In summary

California dams are at risk. Scientists study atmospheric rivers and climate change. State responds to coronavirus cases.

Good morning, California.

“I don’t really want you guys to post this.”—First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, to anti-vaccine activists, who proceeded to post the video on Facebook.

  • In the video, reviewed by The L.A. Times’ Melody Gutierrez, Siebel Newsom tells anti-vaccine protesters that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration is looking into their concerns about new laws restricting vaccine exemptions.
  • Siebel Newsom: “I think there needs to be more conversation around spreading out vaccines, around only giving children the vaccines that are most essential.”

Newsom’s spokesperson: Laws Newsom signed in 2019 are the official position of the administration.

  • However: Rules to implement those laws appear stuck in “bureaucratic limbo” in the administration, Gutierrez reports.

California’s dam issue

Illustration of Anderson Dam and some of the area at risk. (Santa Clara Water District.)

Federal regulators’ order directing Santa Clara to empty its largest reservoir could be one of many to come.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, like the California Division of Dam Safety, warned that an earthquake could cause the Santa Clara Water District’s Leroy Anderson Dam to fail. 

  • That would flood Morgan Hill, San Jose and beyond.

The Mercury News, quoting the feds’ letter: 

  • “It is unacceptable to maintain the reservoir at an elevation higher than necessary when it can be reduced, thereby decreasing the risk to public safety and the large population downstream of Anderson Dam.”

The letter was dated Feb. 20, though it become public Monday.

On Feb. 21, Assemblyman Robert Rivas, Hollister Democrat, introduced legislation to speed environmental review and permitting of the Anderson Dam reconstruction.

Officials had known for years that Anderson Dam was at risk of failing in an earthquake. The review of Anderson and other dams took on greater urgency after the 2017 failure of the spillway at Oroville Dam.

Meamwhile: The Trump administration last week announced it would pay another $170 million for Oroville repairs, after initially balking. The overall repair cost was $1.1 billion.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein praised that decision, but said California has 83 other dams rated as less than satisfactory, and “could cause loss of life or substantial economic damage if they fail.”

The issue: Rebuilding a dam is a huge and costly undertaking. The cost of not doing the work is greater.

Riding atmospheric rivers

The Hurricane Hunters fly a WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft into the North Pacific to meet an atmospheric river on January 28, 2020. Photo by Rachel Becker for CalMatters
Hurricane Hunters fly a WC-130J Super Hercules aircraft into the North Pacific to meet an atmospheric river on Jan. 28.

Climate change is expected to exacerbate the swings from too much water to not nearly enough—and this year’s dry winter may lead to the latter. 

All that makes operating of California’s maze of reservoirs, pumps and aqueducts even more complex.

Scientists are taking their research to the sky to help more precisely track storms and prepare for drought. CalMatters environment reporter Rachel Becker flew along

California and the feds are pouring millions of dollars into studying atmospheric rivers to help reservoir operators better balance storing water with containing floods. 

Scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and officials from all levels of government are test driving a new strategy: using forecasts of atmospheric rivers to guide decisions to hold on to water, or let it go. 

The epicenter of this effort is at Lake Mendocino, where in 2012, a drought year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released water to make room for storm runoff that never came. 

To read Becker’s story, please click here.

To watch her flight through the atmospheric river on the YouTube channel, Verge Science, please click here.

Coronavirus reaction

California Health & Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly.

California health authorities Tuesday urged their federal counterparts to come up with a plan to house people now in the state who have been exposed to the virus, CalMatters’ Ana Ibarra tells us.

California has been an entry point for 800 people returning from China in recent weeks. Some who have been under quarantine at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield have tested positive. 

The U.S. Defense Department does not allow people who test positive for coronavirus to stay at military bases.

The question: Where to send them?

California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly wrote to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Tuesday saying California is willing to help, and will house Californians who have been exposed, but not people from other states.

  • “We request that your team immediately provide us with information relative to any alternative plans for non-California residents. As more individuals test positive at Travis Air Force Base, the urgency to have alternative plans implemented grows.”

There have been 57 coronavirus cases within the United States, and no deaths.

Meanwhile: San Francisco Mayor London Breed declared a coronavirus-related state of emergency, though San Francisco has no reported cases.

