Heat wave tests state’s communications strategy
Communication is everything.
That seemed to be the key takeaway Wednesday as California officials assessed their response to the long-running extreme heat wave that pushed the state’s power grid to the edge of rolling blackouts Tuesday night. (The situation improved Wednesday as temperatures dipped slightly, though conditions were still dire enough for the California Independent System Operator to declare a Stage 2 energy emergency that ended at 9 p.m. Today, residents will spend their ninth straight day under a Flex Alert asking them to conserve energy between 3 and 10 p.m.)
On the one hand, the decision from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration to send emergency text messages to 27 million Californians around 5:50 p.m. Tuesday urging them to conserve energy had an immediate impact: Demand fell by about 2,000 megawatts within 20 to 30 minutes, bringing the state back from the brink of outages, Elliot Mainzer, president and CEO of the California Independent System Operator, said Wednesday.
- Mainzer described the texts as “a tool of absolute last resort,” a message Newsom echoed at a Wednesday press conference when he said his team “spent the last four or five days debating the merits and demerits” of sending the alerts.
On the other hand, the state’s grid operator and some local utilities had a miscommunication about the need for outages, resulting in thousands of Northern Californians needlessly losing power, Mainzer acknowledged.
- Mainzer: “That is certainly concerning to me. There was a lot happening on the grid for everybody (Tuesday) night. And so we’ll double down on the communication to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
The prolonged heat wave has also increased scrutiny on the Newsom administration’s communication — or lack thereof.
The governor on Wednesday gave an apparently unplanned press conference in Los Angeles to discuss energy and the heat wave after speaking at a high-profile technology conference in Beverly Hills. But Newsom’s press office didn’t notify state Capitol reporters or some local television stations until after the governor’s remarks had already started, limiting their ability to attend or cover the event.
This prompted an outpouring of frustration from journalists who noted that the governor’s office hadn’t made Newsom available for questions or shared information about his availability as California’s grid faced its most serious threat of the summer — even as the office asked reporters to leverage their “media reach” to encourage people to conserve energy and help avoid blackouts.
Asked why the governor’s office hadn’t notified statehouse journalists about the press conference, Newsom spokesperson Erin Mellon said in a text message with reporters that “he had time” after the tech event “and wanted to address press. … We called the press we could reach in time to get to where he was.” Newsom’s office didn’t respond to a further request for comment.
- Jessica Millan Patterson, chairperson of the California Republican Party, said in a statement: “Gavin Newsom’s strategy during this energy crisis seems to be: if you can’t stand the heat, enjoy the A/C, throw on a sweatshirt and hide from reporters. Quick tip for reporters trying to get a hold of Newsom: replace the word California with Florida, Texas or any other red state, and he’ll happily answer your questions.”
- Newsom said during the press conference: “If you’re certain networks, you’re not interested in facts, because they get in the way of your argument. … They want to double down on the Texas approach, which is more coal, more natural gas. You saw how well that worked last February — all that coal, all that natural gas, and you had three full days of blackouts there. I’m not trying to cast aspersions here, I just want some objective facts.” (However, California has also relied heavily on natural gas during the past week.)
In other climate news:
- PG&E, the operator of Diablo Canyon, California’s last nuclear power plant, met a Tuesday deadline to apply for federal funding to help keep the facility open — a key step in prolonging its lifespan and stabilizing the state’s energy grid.
- A new wildfire, the Mosquito Fire, exploded in Placer and El Dorado counties, prompting evacuation orders as it displayed what state fire officials described as “extreme fire behavior.” The Fork Fire in Madera County also resulted in evacuation orders. And Roseburg Forest Products Co., a wood products company, said the failure of a “third-party-supplied” water-spraying machine at its Siskiyou County facility may have caused the Mill Fire that swept through the town of Weed and killed at least two people. Meanwhile, state insurance regulators inched closer to lowering insurance costs for homeowners who harden their properties against wildfire risk.
- Weather experts warned that Hurricane Kay — which is spinning off the Baja California coast — could spark more wildfires and extreme weather events this weekend and early next week, including dry lightning in Northern California and heavy rains, winds and flash floods in Southern California.
The coronavirus bottom line: As of Monday, California had 10,314,717 confirmed cases (+1.8% from previous day) and 94,351 deaths (+0.01% from previous day), according to state data now updated just twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.
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1 Fast food law could face referendum
Not so fast: On Tuesday, one day after Newsom signed into law a controversial bill to create a state-run council to regulate working conditions for the fast food industry while setting workers’ minimum wage as high as $22 per hour next year, opponents filed a proposed referendum to overturn the law with Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office. Behind the measure is a coalition called Protect Neighborhood Restaurants, co-chaired by the International Franchise Association and the National Restaurant Association. Business groups, the restaurant industry and franchisors fiercely opposed the bill, which barely squeaked out of the state Legislature amid trepidation from moderate Democrats. “It is only right for California’s voters to have a voice before harboring the burden of a bill that has widely been heralded as a massive step in the wrong direction,” Protect Neighborhood Restaurants said in a statement.
- A spokesperson for Bonta’s office told my colleague Jeanne Kuang that it plans to issue a circulating title and summary for the proposed referendum by Sept. 16. Proponents have until Dec. 4 to submit more than 623,000 valid signatures to qualify the measure for the November 2024 ballot. If they do, the law will be put on hold until voters have a chance to weigh in.
The Service Employees International Union, which sponsored the bill, slammed the proposed referendum in a Wednesday press conference: “McDonalds loves to sell their burgers and fries to Black and Latino communities … but when it comes to their Black and Latino workers the company won’t even sit at the same table as them,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU International.
- Assemblymember Chris Holden, the Pasadena Democrat who authored the bill, told Jeanne in a statement: “It is unfortunate that we are witnessing industry rush to referendum rhetoric. Rhetoric that costs millions and doesn’t deliver workplace solutions. It is saddening that the industry is looking for a way out of providing a seat at the table amongst all stakeholders. It is high time that we build up and engage the workers who make the multi-billion fast food industry possible. Giving equal representation of employees and employers is the recipe for sustainable, long-term growth in an inclusive manner.”
Your guide to the 2022 general election in California
The proposed measure is the latest example of industry turning to the ballot box to counteract laws coming out of Sacramento: On Nov. 8, California voters will decide whether to uphold a 2020 state ban on certain flavored tobacco products after the tobacco industry qualified a referendum — allowing them to continue selling those items, and reaping hundreds of millions of dollars, for the two years the law was put on hold. And in 2020, voters approved a ballot measure to exempt Uber and Lyft from a controversial state labor law requiring them to classify more of their workers as employees and greenlighted a referendum funded by the bail industry to overturn a state law ending cash bail.
2 State orders microplastics testing for drinking water sources
California on Wednesday became the first state in the world to require water providers to monitor their drinking water sources for tiny plastic particles — a key step toward regulating the microplastics that have been found everywhere from invertebrates in Antarctica to human placentas, CalMatters’ Rachel Becker reports. The policy handbook approved by the State Water Resources Control Board directs as many as 30 of the state’s largest water providers to launch two years of quarterly microplastics testing beginning in fall 2023 — part of an effort to determine how widespread microplastics are in California’s drinking water and establish levels at which they’re safe to drink.
- Susanne Brander, an environmental toxicologist at Oregon State University who worked with state regulators to develop the program: “We’re pretty sure this is a problem. It’s just a matter of having enough data to say how much is too much.”
Water systems — some of which opposed the 2018 bill directing regulators to establish the program — are seeking state funding to help with testing, which could cost them between $1,000 and $2,000 per sample.
- The Association of California Water Agencies and the California Water Association wrote in a December letter to the state water board: “The human health effects from microplastics is a statewide issue, and therefore justifies use of state funds to supplement the cost born (sic) by public water agencies to participate in this process.”
In other water news: California’s urban residents used 10.4% less water in July than they did in the same month in 2020, the State Water Resources Control Board announced Wednesday. That represents a marked improvement from June, when urban residents slashed their water use by a revised rate of 7.4% compared to the same period two years prior. Nevertheless, the state’s cumulative water savings from July 2021 to July 2022 stood at just 3.4% — a far cry from Newsom’s goal of 15%.
3 Can California mend its mental health safety net?
One of the highest-profile bills on Newsom’s desk is his own proposal to launch a controversial program called CARE Court, which would make it easier to compel people with serious mental illness into treatment and housing. After the bill was amended to address the concerns of California’s 58 counties — many of which warned they weren’t being given enough resources or time to successfully implement the complex program — the California State Association of Counties said it was ready to move forward with Newsom’s ambitious plan. But they now face the daunting task of answering many of the questions that have encircled CARE Court from the start, CalMatters’ Manuela Tobias and Jocelyn Wiener report. Chief among them: What if there are legal challenges to the program? How will unhoused people get to court? Which courts will house CARE Court? Who will conduct the medical evaluations? And are there even enough homeless and mental health workers to run the program effectively?
Indeed, the Newsom administration is pouring billions of dollars into overhauling California’s mental health system even as the state grapples with what appears to be an unprecedented shortage of behavioral health workers. But just how bad is California’s mental health provider shortage, what’s causing it and what can be done about it? Jocelyn spoke with more than two dozen mental health experts, public officials and providers across California to find out.
CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Newsom will soon write a new chapter in California’s decades-long conflict over unionizing workers in the state’s huge agricultural industry — and what he does could affect his obvious quest to become a national political figure.
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