Deal or no deal (Colorado River edition)
California and six other drought-parched states have until Tuesday to hammer out a deal to cut their voracious thirst for Colorado River water by up to 30%.
Don’t hold your breath.
As the New York Times reported over the weekend, no one is volunteering to make the cuts that the federal government is now demanding, but there’s finger-pointing a-plenty. The Rocky Mountain states of Wyoming, Colorado and Utah blame users down river; Nevada says it’s done enough; and California’s mega user, the Imperial Irrigation District, said the coming water crunch is not its problem.
- Imperial vice president JB Hamby: “We have sound legal footing…That’s kind of a responsibility on (Arizona’s) part to plan for these risk factors.”
That’s a major sticking point. As CalMatters’ water reporter Alastair Bland noted earlier this month, the water district in Imperial sucks up more Colorado River water than Nevada and Arizona combined. Even so, growers there say they’re “all squeezed out.”
Negotiations among the states haven’t been going well for a while now. Last year, the Biden administration gave the seven states an Aug. 16 deadline to come up with a plan to make the unprecedented cuts. The states blew past it.
Now we have a better sense of what did (or didn’t) happen. The Associated Press got its hands on some of the email back-and-forth that made up those failed haggling.
- Chris Harris, executive director of the Colorado River Board of California: “I genuinely believe that we are at an impasse, and we’re all headed to a very dark place.”
A second failure could force the federal government to unilaterally impose restrictions. That would upend 101 years of regional water policy and all but guarantee that a final water deal goes to court
And while the desiccation of the river is forcing Colorado tribal farmers to fallow their fields, resurfacing suspected victims of mob hits in Nevada and threatening the power-producing capacity of the Hoover Dam, golf courses in Palm Springs are being spared — at least for now.
As the Los Angeles Times reports, the Coachella Valley Water District recently announced plans to cut back on the water it uses to recharge their underground aquifers, thus avoiding the need to impose mandatory cuts on the area’s biggest users, namely country clubs and resorts.
- Cástulo Estrada, Coachella water district board vice president: “This is the easiest way, the less disruptive way.”
Here’s your regular reminder that the nine-part soaking that California took in late December and earlier this month didn’t end the state’s 1,085-day drought, as updated in the CalMatters tracker — though it did offer some welcome relief.
CalMatters covers the Legislature: With the state Legislature back in session, CalMatters has you covered with guides to keep track of your lawmakers, explore its record diversity, make your voice heard and understand how state government works. We also have Spanish-language versions for the Legislature’s demographics and the state government explainer.
Other Stories You Should Know
1 Stealing from California’s neediest
For all the attention organized shoplifting and “porch piracy” gets, California is in the middle of a multimillion dollar crime wave that you might not even be aware of: EBT theft.
As CalMatters’ Jeanne Kuang reports, low-income Californians reported more than $34 million in pilfered food stamp and cash assistance funds carried on their electronic benefits transfer cards between July 2021 and September 2022.
The state ultimately reimburses the losses, meaning that taxpayers are ultimately stuck with that bill. But that repayment process can take months. People like Courtney Abrams, a 33-year-old single mother who relies on state aid while she puts herself through college, can ill afford the long wait.
- Abrams: “I was, like, maxing out credit cards, doing promise-to-pay, talking to my landlord, letting him know my money got stolen…having to plead your case with these people in a situation that sounds kind of far-fetched.”
EBT theft is a national scourge and one that’s dramatically on the rise. Reported thefts across California increased 40-fold between 2021 and 2022. in part because the benefit cards themselves are uniquely vulnerable to digital theft, lacking the security chips on most credit and debit cards. As Jeanne reports, that’s something the Newsom administration and many advocates want to fix.
But that would come with an added one-time cost at a time when state lawmakers are looking for ways to cut back.
California’s reparations task force, the first-in-the-nation committee tasked with studying what the state owes to Black Californians for generations of discrimination, met Friday and Saturday in San Diego to flesh out how a state reparations policy might work in practice and who would benefit.
Wendy Fry of CalMatters California Divide team was there, and reports on some of the things the group agreed upon: A new agency will be needed, a residency standard will be required and the task force is going to need some more time to figure out the rest.
2 Paving the way for autonomous big rigs
Self-driving semis may be coming to a freeway near you.
A new bill filed late last week would give robotic big rigs and other autonomous vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or more the green light to start test driving around California. But there’s a catch: A flesh-and-blood human would have to remain in the cab.
That might provide some comfort to Californians at a time when public concerns about the roadworthiness of artificial intelligence is on the rise:
- Last week San Francisco transportation offices urged state regulators to slow the rollout of AI-driven taxis, arguing that the technology still has a few kinks to work out (see: A viral video of a robo-taxi nonchalantly fleeing from a police officer).
- Footage of a Tesla causing a pile-up on the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland and recent allegations that the car company’s self-driving features were overhyped, has shaken confidence in what is likely the most well-known purveyor of autonomous vehicles.
But the new California proposal isn’t just about safety. Limitations on self-driving trucks are being backed by organized labor, which is holding a rally today at the state Capitol in support of the legislation.
- Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, a Davis Democrat who authored the bill: “It’s a fine balance between keeping our quality workforce and ensuring safety.”
More news from the road: Since 2015, more than a million undocumented immigrants in California have received drivers’ licenses. That’s thanks to a state law that proponents at the time said would promote public safety while allowing those in the country illegally to contribute more to society and the economy.
But as CalMatters’ Wendy Fry explains, eight years after going into effect the law still has its detractors. And even some advocates for immigrant rights say it’s not an unalloyed good.
3 The University of California clawback
You may have already forgotten that tens of thousands of University of California graduate students and other academic employees went on strike late last year, in the largest higher education strike in U.S. history.
But the 48,000 strikers haven’t. In fact, they may soon be paying for it.
If UC gets its way, striking workers will have to pay back all the money they earned while on the picket line, CalMatters higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn reports.
A spokesperson said the university is legally required by state and federal law to clawback the funds. But the unions say members are entitled to a review process before having their future pay docked. Last week, they filed a complaint with state labor regulators.
The nearly six-week strike ended after the administration agreed to institute immediate pay raises of between 20% and 80% and to provide more expansive benefits — though more than a third of union members voted against the deal.
UC projects that the five-year contract will cost the system more than $500 million. Now administrators are scrambling to pay for it. According to the Los Angeles Times, one potential item on the chopping block: graduate student admissions.
- UC Board of Regents Chairperson Richard Leib: “I think it was a good agreement and I’m happy with that. But there are ramifications. It’s not like the money’s coming from the sky.
CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Although 2022 was a strong year for California job growth, the state’s economic future is cloudy.
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