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IN THIS ISSUE – “Mother Nature is physics, biology and chemistry. She bats last and she bats 1,000. That’s the reality”
- New Poll: Newsom Popularity High, Commercial Property Tax Hike Failing & More
- Chamber’s “Job Killer” Lobbying Remains Lethal in Legislature
CLIMATE CHANGE EMERGECY
- “In the Midst of a Climate Emergency,” Governor Accelerates Green Energy
- Struggling to Manage the California Power Grid
- Green Energy is Not a Silver Bullet – Many Answers to Energy Management
- California Resources Secretary Confronts POTUS Over Science
- Jerry Brown on the Climate Change Reckoning He Predicted
- California Needs A Water Budget
FOR THE WEEK ENDING SEPT. 18, 2020
Capital News & Notes (CN&N) harvests California legislative and regulatory insights from dozens of media and official sources for the past week, tailored to your business and advocacy interests. Please feel free to forward.
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Public Policy Institute of California
Six in ten (59% adults, 60% likely voters) approve of how Governor Gavin Newsom is doing his job. A slim majority support a November ballot measure that would change how commercial property is taxed, and well below half support a measure that would repeal the state’s ban on affirmative action in the public sector. Most Californians are concerned about contracting COVID-19—similar to May—while on the issue of race relations in the US, six in ten believe they have gotten worse in the last year, a major shift in opinion from early 2019. These are among the key findings of a statewide survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California.
Governor’s Approval Remains High, But Drops
Six in ten (59% adults, 60% likely voters) approve of how Governor Gavin Newsom is doing his job. This is close to the record-high 65 percent of adults and 64 percent of likely voters approving in May, and it is above his approval rating (44% adults, 43% likely voters) a year ago. Asked about the governor’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, 62 percent of both adults and likely voters approve. In May, 69 percent of both adults and likely voters said they approved of how he was handling the pandemic.
“Governor Newsom continues to receive high marks for his overall job performance and his handling of the coronavirus outbreak as the state has faced a surge in the virus and a multitude of crises,” Baldassare said.
With the 2019–20 legislative session closing earlier this month, about half of Californians (50% adults, 45% likely voters) approve of how the state legislature is handling its job. Democrats (64%) are far more likely than independents (44%) and Republicans (15%) to approve.
Proposition 15 would change the tax assessment of commercial and industrial property by basing it on current market value instead of purchase price—amending the 1978 landmark citizens’ initiative (Prop 13) and creating a “split roll” tax. Among likely voters, 51 percent favor and 40 percent oppose, with Democrats (72%) far more likely to support than independents (46%) and Republicans (17%). Less than half of homeowners (47%) would vote yes, compared with 56 percent of renters. Younger Californians are much more likely than older residents to support Proposition 15 (60% ages 18 to 44, 46% age 45 and older). Support is highest among likely voters in the San Francisco Bay Area (62%) followed by those in Los Angeles (54%), Inland Empire (51%), Central Valley (47%), and Orange/San Diego (41%).
“Californians are divided on Proposition 15, with Republicans and Democrats, younger and older voters, and renters and homeowners showing widely different support for this tax and spending initiative,” said Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO.
Proposition 16 would repeal a 1996 constitutional amendment (Prop 209) that banned the use of affirmative action involving race-based or sex-based preferences in public hiring decisions. Among likely voters, 31 percent would vote yes and 47 percent would vote no, with one in five (22%) undecided. Forty-six percent of Democratic likely voters support Proposition 16, compared with 26 percent of independents and 9 percent of Republicans. The San Francisco Bay Area (40% of likely voters) and Los Angeles (37%) are the only regions with more than one-third support (28% Orange/San Diego, 25% Central Valley, 20% Inland Empire).
“Support for Proposition 16 is well below 50 percent, with one in five voters undecided about this effort to add diversity as a factor in public employment, education, and contracting decisions,” Baldassare said.
