California opens the floodgates
If you’re reading this somewhere in California and within sight of a window, this probably won’t come as news: It’s raining. A lot. Again.
With the 10th atmospheric river of the winter now drenching an already sodden state and threatening to melt a historic snowpack across the Sierra, California water regulators have opened the floodgates at major reservoirs, including the biggest one at Lake Oroville.
These releases of excess water would have been unimaginable just a few months ago. Oroville is now three-quarters full with about 2.7 million acre-feet of water. That’s up from less than 1 million in the beginning of December.
But as CalMatters’ water reporter Alastair Bland explains, the choice to tap reservoirs now is part of a delicate balance the state must strike between ensuring there’s enough water stored behind dam walls before the dry months arrive and ensuring that none of the reservoirs overflow.
- Karla Nemeth, director of the Department of Water Resources: “Water management in California is complicated, and it’s made even more complex during these challenging climate conditions where we see swings between very, very dry, very, very wet, back to dry. We’re now back into wet.”
Late yesterday, state water officials rescinded a controversial order that allowed more water to be stored in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, saying it was no longer necessary because a barrage of storms boosted the Sierra snowpack and runoff.
As Alastair reports in a second story this morning, however, the 10 environmental groups who had petitioned the board to reverse court said the move comes too late to help salmon and other fish that have suffered through the past 16 days of curtailed water flow.
The subtropical storm system currently battering the state will bring a different kind of suffering, as mountain snow begins to melt and then merge into rivers already swollen with rain.
- Rivers in the San Joaquin Valley are forecast to flood this weekend;
- Most of the San Francisco Bay Area faces at least a “moderate risk” of flash flooding;
- The National Weather Service forecast a “high risk” (meaning at least a 70% chance) of rapid-onset flooding across the Big Sur Coast and the Fresno area today;
- The Coast Guard is now air dropping hay to snowed-in and starving cows in northern California.
Rain upon snow raises another threat: “snow loading.”
Earlier this week, the El Dorado County Fire Protection District urged homeowners to clear their roofs of as much snow as possible before the arrival of the atmospheric river to reduce the risk of buckling.
- The district: “The coming rain will rapidly add weight that could trigger failures. Flat roofs, like those on mobile homes, are especially vulnerable.”
In Truckee, the sheer weight of accumulated snow led the school district to cancel classes for two days over concerns about the main building’s structural integrity.
And though the current storm has reserved most of its moisture for Central and Northern California, residents in the San Bernardino Mountains are still recovering from their snowy deluge. At last count, 12 people have died amid roads blocked by snow drifts and power outages.
- Michelle Hake, whose sister died in her Big Bear home: “I don’t think people know how dire it is right now….We are literally trying to find people like my sister, people who are in their homes, and their life is hanging in the balance.”
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.
Other Stories You Should Know
1 Lawsuit-palooza in Huntington Beach
At 10 a.m. Thursday, the State of California announced that it was suing Huntington Beach for its refusal to comply with state laws meant to boost housing production.
Three hours later, Huntington Beach returned the favor, announcing it was suing California back for violating the city’s constitutional rights and those of its elected officials.
The fact that Huntington Beach and California are set to duke it out in court is one of the year’s more predictable legal developments.
The city council of the Orange County town can’t be terribly surprised. It’s been threatening to “unleash” the city’s attorney on the state for months while passing ordinances to annul state legislation.
State Attorney General Rob Bonta announced the suit on Thursday with an air of resigned inevitability.
- Bonta: “They chose a path that led us right where we are today. They have asked for this and they have earned this.”
Huntington Beach’s lawsuit accused state legislation of overstepping state authority and the administration of singling out a conservative-leaning suburb.
- The complaint: The Newsom administration is engaged in “an unbridled power play to control all aspects of the City Council’s land use decisions in order to eliminate the suburban character of the City and replace it with a high-density mecca.”
In its lawsuit, the state accuses the Huntington Beach of ignoring state laws crafted to address the state’s housing affordability crisis.
- A 2021 law that allows single family home owners to split up their lots into duplexes, and in some cases, fourplexes;
- A series of laws that have made it easier for homeowners to build secondary homes in their backyards — and which made it harder for local governments to restrict them;
- The “builder’s remedy” — a provision of state law that lifts many local building restrictions in cities and counties that aren’t, in the view of state regulators, planning for enough new housing. As we wrote yesterday, the Huntington Beach city council voted to nullify the builder’s remedy within the town’s borders.
Many Democrats in the Legislature applauded the suit, including Sen. Dave Min, who represents Huntington Beach. He accused the city of “political theater of the worst kind.”
- Min, in a statement: “If Huntington Beach’s City Council majority wants to change the law, they are welcome to reach out to their state legislators, but to date my office and I have not heard from them on this issue.”
That’s a different tone than the one struck by Huntington Beach’s former state senator the last time the state sued the city for refusing to plan for more housing. In 2019, then-Sen. John Moorlach, a Republican, cried “selective prosecution.”
The city ultimately settled that lawsuit by reversing course and setting aside more land for apartment buildings. Yesterday, Gov. Gavin Newsom predicted a similar result.
- Newsom: “This is a waste of money, a waste of time. They will lose again.”