Preparing for March 3 vote

In this June 5, 2018, file photo, election workers Heidi McGettigan, left, Margaret Wohlford, center, and David Jensen, unload a bag of ballots brought in a from a polling precinct to the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters office in Sacramento, Calif. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo
Election workers in the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters office in 2018 (AP Photo)

Six days out from California’s March 3 primary, campaigns and election administrators are sweating the small stuff, CalMatters’ Ben Christopher reports in an explainer about voting.

No one is predicting an Iowa-scale catastrophe, but there are possible hitches. No less an expert than Bernie Sanders has produced a video telling voters how to handle somewhat confusing rules.

  • Sanders: “Hey California! If you want to participate in the presidential primary, you need to request a Democratic ballot.” 

To read Christopher’s report, please click here.

Big plans for water recycling

Southern California is in need of new water sources.

Metropolitan Water District authorities hope to strike a deal soon with counterparts in Las Vegas to share costs of a huge Southern California water-recycling project.

The project, estimated to cost $3.4 billion, is in the early stages. But backers say the need is clear.

Jeffrey Kightlinger, MWD’s general manager:

  • “We’re going to need some sources of water that are less dependent on climate change and snow pack. It would bolster our reliability.”

The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies water to Las Vegas, needs new supplies, too.

  • Nevada depends on the Colorado River. 
  • The Colorado supplies a third of the water for Southern California. 

Colorado River flows have declined by 20% since 1913—probably because of climate change, U.S. Geological Survey scientists have concluded.

The Washington Post, quoting the researchers, reports that within 30 years, flows could be reduced further, “anywhere from 14 to 31%.”

With Colorado River demand far surpassing supply, Lake Mead, the huge reservoir in Nevada and Arizona, is far below capacity.

Enter the water-recycling concept, as reported recently by The Nevada Independent:

  • “The concept looks something like this. If the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) could recycle a portion of its water, it could reduce its overall consumption of Colorado River water stored at Lake Mead. 
  • “In turn, the water authority would help fund the project in exchange for additional water that MWD would be able to leave in the reservoir because of it.”

More to come soon.

UC, CSU leadership search update

University of California President Janet Napolitano listens to public comment during the open session of the UC Regent meeting on January 23, 2020 at the UCSF Mission Bay Conference Center in San Francisco
UC President Janet Napolitano

California’s two massive public universities are searching for new leaders, as UC President Janet Napolitano and Cal State Chancellor Tim White plan to step down this summer. 

CalMatters higher education reporter Felicia Mello checks in on the search. The university search committees have gone on a listening tour, hearing from students and faculty about what they want to see in the next leaders.

Among the issues: The high cost of living for students, how to enroll more students who reflect California’s diversity, unsettled labor issues, whether to more fully embrace online education, how to get along with 120 legislators and an ambitious governor and lieutenant governor, and more.

To read Mello’s story, please click here.

Take a number: 2,137

Income taxes are 70 percent of California's general-fund revenue. Image via Flickr
California’s per capita income tax rate is among the nation’s highest. (Photo illustration)

Californians pay $2,137 in per capita income taxes, placing it fifth highest behind New York’s $2,877, followed by the District of Columbia, Maryland, Connecticut and Massachusetts, the Tax Foundation reports

The nation’s average for state and local income tax: 

  • $1,198 per capita.

Our neighbors:

  • Oregon’s $2,021 ranks No. 6, but it has no sales tax. 
  • Nevada has no income tax.
  • Arizona’s per capita income tax is $489, or 40th from the top.

California’s income tax is progressive; people who earn the most pay the most.

Commentary at CalMatters

Assemblyman Vince Fong, Bakersfield Republican: Californians are free spirited by nature. They want flexibility to support themselves and their families as they see fit. So why do the Democrats in the Legislature want them all to work for corporations?

Sen. Scott Wiener, San Francisco Democrat: Oil companies knew their products would cause climate change, and they responded with an unprecedented and multifaceted disinformation campaign that sowed confusion among the public and policymakers. Now, they should pay their fair share to clean the mess.

Dan Walters, CalMatters: California may be on the verge of adopting a tougher attitude about dealing with its ever-increasing crisis of homelessness.


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Dan Morain joined CalMatters in March 2018. He is the former editorial page editor of The Sacramento Bee. Morain also spent 27 years at The Los Angeles Times, and has covered the Capitol since 1992.