Californians Are Concerned about Getting COVID-19, and a Slim Majority Think the Worst Is Behind Us
A solid majority of Californians say they are either very (28%) or somewhat concerned (33%) about getting the coronavirus and needing to be hospitalized. This is similar to May (24% very concerned, 34% somewhat concerned), when California had about half as many new cases daily as now. Asked about restrictions on public activity to prevent COVID-19 spread, 34 percent want more restrictions, 26 percent want fewer, and 39 percent want about the same. A slightly larger share of Californians want more restrictions now than did in May (25% more, 28% fewer, 46% about the same).
A slim majority of Californians say the worst is behind us on where the US currently stands with respect to the pandemic, while 42 percent say the worst is yet to come—essentially unchanged from May (46% worst behind us, 48% worst yet to come). Adults nationwide hold similar views (51% worst behind us, 43% worst yet to come) according to a September CNN survey.
“Californians continue to express concerns about getting sick from the coronavirus, and a slim majority say the worst is behind us,” Baldassare said.
Most Say Race Relations in the US Have Gotten Worse over the Past Year
Asked how race relations in the US compare to a year ago, six in ten Californians (59%) say they have gotten worse, far more than those saying race relations have gotten better (9%) or are about the same (31%). This contrasts sharply with views in January 2019. At that time, 45 percent said race relations had gotten worse—14 percentage points below today—while 20 percent said they had gotten better, and 34 percent said they were about the same.
“In a major shift in public opinion over time, six in ten Californians are now saying that race relations in the United States are worse than they were a year ago,” Baldassare said.
At a time of nationwide protests over policy brutality and systemic racism, 53 percent of Californians think police in their community treat all racial and ethnic groups fairly almost always (24%) or most of the time (29%). More than a third say police do so only some of the time (28%) or almost never (11%). Nineteen percent of African Americans say police treat all racial and ethnic groups fairly almost always or most of the time, far lower than among Asian Americans (44%), Latinos (56%), and whites (58%).
Overwhelming Majority Believe California Is in a Recession, Optimism Low
As California and the nation continue to confront the economic impact of the pandemic, many Californians express concern about the state’s economy and the national outlook. An overwhelming majority (72% adults, 77% likely voters) say California is currently in a recession. In addition, three in ten (31% adults, 34% likely voters) say the state is in a serious recession rather than a moderate or mild one. This is similar to the shares saying California was in a serious recession in May (34% adults, 38% likely voters), three months into the COVID-19 lockdowns. Today, 35 percent of Republicans, 31 percent of Democrats, and 28 percent of independents say the state is in a serious recession.
Most Californians (58% adults, 60% likely voters) think the US will have bad times economically during the next 12 months, while about three in ten (35% adults, 31% likely voters) expect good times economically. The share expecting bad times is down notably from May, when it was 70 percent of adults and 73 percent of likely voters.
“Californians are in a gloomy economic mood as the fall election draws closer, with majorities believing that the state is in a recession and the nation will be in bad financial times for the next year,” Baldassare said.
As COVID-19 slammed into California a half-year ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered a partial shutdown of what had been a high-flying economy to combat the deadly virus, plunging the state into its worst recession since the Great Depression.
In turn, the pandemic and the recession spawned a flurry of legislative bills aimed, their sponsors said, at ameliorating the effects on the lives of ordinary Californians, especially those who suddenly saw their jobs vanish.
They included expansions of support programs such as workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance, limiting or suspending evictions for nonpayment of rent, blocking mortgage foreclosures, requiring employers to provide more family leave, and making it easier for laid-off workers to regain their jobs.
Inevitably, several of those crisis-related bills found their way onto the California Chamber of Commerce’s annual “job killer” list of measures that business and employer groups consider to be the most onerous or costly.
Just 10 measures were placed on the initial list in March, but it later grew to 19, many sponsored by the chamber’s traditional foes — unions, personal injury attorneys, environmental groups and consumer advocates.
