim Steyer, CEO of the nonprofit Common Sense Media: “Powerful tech companies and their clever lobbyists know how complex privacy policies are and what they may present as a small tweak here and there can fundamentally change the entire law and completely obliterate the rights people have.”

Meanwhile, Steyer and other privacy advocates are lining up behind Assembly Bill 1760 by Democratic Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks of Oakland. The bill seeks to broaden protections by:

  • Requiring consumers’ consent before companies can give away their information.
  • Giving consumers the right to know what information has been collected.
  • Barring retaliation by companies against people who refuse to permit companies to share their information.

Tech companies want to limit consumers’ right to sue over the use or misuse of individuals’ personal information, and hope to narrow the law so companies can exchange consumers’ non-identifiable information with advertisers.

Internet Association lobbyist Kevin McKinley: “Treating this as the sale of personal information jeopardizes the underpinnings of the internet.”

Take a number: 113

The Sierra snowpack offers some good news this year, finally.

There are 113 inches of snow in the Sierra, the source of water for most Californians, California Department of Water Resources officials report.  The snowpack is 153 percent of normal for this time of year. And the rainy season will last for another two months.

DWR Director Karla Nemeth: “This is shaping up to be an excellent water year.”

Commentary at CALmatters

Libraries are leaving fines behind.

Anne Stuhldreher, The Financial Justice Project in the San Francisco Treasurer’s Office: Libraries are concluding fines for overdue material do more harm than good. Overdue fines accumulate and block access for low-income residents, the people who need libraries the most. And fines don’t work that well to prod people to return books. Better ways exist.

Dan Schnur, USC’s Annenberg School of Communications: Dianne Feinstein’s senior senator moment brought back speculation that she may decide to step down before her current term ends in 2024, when she will be 91. That would allow Gov. Gavin Newsom to appoint her successor. So whom would he pick?

Please email or call with tips, suggestions and insights, [email protected]org, 916.201.6281. Shawn Hubler, [email protected]edits WhatMatters. Thanks for reading, please tell a friend and sign up here.

 See you Monday.