As storm hits California, what about drought, wildfires?

Your guide to California policy and politics
Emily Hoeven BY Emily Hoeven December 1, 2022
Presented by American Property Casualty Insurance Association, Dairy Cares, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership and New California Coalition

As storm hits California, what about drought, wildfires?

Many Californians will wake up this morning to a relatively rare phenomenon: Rain.

Today, the freezing-cold temperatures and high-powered winds that have gripped much of the state this week are set to give way to a good old-fashioned winter storm: Both Northern and Southern California are expecting rain, strong winds and heavy mountain snow, with an avalanche warning in effect through Friday for backcountry areas in the Sierra Nevada. After tapering down on Friday, another storm is set to barrel through Northern California over the weekend.

With California bracing for a fourth straight year of drought after experiencing its three driest years on record, any rain is welcome — but the state will need to experience sustained precipitation in December, January and February to really “make a difference in the drought,” Jan Null, a meteorologist with Golden Gate Weather Services, told the Mercury News.

Case in point: As of Wednesday, eight of California’s 12 major state-managed reservoirs were at less than 60% of historical capacity, according to CalMatters’ drought tracker. And about 18% of local urban water suppliers who shared data with the state reported this week they could face possible shortages next year, though only three predicted that increased conservation measures or actions to boost supply wouldn’t be enough to bridge the gap. (The report didn’t include small water suppliers, which the state noted “historically have faced more significant water supply challenges during drought conditions.”)

  • Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank, told the Los Angeles Times: The takeaway is that “conservation really got us through the drought up until today and that it’s too soon to stop conserving.” But due to some of the report’s assumptions, “Things could be worse than just 20% (of urban suppliers) saying they need to do more and three of them saying, ‘We really are in trouble.’ But it just depends on how bad the drought is.”

What is clear is that so far this year, California has managed to avoid the rash of record-breaking wildfires that have ripped across the state in recent years. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency, declared an end to peak fire season in most parts of the state in mid-November, though Newsom noted “wildfire season in California is year-round and we remain vigilant.”

So what made this year different? How many wildfires have been sparked so far this year, how many acres have they burned and how does that compare to prior years? How many structures have been destroyed and lives lost? What’s the wildfire outlook in December? CalMatters’ Julie Cart answers those questions and more in this comprehensive look at California’s 2022 wildfire season by the numbers.

Meanwhile, a Wednesday report from Pew Charitable Trusts found that growing emergency spending has obscured the true cost of fighting wildfires in California and other states.


1 Newsom convenes special session on oil profits

Gov. Gavin Newsom tells reporters he's calling a special legislative session on an oil windfall profits tax to fund gas rebates in Sacramento on Oct. 7, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters
Gov. Gavin Newsom tells reporters he’s calling a special legislative session on an oil windfall profits tax to fund rebates in Sacramento on Oct. 7, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters

Newsom officially proclaimed a special legislative session focused on holding oil companies accountable for California’s “unexplained gas price increases” on Wednesday evening — exactly a month after he first announced plans to establish the session on Dec. 5, the same day newly elected state lawmakers are set to be sworn into office. A noticeable shift in language has occurred over the past month: On Sept. 30, Newsom called for “a windfall tax on oil companies that would go directly back to California taxpayers”; on Wednesday, he asked legislators to pass “a price gouging penalty on oil companies that will keep money in Californians’ pockets.” The difference suggests that Newsom may be trying to avoid the word “tax,” which has generally been met with squeamishness in Sacramento — even with a supermajority-Democratic Legislature. (Such a move could also potentially lower the number of votes needed to approve the measure.)

Newsom also announced two new topics he wants lawmakers to address during the special session: empowering state agencies to “more closely review gas costs, profits and pricing” and giving the state “greater regulatory oversight of the refining, distribution and retailing segments of the gasoline market in California.” The state’s limited insight into those issues was made clear Tuesday, when executives from five of California’s largest refineries declined to participate in a California Energy Commission hearing, with some citing antitrust law.

But what exactly Newsom has in mind remains to be seen. “We look forward to reviewing the Governor’s detailed proposal,” Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins of San Diego and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon of Lakewood said in a Wednesday statement. Newsom’s office previously told CalMatters that specifics aren’t likely to surface until the start of the special session, and Atkins and Rendon’s offices said lawmakers don’t plan to take substantive action on any proposals until January.

2 Oil industry accused of illegal signature-gathering tactics

Oil pumps in the Kern River Oil Field near Bakersfield on July 6, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
Oil pumps in the Kern River Oil Field near Bakersfield. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

Time is running out for industry groups to gather enough valid signatures to ask voters in 2024 to overturn controversial new state laws: Restaurant and franchise groups have until Monday to submit about 623,000 valid signatures for a referendum on a law establishing a state council to regulate fast food employees’ working conditions and to raise their minimum wage to as much as $22 per hour next year. Meanwhile, the oil industry has until Dec. 15 to submit the same number of signatures for a referendum on a law banning new or extensively retrofitted wells near homes, schools and hospitals.