Between 1997, when the program began, and 2019, the “job killer” label was applied to 761 bills and just 62 had become law, a 92% kill ratio. But with the heightened tension of pandemic and recession, and with Democrats holding three-fourths of the Legislature’s seats, it was unclear whether the chamber and allied groups could continue that winning streak.
When the Legislature adjourned this month after a truncated, often chaotic session, the chamber’s record was still intact. Just two of the list’s targeted measures had been sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom, one aimed at protecting return rights for furloughed workers (Assembly Bill 3216) and another expanding family leave (Senate Bill 1383).
Some of those that failed were simply shunted aside without decisive votes and some were watered down sufficiently to escape the “job killer” designation. The eviction and foreclosure measures were replaced by legislation granting temporary reprieves and the workers’ compensation measures were set aside as Newsom issued executive orders temporarily granting benefits to workers deemed to be “essential” if they were infected.
Measures on the list not directly related to the health and economic crisis, particularly those calling for new taxes on employers or wealthy Californians, were among the casualties. Although liberal, pro-spending groups loudly demanded tax increases to fill holes in state, school district and local government budgets, there was only token support among legislators.
That reluctance reflected a sense that in a severe recession, Californians are leery about new taxes, and a concern that legislative action could undermine passage of Proposition 15, a November ballot measure that would boost taxes on commercial property by as much as $12 billion a year. After the session ended, Newsom endorsed Proposition 15, whose prospects are iffy at best, but pointedly rejected new income or wealth taxes.
The Legislature will reconvene in December, Democrats will still be dominant and their nominal allies will have their agendas of bills introduced again. The state Chamber of Commerce will once again choose some of the new measures for its “job killer” list and the annual jousting of competing interests will begin anew.
As predictable as the exercise may be, we don’t know whether COVID-19 will still be a threat or whether the state’s economy will have begun to recover. Thus, we don’t know whether the twin crises will still preoccupy the 2021 legislative session.
Sacramento Bee & CalMatters
To combat climate change, California must reach 100% green electricity much faster than state officials had planned, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced this week.
“We’re in the midst of a climate emergency,” Newsom said. “We’re experiencing what so many people predicted decades ago… I’m exhausted that we have to continue to debate this issue.”
He spoke at the Oroville State Recreation Area, where smoke lingered hazy and brown in the air. Around him, fallen trees still smoldered from one of the nearly 7,700 fires that have burned through the state this year. In that area, officials have grouped several fires into the “North Complex Fire,” which destroyed the Butte County community of Berry Creek earlier this week and killed nine people. (On Friday, the death toll was revised lower by one.)
For his part, Newsom says California is going to be “aggressive” in meeting its carbon reduction targets ahead of schedule.
California already has an official goal signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018 to phase out all fossil fuel-generated electricity by 2045. But Newsom said the fires burning across the West Coast show that benchmark, along with the state’s other climate change reduction targets, aren’t enough.
“I think 2045’s too late,” Newsom said. “We’re looking to fast track all of these efforts, across the spectrum.”
That means getting more electric cars on the road, Newsom said, and investing in green energy. He’s tasked Environmental Protection Secretary Jared Blumenfeld and Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot to assess California’s climate change strategies and “accelerate all of them — across the board.”
Even so, Newsom defended the State Water Resources Control Board’s decision to allow several gas-fired power plans to continue operating for three years beyond their scheduled close in December. Newsom called the move “necessary” as the state faces energy shortages.
Newsom acknowledged the role of forest management over the past century in failing to control the catastrophic blazes, adding, “that’s one point. But it’s not the point.”
On the heels of the state’s hottest August on record, searing September temperatures and fires burning through 147 million trees that died during the drought, Newsom said that the role of climate change in fueling conflagrations couldn’t be denied.
“Mother Nature is physics, biology and chemistry. She bats last and she bats 1,000. That’s the reality,” he said. “The debate is over, around climate change. Just come to the state of California. Observe it with your own eyes.”