More housing news: Today Los Angeles Democratic Sen. María Elena Durazo plans to introduce legislation that builds on what CalMatters described in 2019 as the “most ambitious renter-protection bill the state has passed in recent memory.”
Though more details will be announced this afternoon, Durazo aims to:
- Make it harder for landlords to evict tenants
- Slap a new cap on how much landlords can raise rent in a single year
The state put a ceiling on annual rent increases of 5%, plus inflation, in 2019. At the time, it was seen as a compromise behind the state’s landlords and tenant rights advocates pushing for more restrictive rent control.
But that allowance for cost-of-living adjustments has rankled anti-poverty advocates, especially as inflation began to ratchet up in late 2021. In the Los Angeles area last year, prices increased by nearly 6%, adding up to an allowable rent increase of 11%.
2 Meet the new arrivals
From CalMatters reporter Lynn La:
The Sacramento Press Club hosted a “Meet the Rookies” event on Thursday, introducing five newly elected lawmakers and one former Assemblymember who returned to the Capitol as a state senator.
In attendance were Assemblymembers Republican Josh Hoover from Folsom and Democrats Blanca Pacheco from Downey, Esmerelda Soria from Merced, and Rick Zbur from Los Angeles, as well as state Sens. Angelique Ashby, a Sacramento Democrat, and Roger Niello, a Fair Oaks Republican.
The legislators touched on some big issues they’re tasked with tackling this session:
- Oil windfall profits penalties: Panelists disagreed over Gov. Newsom’s call for a special session investigating the oil industry’s alleged price gouging on gas. While Zbur applauded the governor’s focus on the issue, Niello said Newsom’s motive was political.
- Allowing legislative staff to unionize: Many acknowledged that the Legislature’s offices are understaffed and that staff pay disparities exist. Hoover, however, had “mixed emotions” about Assemblywoman’s Tina McKinnor’s renewed efforts to unionize staffers, noting that he didn’t fully support the bill.
- A commitment to bipartisanship: Democrats still vastly outnumber Republicans in the Legislature, but a few Assemblymembers were quick to point out their membership in the new bipartisan CA Problem Solvers Caucus. Among the bills with bipartisan support: Ashby’s bill for debt-free college for foster youth and Pacheco’s bill about proper use of accent marks on State Registrar records.
3 Dorms on the budget chopping block?
From CalMatters higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn:
The “eyes and ears” of the Legislature may not be seeing eye-to-eye with key lawmakers.
The Legislative Analyst’s Office is questioning the entire premise of the state being in the college student housing game.
In a report published Thursday, the office writes that given the projected multi-year budget deficits of at least $22.5 billion, lawmakers “could” (the word “should” never appears while “could” is used 17 times) just remove the remaining roughly $2.5 billion in grants and interest-free loans that past state budgets promised California’s public colleges and universities between 2023-24 and 24-25.
It’s a proposal that’s consistent with the office’s pursuit to find as many recent higher-education programs as possible to delay or cut given the state’s shaky fiscal outlook.
- The analyst’s office: “As projects are in early phases and campuses have options for building student housing without state support, removing these grant funds (and loans) could be one of the relatively less disruptive ways to achieve state budget solutions.”
That’s awkward given that the chairpersons of the budget subcommittees on education in both the Assembly and Senate are adamant about not just preserving this funding but also shielding it from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal to delay some of the money by a year. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, a Republican senator from Rancho Cucamonga, also endorsed that view at a Senate subcommittee hearing Thursday.
- Ochoa Bogh: It’s important that “we have the funding available and not delayed… in order to build housing necessary to accommodate those students in the universities, especially when the state is requiring a certain level of enrollment for each university.”
The analyst’s office floated three other housing proposals:
- Direct any available money instead to repairing campus academic buildings. The rationale: Unlike student housing, which is self-sustaining from student rents, academic structures don’t generate outside revenue. The office has warned of a growing, massive backlog in deferred maintenance — more than $14 billion across the state’s public colleges and universities.
- Shift the promised $750 million in student grant housing to a state-run loan program that won’t charge campuses interest.
- Fund the housing grant in 2023-24, but limit the money to just the UC and Cal State systems — removing a promise that community colleges would get half of the total grant money.
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Other things worth your time
Silicon Valley Bank’s financial stability worries investors // New York Times
A woman’s fight to avoid homelessness as eviction cases flood courts // Los Angeles Times
Volunteers in mountain towns dig out snow-stuck Californians // Associated Press
Black Californian patients dress up to reduce bias, survey shows // California Healthline
As S.F., L.A. lose population, these California cities are booming. // Los Angeles Times
Teacher housing proposed on Apple-owned Cupertino site // Mercury News
Los Angeles sheriff’s second-in-command has alleged gang tattoo // Capital & Main
Phone data, surveillance used to monitor church that violated COVID rules // Mercury News
Housing nonprofit spends big on politics while tenants suffer // San Francisco Standard
Love mushrooms? California is having an epic ‘supershroom’ season // National Geographic
US jobless claims jump to 211,000, led by California, New York // Bloomberg
Eviction fear grips residents of embattled Fresno mobile home park // Fresnoland
Irvine residents’ yearlong battle for breathable air // Voice of OC
Aging undocumented workers can’t afford to retire. Will California help them? // KQED