As business interests increasingly turn to the ballot box to challenge laws coming out of Sacramento, labor unions and other groups are increasingly pushing back and accusing them of using illegal tactics. Multiple Californians have lodged complaints with the secretary of state’s office alleging that canvassers paid by the oil industry told them their signatures would actually help put an end to neighborhood drilling, Inside Climate News reports.

  • Newsom, amid his escalating battle with the oil industry, tweeted a link to the article and wrote, “Anyone surprised that oil companies are lying to you so they can continue making record profits while you pay the price at the pump?”
  • Hector Barajas, a spokesperson for the California Independent Petroleum Association, the group leading the referendum effort, declined to comment.

SEIU California, the state’s largest labor union, filed a similar complaint against the fast food industry in October, accusing its paid signature gatherers of “willfully misleading voters to believe that the petition they are signing raises minimum wage for fast food workers.”

  • Trent Lange, executive director of the California Clean Money Campaign, told the Sacramento Bee: “We’re looking into what the Legislature can do to stop the abuse of the initiative and referendum process by requiring that there be at least some demonstration of real grassroots support for them to qualify.”

3 What was behind state gun data breach?

Rifles and shotguns on display at a gun shop in Fresno County on July 12, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
Rifles and shotguns on display at a gun shop in Fresno County on July 12, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

From CalMatters political reporter Ben Christopher: The California Department of Justice did not intentionally leak the names, home addresses and other personal identifying information of nearly 200,000 concealed carry firearm license applicants this summer … but it sure did mess up big time.

That’s the takeaway from a report released Wednesday by the blue chip law firm Morrison Foerster, which the Department of Justice commissioned to investigate the data breach.

A quick history: In late June, Attorney General Rob Bonta’s department released a data visualization “dashboard” to provide an overview of how many concealed carry permits had been issued across California. But as gun rights advocates and reporters soon discovered, the dashboard also allowed people to download the personal identifying information of roughly 192,000 people — including current and former prosecutors and judges, police officers and domestic violence survivors. 

Bonta called for an independent third-party investigation, and now we finally have the findings. Though the report found no evidence of “any nefarious purpose,” it’s pretty damning stuff. 

  • The Morrison Foerster report reads: “The data exposure was due to a lack of DOJ personnel training, requisite technical expertise, and professional rigor; insufficiently documented and implemented DOJ policies and procedures; and inadequate oversight by certain supervisors.”

According to the investigation, a single data analyst built the dashboard and failed to set the proper security settings. Though the data was available to the public for less than 24 hours, it was downloaded by more than 500 people. Most of those downloads occurred after the DOJ had been notified of the breach.

Bonta’s press office declined to identify the analyst who built the dashboard. But an unnamed spokesperson said by email that the department is “evaluating personnel matters and other remedial actions.”

The report put forth six recommendations for the DOJ, including providing enhanced training on data handling and developing a “data incident action plan.” In a press release, Bonta committed to implementing all of them.

  • Bonta: “While the report found no ill intent, this incident was unacceptable, and DOJ must be held to the highest standard.”

That wasn’t enough for Chuck Michel, president of the California Rifle & Pistol Association.

  • Michel: “This isn’t the end of it. There are still a lot of unanswered questions and there are still a lot of people who want more transparency and damages for what the state has done to them by doxxing them this way.”

CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: As Newsom courts the national press, he should remember that the California journalists he’s been ignoring will have the last word on his gubernatorial legacy.


Other things worth your time

Some stories may require a subscription to read

How Biden is navigating his rocky relationship with California’s top Republican, Kevin McCarthy. // Los Angeles Times

These California teens won the right to vote. Their county disenfranchised them. // Washington Post

This under-the-radar measure passed by voters could reshape Oakland elections. // San Francisco Chronicle

Black, Latino residents burned out of Palm Springs seek city reparations. // Los Angeles Times

Tenderloin center clients warn of disaster as controversial drug site heads for closure. // San Francisco Standard

S.F. officials investigate claim of baby nearly dying from fentanyl after playground overdose. // San Francisco Chronicle

Orange County children’s hospital beds keep filling up, county extends emergency. // Voice of OC

San Jose church that defied COVID orders won’t have to pay state fines. // San Francisco Chronicle

Just 55% of Californians own a home, third-lowest level in U.S. // Mercury News

San Diego softening its financial reserves policy despite recession fears. // San Diego Union-Tribune

S.F. companies DoorDash, Kraken to lay off more than 1,000 employees each. // San Francisco Chronicle

Layoffs mount: Twitter, tech, biotech firms chop 1,000-plus Bay Area jobs. // Mercury News

Changes let California high school athletes bank big endorsement bucks. // Associated Press

Dual enrollment thrives in Central Valley area where few earn college degrees. // EdSource

Fewer than 16,000 Californians ask state for nonbinary IDs. // Sacramento Bee

California wolf pack produces state’s largest litter of pups in a century. // San Francisco Chronicle

See you tomorrow


Tips, insight or feedback? Email emily@calmatters.org.

Follow me on Twitter: @emily_hoeven

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