California law already calls for 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045, which Newsom called “nice” but “inadequate to meet the challenges to the state.” And in June, California EPA Secretary Jared Blumenfeld pledged to re-evaluate the state’s landmark cap-and-trade program.
“Across the entire spectrum, our goals are inadequate,” Newsom said.
He vowed to accelerate efforts to decarbonize the economy, increase the number of electric vehicles on California’s roads, electrify transportation and green the state’s soil, industrial and agricultural policies.
But his climate promises were light on details. Asked if he was referring to new legislation, he said only that his administration is putting together new strategies to fast-track more ambitious goals.
Newsom directed his cabinet members “to dust off four current processes, our current strategies and accelerate all of them across the board.
“We have to step up our game. As we lead the nation in low carbon green growth, we’ll have to fast track our efforts.”
Statewide solar generation recorded during this month’s firestorms by the California Independent System Operator was almost one-third below the levels reported on many days in the summer, before the outbreaks of fires last month.
Wind from offshore has pushed smoke into areas where solar installations are concentrated. “We are seeing reductions to behind-the-meter and large-scale solar throughout the state,” said California ISO spokeswoman Anne Gonzales.
The drop in solar generation forced the grid operator to pull again on power imports from out of state, including crucial supplies on long power line connections from California’s northern neighbors, where wildfires are also raging. And once again, the state had to turn to natural gas generators, sharpening the conflict between California’s clean energy goals and the need to keep lights on.
“With the wildfires that are burning in California and the Pacific Northwest, it’s very clear that with the smoke that’s in the air, there is a reduction in the amount of light” that can reach solar panels, said Michael Bolen, project manager for solar generation at the Electric Power Research Institute.
And there’s a second effect caused by the sepia tinge that is staining skies over the state, said Bolen, whose office is based in Charlotte, N.C. “That [color] is because of the way the solar spectrum changes at it passes through the particulates in the air,” he added. “That also affects how much PV [solar photovoltaic] modules can produce.”
A chain of wildfires called the August Complex was triggered Aug. 17 by various lightning strikes between Sacramento and Eureka, Calif., causing a similar drop in solar output, according to California ISO. Solar output picked up by month’s end, though the fire is still not fully contained.
Then the state was hit again by the Creek Fire near Fresno that began Sept. 4. The Bobcat Fire broke out two days later in the Angeles National Forest.
The strain on California’s power supplies last month, during a siege of temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the West, compelled utilities to order rolling power blackouts that affected hundreds of thousands of citizens.
Some officials pointed out that it was as if the climate change threat was delivering multiple blows to a state with the nation’s most ambitious goals for fighting back via steep carbon emissions reductions from power generation and transportation.
“If you are in denial about climate change, come to California,” Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said in a video at the Democratic National Convention last month.
A worsening trend of drought has turned California’s forests into tinderboxes in recent years.
Heat waves like those in August drive up demand for power to run air conditioning — and with California’s neighboring states also hit by record heat, power imports are limited.
“The hots are getting hotter. The dries are getting drier,” Newsom said.
This week, enormous smoke clouds from fires are cutting again into the solar resources that the state is counting on to hit the goal of delivering 100% of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2045.
Solar production could be shaved even when fires cease, the Electric Power Research Institute’s Bolen said. “All those ash [and] smoke particles have to settle somewhere,” he added. “If they land on the PV modules, then they could block light from entering the modules.”
This season’s wildfires have intensified a debate about whether the state can stay on course to hit its renewable power goals without unacceptable risks to power delivery.
Last month’s rolling blackouts led Steve Berberich, CEO of the California ISO, to rebuke state regulators at the California Public Utilities Commission for failing to act more decisively to ensure adequate generation.
“The situation we are in could have been avoided,” Berberich said. “For many years we have pointed out to the procurement authorizing authorities that there was inadequate power available.”
The commission’s process for determining the state’s power needs “was broken and needed to be fixed,” he added.
