Good morning, California. It’s Wednesday, October 20.

No state restrictions — yet

You don’t have to conserve water — but the state would really, really appreciate it if you do.

That was the message Gov. Gavin Newsom sent Tuesday when he declared a drought emergency for the entire state of California — a move that adds urgency to his plea asking residents to slash water use by 15%, but stops short of mandatory restrictions.

It also falls short of the tougher measures some experts say are necessary to curb the state’s devastating drought. Although 50 of California’s 58 counties have been under drought emergencies since July — the same month Newsom asked for 15% reduction in water use — residents have so far been slow to respond.

According to data released Tuesday by the State Water Resources Control Board, Californians in August cut their home water use by 5% compared to the same time last year — an improvement from the 1.8% reduction they posted in July, but still far from desired levels, CalMatters’ Rachel Becker reports.

Newsom has faced pressure for months to chart a stricter drought response. In early April, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers asked him to declare a statewide drought emergency; two weeks later, Newsom issued an emergency proclamation, but only for two counties. In September, he said statewide restrictions were possible, but not until the end of the month at the earliest. Meanwhile, California just wrapped up its driest year in a century and its second-driest year in recorded history.

The announcement comes as California starts off its rainy season with a series of storms experts say could snuff out the fire season in the northern and central parts of the state. But whether this year will ultimately turn out to be wet or dry, Rachel reports, is still up in the air.

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Monday, California had 4,592,312 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 70,437 deaths (+0.03% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 51,357,333 vaccine doses, and 72.1% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

Plus: CalMatters is tracking the results of the Newsom recall election, which will be certified Oct. 22.

1. State audit slams school spending

Back view of elementary student raising arm in order to answer a questing during a class. Photo via iStock
Photo via iStock

California schools — many of which are already running out of money — could lose $160 million in federal pandemic relief funds if the state Department of Education doesn’t strengthen its oversight of local spending, according to a scathing audit released Tuesday. Among State Auditor Elaine Howle’s key findings:

  • The state hasn’t ensured that school districts submit required quarterly spending reports — and when it does receive them, it doesn’t verify that money is being spent appropriately. For example, although most of the federal funds are reserved for specific purposes, districts as of June 2021 had used a whopping 40% of one pool of money for “other activities” — which could translate to “unallowable purposes,” Howle wrote.
  • The state also isn’t tracking which districts risk losing federal funds ahead of the January 2023 spending deadline.
  • Further hampering its ability to effectively leverage data, the state monitored the spending of less than 1% of school districts last fiscal year.

Stronger oversight is needed, Howle wrote, because the Department of Education is “responsible” for ensuring “that (districts) fully leverage (federal funds) to address the needs of their most vulnerable students, close the learning loss gaps that emerged because of the pandemic, and return students safely to school.”

The Department of Education agreed to implement many of Howle’s recommendations, but said stricter oversight of “other activities” spending wasn’t necessary: “Since the Other Activities category includes salaries, a significant expense for (districts), Education was not surprised with the amount of expenditures reported in this category.”

2. Border wall company gets vaccination contract

A section of the international border wall between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico in 2017. Image via iStock
A section of the international border wall between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico in 2017. Image via iStock

As migrants crossed California’s southern border, they were tested for and vaccinated against COVID-19 by employees of the same company former President Donald Trump hired to build stretches of border wall in the Golden State, a stunning CapRadio investigation found. The Newsom administration granted a $1 billion no-bid contract — later whittled down to $350 million — to SLS Health Services LLC, a subsidiary that construction contractor SLSCO formed during the pandemic. The California Department of Public Health — which also sent nearly 6,000 of the company’s medical workers to county health departments, mass vaccination sites and community health clinics serving farmworkers and undocumented immigrants — said it wasn’t aware of the company’s history of building border walls in the state. And many of the organizations assisted by SLSCO didn’t realize where the employees came from.

It’s the latest contract to set off alarm bells: Last year, CalMatters’ Byrhonda Lyons and Laurel Rosenhall found that California entered into roughly $3 billion worth of no-bid contracts for pandemic supplies — some of which went to untested vendors, including a company that had been in business for just three days. Other no-bid contracts went to big Newsom donors, and a voter education contract went to a firm involved in advising Joe Biden’s presidential bid.

3. A new front in the vaccine wars

An In-N-Out in San Jose in 2018. Photo via iStock

The new center of California’s vaccine wars: In-N-Out. San Francisco public health officials temporarily closed the city’s only In-N-Out restaurant for failing to check customers’ vaccination status — a move that did not go over well with the California burger chain, which at that location is still prohibited from offering indoor dining.

  • Arnie Wensinger, In-N-Out’s chief legal and business officer: “We refuse to become the vaccination police for any government. It is unreasonable, invasive and unsafe to force our restaurant associates to segregate customers into those who may be served and those who may not, whether based on the documentation they carry or any other reason.”

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles City Council is considering extending today’s deadline for city workers to get vaccinated to Dec. 18 — a proposal lambasted by critics who note that 99% of Los Angeles Unified teachers met the district’s Monday inoculation deadline. 

The main vaccine divide in California, though, appears to be between its urban and rural regions. While many urban districts reported little to no blips in attendance Monday, when some families kept their kids home from school to protest Newsom’s student vaccine mandate, EdSource found the story was very different in rural areas. In Tehama County, for example, 40% of the county’s students didn’t attend school. Schools in Lassen and Shasta counties had to shut down entirely, and 75% of students at Modoc Joint Unified didn’t show up for class.

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: It’s difficult to understand why any rational person would want to be mayor of Los Angeles, California’s largest and in many ways most troubled city.

Telecoms are widening the digital divide: It’s time for Newsom to launch an investigation into why so many telecom-backed bills keep landing on his desk, argues Larry Ortega of Community Union Inc.

Other things worth your time

Los Angeles City Council president seeks to suspend Mark Ridley-Thomas. // Los Angeles Times

Longtime labor leader leaves after discovery of ‘unintended compensation.’ // Voice of San Diego

Second state worker charged in fraud case at California Office of AIDS. // Sacramento Bee

San Jose arts commission calls for removal of Thoman Fallon statue. // Mercury News

California mayors endorse online sports betting initiative. // Sacramento Bee

A ‘mad rush’ to get Berkeley kids to school after most district bus drivers are exposed to COVID. // Berkeleyside

Is bird-watching the antidote to the pandemic? Local high school pushes passion projects. // San Francisco Chronicle

California’s mental health crisis: What went wrong and how can we fix it? // California Healthline

Plans to change an Oakland park’s name to acknowledge Indigenous land stirs debate. // San Francisco Chronicle

Tahoe officials declare housing crisis an emergency. // SFGATE

Oakland port seeks business amid Southern California cargo bottleneck. // Mercury News

How Healdsburg transformed from a sleepy country town to one of Wine Country’s most luxe tourist destinations. // San Francisco Chronicle

Why California farmers are growing more cilantro than ever. // Sacramento Bee

How a scholar unearthed the cyanide love triangle that toppled a California arts colony. // Los Angeles Times

UCLA establishes Barbra Streisand Institute to research social issues. // Orange County Register

Meet the first woman to direct the San Francisco Opera. // New York Times

See you tomorrow.

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Emily Hoeven wrote the daily WhatMatters newsletter for three years at CalMatters . Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco...