Bomb cyclone, floods expose California vulnerabilities
The massive, bomb-cyclone-fueled storm set to unleash on California today — dumping more rain and snow across much of the already-soaked state while whipping it with winds as high as 70 mph — illuminates some of the underlying climate and environmental issues confronting state lawmakers, who return to Sacramento today to recommence the 2023 legislative session.
The looming storm — which could be followed by even more atmospheric rivers, blanketing California with rain and snow well into next week — comes on the heels of a weekend tempest that caused at least two deaths, breached three levees in the Sacramento Valley and forced power outages and road closures.
The sustained onslaught of storms could further strain California’s elaborate system of flood protections, which in the Central Valley alone protect an estimated 1.3 million people and $223 billion worth of property, CalMatters’ Julie Cart and Alastair Bland report.
It could also increase pressure on state lawmakers to invest more money in flood protection — a potentially tough sell as California stares down a projected $24 billion budget deficit.
A state board last month recommended an investment of as much as $30 billion over the next 30 years to protect the Central Valley from catastrophic flooding exacerbated by climate change. California currently spends $48 million annually on flood protection operations, though the state and federal governments are in the midst of a multi-year, multibillion-dollar project to upgrade flood defenses in the Sacramento region.
- Gary Lippner, the state Department of Water Resources’ deputy director of flood management and dam safety: “The investments we’ve made to the flood system have absolutely helped. … I don’t anticipate … there to be emergency management needs” from the current storm system.
- However, conditions could escalate to a “worst-case scenario” under “an unrelenting series of storms,” said Michael Anderson, a state Department of Water Resources climatologist.
That California is confronting floods amid a historic drought is partially due to the “whiplash” of the state’s “semi-arid climate,” Jeffrey Mount, a water specialist at the Public Policy Institute of California, told Julie and Alastair: The state just experienced its “three driest years on record, and, if this year continues, we will get a year like 2017, the wettest on record.”
But the flooding also reflects that California’s “ability to store surface water is limited. … We have not figured out how to better take advantage of these wet years to get us through the dry,” Mount said.
In California’s first snow survey of the season Tuesday, officials announced that the Sierra Nevada snowpack — which provides about a third of the state’s water — was at 174% of its historical statewide average for that date, marking the best statewide start to the snow season in 40 years. But conditions can change quickly: After record rains and heavy snowfall from October to December 2021, California in 2022 logged its driest January, February and March on record.
And the state is increasingly struggling to accurately model how much water it can expect from the Sierra Nevada snowpack. Last spring, its projections were so far from reality that reservoirs were left with far less water than expected, highlighting the urgency of reforming the process, as CalMatters’ Rachel Becker reported.
- Stay up to date on the impacts of this week’s storm by bookmarking CalMatters’ drought and water tracker.
Beyond flood protections, water storage projects and snowpack measurements, another issue likely to confront state officials is seismic safety — brought to the forefront by last month’s 6.4 magnitude earthquake in Humboldt County, which was hit by another 5.4 magnitude temblor on New Year’s Day.
California is quickly approaching a 2030 deadline by which hospitals will be required to be capable of operating as normal after a massive earthquake — or risk being shut down by the state. Hospital groups sought to delay the law as recently as last year, arguing that required upgrades could cost more than $100 billion and force facilities in underserved communities to close.
Other Stories You Should Know
1 Legislature returns to Sacramento
The state Legislature reconvening today in Sacramento — with a host of controversial issues on the docket, including Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal to levy a price-gouging penalty on the oil industry — is the most diverse in history, with record numbers of women, LGBTQ people and Latino legislators. But how does the Legislature’s diversity compare to the diversity of California itself? CalMatters’ John Osborn D’Agostino, Sameea Kamal and Ariel Gans put together this nifty “Legislators Like You” tool (which is also available in Spanish) to visualize the breakdown of different demographic characteristics in the Legislature, including gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, political party, age and birthplace. Check it out.
In other election news:
- Will a California Republican replace a California Democrat as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives? After Congress adjourned following three rounds of voting Tuesday, Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield had failed to amass enough support to succeed Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, who stepped down as speaker after Republicans secured a slim House majority in the November midterms. Not since 1923 have multiple rounds of floor votes been necessary to elect a Speaker — underscoring growing divisions in the Republican Party and suggesting that McCarthy’s path to the speakership is narrowing, a potential setback for California’s national prominence. McCarthy, however, told reporters that balloting will continue until he gets enough votes.
- A second chance for Eric Garcetti? President Joe Biden on Tuesday renominated the former Los Angeles mayor as ambassador to India. Garcetti last year failed to win confirmation from the U.S. Senate amid reports that he ignored allegations that his former top aide sexually harassed other employees and made racist comments. Garcetti has repeatedly said he was unaware of the accusations.
- Another 2024 ballot measure? Supporters of a proposed initiative to enshrine the right to a high-quality education in California’s constitution were cleared Tuesday to begin collecting signatures to place it on the 2024 ballot, Secretary of State Shirley Weber said. According to the ballot measure title and summary written by Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office — language often subject to litigation — the measure “authorizes additional lawsuits challenging public education policies and actions by creating (a) new constitutional right.” The summary continues, “Policies that do not ‘put the interests of students first,’ which is not defined, are deemed to violate the new right.”
2 State board finds racial disparities in traffic stops
Of the more than 3.1 million vehicle and pedestrian stops reported by 58 of California’s more than 500 law enforcement agencies in 2021, police perceived more than 42% of stopped individuals as Hispanic or Latino, compared to nearly 31% perceived as white, 15% perceived as Black and 5.3% perceived as Asian, according to a Tuesday report from the California Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board. The board also found that during these stops, police searched and used force against Black people at 2.2 times the rate of white people, with Black youth between 15 and 17 disproportionately affected — yet the percentage of stops that didn’t result in arrests, citations or other actions suggesting criminal activity “was highest among individuals perceived as Black across all age groups.”
To reduce racial and identity profiling, state lawmakers should consider banning pretextual stops and shifting traffic enforcement away from police officers altogether, the board recommended — a suggestion similar to one recently made by an influential committee revising California penal code.
- The report came a day after the Peace Officers Research Association of California — which represents many of the state’s full-time law enforcement officers — slammed the board for its “seriously flawed” analysis of 2020 stop data and called on it to “review its methodology and revise … reporting criteria before misleading the public again” with the 2021 analysis. Brian Withrow, a professor at Texas State University’s School of Criminal Justice and Criminology commissioned by PORAC to review last year’s report, described it as lacking both data and “statistical rigor.”
- The California Department of Justice said in a press release: “There are a number of methodologies to analyze stop data that can help determine if bias may exist, and the report relies on several well-established methods as reference points. However … there are important limitations and caveats for each methodology that should be kept in mind when interpreting the data.” It added that all state and local law enforcement agencies will be required to report stop data by April 1.
In other criminal justice news: The state Justice Department, which is now charged with reviewing all fatal police shootings of unarmed civilians, issued a Tuesday report that found evidence did not support filing criminal charges against the Guadalupe Police Department officers who killed Juan Luis Olvera-Preciado on Aug. 21, 2021. The officers had shot at a nearby suspect but missed, instead killing Olvera-Preciado, “an innocent bystander who was reportedly not visible to the officers.”
3 State’s Medi-Cal contract change raises questions
How will the more than 14 million Californians enrolled in Medi-Cal — the state’s health care program for the poor — be affected by the state Department of Health Care Services’ decision to scrap its controversial plan to award Medi-Cal contracts to just three commercial health plans in 2024? On Friday, the department announced a new agreement with five health plans — a move that will likely allow more Medi-Cal patients to keep their current insurer and doctors. But it also allows California to avoid protracted legal battles with insurers who didn’t win contracts after the state’s first-ever competitive bidding process, intended to result in higher standards and better patient care.
Indeed, as CalMatters’ Kristen Hwang and Ana B. Ibarra report, the sudden course change raises questions about insurance companies’ ability to influence state action with legal threats. Anthony Wright, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Health Access, said he’d like the health care services department to make clear that it won’t back away from the competitive bidding process in the future, as he considers it a key accountability tool.
- Wright: “Less (patient) disruption is good, but we don’t want to lose the reason for the change, which is to have more accountability on these plans going forward.”
CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: How will California handle a big budget deficit?
California needs to focus on climate-safe homeownership: With one-quarter of residents living in areas considered at high risk for catastrophic wildfires, state lawmakers should adopt policies to generate more middle-income housing inside cities and to expand homeownership opportunities, argues Brian Hanlon, co-founder and CEO of California YIMBY.
Other things worth your time
‘This is what reparations look like’: Bruce family to sell recently returned beachfront land to LA County for $20 million. // Mercury News
How Colin Kaepernick’s Autopsy Initiative led to a $100 million lawsuit over a California police shooting. // San Francisco Chronicle
Berkeley’s top cop faced internal accusations of misconduct as she rose through the ranks. // Los Angeles Times
Police misconduct surfaces in reports made public under new state law. // San Diego Union-Tribune
Woman’s mysterious death remains unsolved. The California Department of Justice has no answers. // Sacramento Bee
Court chiefs ring alarm bells about worsening shortage of court reporters to transcribe hearings. // Voice of OC
Los Angeles Housing Authority hit by ransomware attack. // LAist
One-third of California homeowners have no mortgage. // Southern California News Group
UC Berkeley may need to abandon People’s Park student housing plan, court warns. // Mercury News
How warehouses took over Southern California like a ‘slow death.’ // The Guardian
Tech layoffs are happening faster than at any time during the pandemic. // Wall Street Journal
El Cajon continues to push Kaiser to build long-promised hospital on the city’s ‘largest and last’ vacant lot. // San Diego Union-Tribune
Fresno County declares state of emergency as hospital closure adds to overwhelmed services. // Fresno Bee
Fuel shortage prompting flights leaving San Diego to make pit stops in LA, Phoenix, Vegas. // San Diego Union-Tribune
California’s ban on big rigs and buses made before 2010 has gone into effect. // KCRA
Feds say railroad must deliver grain to California chickens. // Associated Press
A hunger for anchovies is killing off California’s endangered salmon. // Los Angeles Times