The debate flared again this week at a virtual leadership conference held by the Edison Electric Institute.
Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz warned that California policymakers were deluding themselves if they thought that a combination of solar power and battery storage could fill the state’s electricity needs through the coming decade.
Backing solar and wind up with natural gas will be unavoidable until new technologies are developed for longer-lasting batteries, energy from hydrogen and, eventually, technologies that clear carbon dioxide from the air itself, according to Moniz.
“Right now there is a shortage of [generating] capacity,” Moniz said, citing “tremendous challenges” with addressing the variability of renewable power on both hour-to-hour time scales and wider shifts in seasonal demand.
“We need to do more in terms of looking at how the whole system fits together,” he said.
Moniz’s onetime colleague in the Obama administration, former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, pushed back, insisting that the climate crisis is too urgent to allow sustained use of gas generation.
“We think there are opportunities that abound to make this transition” to carbon-free power, said McCarthy, now president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“It’s not only realistic, it’s imperative. We don’t have any choice,” she said.
McCarthy and Moniz have each been making their cases for a clean energy transition to advisers for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
“My job isn’t to say how to get there,” McCarthy told Moniz as the EEI panel Wednesday afternoon neared its end. “You’ve just got to think bigger. … You’re sitting here chatting. Get busy.”
Green Energy is Not a Silver Bullet – Many Answers to Energy Management
Wall Street Journal excerpt, 9/16
As California keeps facing electricity shortages, the discussion around its grid often veers to extremes.
On the one hand, some see it as a sign that the state has moved away too quickly from natural gas and nuclear power, which can run on command. Others see the heat waves and the tragic wildfires as further evidence that the state should move even faster toward a carbon-neutral future based on intermittent renewables. That misses some nuances.
In particular, California’s high reliance on electricity imports has received attention and criticism. But the state has consistently imported roughly 30% of its total power needs from outside markets, even in previous years when renewables accounted for a smaller share of its overall mix, according to data from the California Energy Commission. This makes sense from a locational standpoint: California is densely populated and has high power demand, while neighboring Arizona, Nevada and Utah have swaths of unpopulated land suited for generation.
Should California then have shut down less natural gas and nuclear power? That is definitely part of the issue, and future shutdowns might need to slow. However, there were legitimate reasons for some closures, too. For example, the Diablo Canyon nuclear-power plant, a hot topic of previous debates, is scheduled to shut by 2025 because of its proximity to seismic fault lines. Given all the other natural disasters California is dealing with now, it seems wise to avert such unnecessary risks. And compared with other markets, California’s natural gas-fired power plants are neither too old nor too young: Its combined-cycle power plants are just a year older than the 14-year average across different power markets, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.
Battery storage is certainly part of the solution, though the 500 megawatts of operational storage in California is a drop in the ocean compared with the 15,000 megawatts that the grid operator says it might need to reach its goal of eliminating carbon emissions from power generation by 2045. State regulators have approved roughly 1,000 megawatts of new storage.
What then? Part of the answer has to be in the market design. California is generally able to manage heat waves through imports. In a year such as 2017, in which demand also hit record levels, the state still could get by because the heat wave was more localized. This time around, the heat affected surrounding states too, reducing the amount of power California could import.
But at least some of the shortage is addressable through market rules.
For example, California has a hard import bid cap of $1,000 per megawatt hour. Christopher DaCosta, regional director of western power markets at Wood Mackenzie, says that surrounding areas have a softer cap and are able to pay more. During this summer, that meant power plants often rerouted electricity to higher bidders than California. The state’s grid operator brought this issue to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last year, asking to double that price cap. That measure is expected to be adopted in October 2021, Mr. DaCosta says.
There also needs to be better coordination between power markets, especially as California’s neighbors also are shifting away from fossil fuels. Regional heat waves could leave more than just California strained in future years. Mark Repsher, energy-markets expert at PA Consulting, points out that California might be better off coordinating with other regions weeks or months ahead of time, rather than in real time as it stands now.
The market also could come up with better ways to incentivize big electricity customers to curb usage, which could be more cost effective than building brand new gas-fired power plants. The Texas power market, which has relied on wind for 23% of its electricity this year, averted rolling blackouts in 2014 because of its demand-response program, which pays large commercial and industrial customers for lowering usage during peak hours.
Much went wrong on California’s grid this summer: In addition to the heat wave, some solar productivity was affected by other forces of nature, including the wildfire haze and thunderstorms, according to a report by Ryan Levine, analyst at Citi Research.
There is no silver bullet for California’s power woes—a solution has to be as multifaceted as the problem itself.
Wade Crowfoot, a California Cabinet secretary, didn’t plan on confronting President Trump on extreme heat and wildfires. Then Trump dismissed climate change.
“It’ll just start getting cooler, you just watch,” Trump said during a Monday meeting with California officials who were briefing him on the state’s catastrophic wildfires.
Crowfoot, in a response that went viral, responded: “I wish science agreed with you.”
“Well, I don’t think science knows, actually,” Trump retorted before turning away.
Crowfoot, 47, runs the state Natural Resources Agency and oversees 19,000 employees and multiple agencies. His decision to challenge Trump was spontaneous.
“I didn’t plan to beforehand,” Crowfoot said an interview.
“I don’t know if it was instinct, or just the intellectual curiosity of actually trying to have a conversation with him on it,” he added.
There were multiple points to make on the fires, Crowfoot said, but he believed “the most important conversation to engage him in was climate change.”
On the president’s response — regarding climate scientists not knowing about rising temperatures — Crowfoot said he felt “disappointed but perhaps not surprised.”
The discussion marked a rare occasion on which Trump received pointed — and accurate — information about climate change. What briefings he may have had in the White House were led by William Happer, a former adviser with the National Security Council who has said the Earth needs more carbon dioxide to grow food.
“It seems like it was one of the more direct exchanges that somebody’s had in public with the president on climate change in quite a while,” Crowfoot said. “Maybe that’s why it struck a nerve and went viral.”
The exchange catapulted Crowfoot into the spotlight. Since Monday, he has appeared on ABC News, CNN, MSNBC and NPR. A clip of his conversation with Trump appeared on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” though neither mentioned Crowfoot by name.
Crowfoot received more than 250 texts from high school and college friends, some in the middle of the night. His father, James Crowfoot, a retired natural resources professor in Michigan, has heard from students he had 30 years ago. “Is Wade Crowfoot your son?” they ask.
Crowfoot said he sees the attention as a chance to discuss climate change and what’s happening in California.
“Climate change is touching everything we do right now,” said Crowfoot, who oversees a Cabinet that includes the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Department of Conservation, Department of Water Resources, and California Coastal Commission, which deals with sea-level rise.
Crowfoot is a well-known politico in the Golden State. He came to the Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) administration from the nonprofit Water Foundation, where he was CEO. Before that, he worked in former Gov. Jerry Brown’s (D) administration as deputy Cabinet secretary and a senior adviser.
He led the administration’s responses to a lengthy drought and dealt with wildfires, a task that took him to many scenes of destruction. He said the sizes of those pale in comparison to the fires raging through California now.
Earlier, Crowfoot worked for the Environmental Defense Fund, and before that as senior environmental adviser to Newsom when he was the mayor of San Francisco.
The effects of climate change have worsened in the Golden State over those years.
“I’ve worked in the [climate] space over 20 years,” he said. “Most of us are really alarmed with the acceleration of all climate impacts.”
Those who track research didn’t expect these kinds of changes until midcentury, he said. “I’m worried on a personal level like I’ve never been before,” Crowfoot said. “This year, the summer, have been a game changer in California.”
“I have to say it feels like an existential threat to our way of life and our existence more than it ever has before,” he added.
At the same time, Crowfoot says he’s optimistic because of the changes California is making. The state has established a pathway to pursue development in a low-carbon way and, later, with no carbon at all. That will require the expansion of renewable power and electric vehicles. Meanwhile, California’s economic growth has outpaced the national rate by 30%, he said.
People who know Crowfoot said they weren’t surprised he confronted Trump on climate change.
Crowfoot examines the science of climate change and its impacts every day, said Kate Gordon, director at the state Office of Planning and Research. She has known Crowfoot for years.
“Our lives since this administration started have been about wildfire … wildfire, mudslides, extreme heat events, reports coming out on sea-level rise. This is something we live,” Gordon said. “It’s top of mind for him as it is for all of us.”
In California, it’s unusual to find anyone who rejects the science on climate change, Gordon said. Republicans debate the appropriate mandates or adaptation choices, she said, but not whether to act.
“The physical impacts of climate change are so real, in every region, in every sector,” Gordon said. “We just do not spend a lot of time arguing the science, usually, here in California. I think that is why it was such a striking moment” between Trump and Crowfoot.
Debbie Franco, senior adviser for water and rural affairs at the state Office of Planning and Research, worked with Crowfoot during the Brown administration, and now through her current role.
Regarding his volley with Trump, Franco wasn’t surprised.
“Wade is always a strong speaker and has a capacity to get to the point in an articulate way that obviously triggered the president,” Franco said.
New York Times
Jerry Brown, the former governor of California, could barely make out the mountains in the distance from his ranch in the city of Williams on Sunday. Every few minutes, he picked up his phone to check the latest air quality reading. “Unhealthy,” he said.
Mr. Brown, who served over 45 years in state government and politics, has been warning about this day for years. But he said by telephone from his ranch that he never expected this moment to come so soon. And he never thought the air around his home, which he built in the wilderness of his family ranch, an hour’s drive north of Sacramento, would be this shrouded.
But still, for all the fire and the smoke, Mr. Brown presented himself as the resolute chief ambassador for the state that has so long been associated with the Brown family name. He declared he was not going anywhere and dismissed the latest round of talk about people fleeing California.
“You might say, ‘We are getting out of here — we are going someplace else,’” Mr. Brown, 82, said. “No. There are going to be problems everywhere in the United States. This is the new normal. It’s been predicted and it’s happening. This is part of the new long-term experience.”
“Tell me: Where are you going to go?” Mr. Brown continued. “What’s your alternative? Maybe Canada. You’re going to go to places like Iowa, where you have intensifying tornadoes? The fact is, we have a global crisis that has been mounting and the scientists have been telling us about. For the most part, it’s been ignored. Now we have a graphic example.”
Mr. Brown, a Democrat, served twice as California’s governor. He retired — because (and probably only because) of term limits — to make way for Gavin Newsom, his lieutenant governor, who took office in January 2019.
Mr. Newsom has inherited the burden of managing a state besieged by the coronavirus pandemic and the worst wildfires in its history.
As governor, and after his departure, Mr. Brown became an international environmental advocate, pushing back against President Trump and other Republicans who sought to roll back environmental protections enacted in Washington and in California. Since leaving office, Mr. Brown has run the California-China Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, and served as the executive chairman of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Mr. Brown said the fast-moving fires made it clear that a global effort was needed to reduce and eventually eliminate greenhouse gases. California, which has over the years sought to wean itself from fossil fuels, and the United States cannot deal with the scope of the problem alone, he said, adding that Mr. Trump’s election, and his efforts to undo environmental laws and regulations, had been a major setback.
Mr. Brown acknowledged that the devastating fires were partly the result of the failure of the state and the federal government to thin forests, which are now filled with trees that died in the drought — fuel for the fires.
And he said that ingrained policies in states like California, with its sprawl, devotion to single-family houses and reliance on automobiles, had also contributed to the crisis.
“California for 10,000 years had no more than 300,000 people,” he said. “In the last 100 years, we have gone to a couple of million people to 40 million, and over 30 million vehicles spilling out 18 million gallons of fossil fuels. We are assaulting the environment. We are causing this.”
He added: “To change all this — well, it’s like telling people who live in a flood zone that they can’t rebuild their homes after a flood. You’re talking about shaping the behavior of millions of free human beings, getting them to change their behavior. It’s not easy.”
Mr. Brown’s ranch is not near any of the wildfires, but the smoke has settled over it. “I see the oak trees,” he said, “but it’s very hard to see the mountains.”
Checking the weather app on his phone, Mr. Brown compared the air quality index of Williams with that of Los Angeles, which had long been a national symbol of smog.
“That’s better,” he said after looking at the Los Angeles figure. “You’re at 144 for unhealthy air for some individuals. We’re unhealthy for everybody. We have 191.” (A reading of 151 or over is considered unhealthy for the general population.)
Mr. Brown declined to share what, if any, advice he might have for Mr. Newsom in managing the twin crises plaguing the state. But he did have some ideas for what he might say to Mr. Trump, who was set to arrive on Monday to tour the fire damage, if he were still governor.
“He’s presiding over a demolition derby on our environment that’s got to stop,” Mr. Brown said. He paused a moment. “Whether you tell him that now when you are asking for billions of dollars — I think I’d wait a couple of days.”
California Needs A Water Budget
Former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt writes that a “Grand Bargain” in California water is needed to end the “political culture of deferral” and allow major water projects to advance. On the contrary, what’s needed is an adult regulator that will make hard choices that water users refuse to make.
For at least five years, the state and various water users have postponed balancing the state’s water budget by promising a grand bargain. This promised new grand bargain is not the solution to the aptly named “culture of deferral.” The grand bargain is the current center of deferral.
There is not enough water reliably available in California to continue to meet existing uses. The most obvious consequences are ecosystem collapse and sinking groundwater levels.
The State Water Resources Control Board needs to step in and restore a balanced water budget in California.
The state needs to spend its resources to help soften the landing for those who lose water and stop ignoring how out of balance the state’s water budget really is.
The classic approach to competition for California’s water was to balance the water budget by over-appropriating the state’s surface water and by overpumping groundwater. As extraction options became fewer and more expensive, water users moved in the 1990’s to the cooperative “CalFed” model, which further deferred restoring needed flows to rivers and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
By the early 2000’s, ecosystem collapse accelerated. Groundwater deficits worsened, and the State passed legislation regulating groundwater in 2014.
The 2009 Delta Reform Act required the state water board to issue a report on the flows needed to restore “public trust” resources in the Delta. The board issued its report in 2010. But the state water board has since backed away from its report, saying that the public’s right to enjoy public property must be balanced with other uses. The board hasn’t established a balance, and water users across the state have spent 10 years pressuring the board to ignore the report entirely.
State negotiators and water users have never released an explicit water budget for their promised grand bargain, but it is clearly far less than the board’s flow report. And after years of negotiations, the water community and the state team haven’t answered a basic question: what is the mechanism by which water released upstream to improve flows will pass through the Delta and not be diverted?
The state water board has not helped itself while waiting under the direction of two governors for someone else to bring a ready-made solution. If the board has decided how it will protect water released upstream as Delta inflow and outflow, it hasn’t made its decision public. In 2018, the board issued a plan for the San Joaquin River that low-balled flows in good years while it deferred putting numbers on reservoir storage requirements and defining a plan for droughts and dry years.
Before anyone even thinks about approving new water projects, the governor needs to turn the state water board loose to do its job managing existing resources. The board needs to dig into the demands, uses, hydrology and operation of each watershed that is tributary to the Delta. It must set clear and enforceable rules for each watershed in detail, not just approximate them. It must set operating rules for the Delta that turn inflow into outflow. It must also set rules for upstream diversions and reservoir storage.
In short, the state water board must establish a state water budget that California can afford. It must balance the public trust. And the state must defend the water board’s work.
Chris Shutes is water advocate for the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance