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As Gov. Jerry Brown neared the end of his last State of the State speech on Thursday, Jan. 25, he invoked a name that has become a frequent theme: August Schuckman, his own great-grandfather, who left Germany in 1849 and “sailed to America on a ship named Perseverance.”

The 79-year-old Democrat cast his ancestor’s journey—and the ship’s poetic name—as a metaphor for California in an era of natural disasters and deep rifts with the federal government. “We, too, will persist,” he said, “against the storms and turmoil, obstacles great and small.”

Brown, delivering his 16th such speech during an unprecedented four-term tenure as California governor, contrasted California with the direction the United States is heading under Republican President Donald Trump—touting the state’s efforts to combat climate change and its embrace of Obamacare. He reiterated his commitment to two major infrastructure projects he’s long championed: a high-speed train that would eventually connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, and a massive tunnel to move water from the north end of the state to the south. And he gave an impassioned plea for legislators to look at the big picture of California’s criminal-justice system instead of passing new laws in response to crimes ripped from the headline.

Democrats praised Brown for an optimistic speech that demonstrated the hallmarks of his leadership. Even some Republicans offered mild praise: Assembly Republican Leader Brian Dahle called Brown “one of the most conservative Democrats in this place” for his relative prudence. But he criticized the governor for signing laws, like the gas tax, that raised the cost of living in California.

What Brown didn’t mention: the fact that California has the highest poverty rate in the nation; that housing prices that have skyrocketed beyond affordability for many residents; and that the state’s tax structure exposes it to perpetual cycles of boom and bust.

Also absent were the obscure intellectual references that have studded his past speeches—although he did contrast the state’s bloated penal code with the Ten Commandments.

His also struck some themes that are vintage Jerry Brown. He cited California’s recent wildfires and mudslides, as well as the Doomsday Clock, echoing past speeches in which he predicted environmental disaster. He advocated remedies to slow global warming—like clean cars and renewable energy—that resembled ideas he espoused when he was first elected governor more than four decades ago.

“We should never forget our dependency on the natural environment and the fundamental challenges it presents to the way we live,” Brown said to his 2018 audience. “We can’t fight nature. We have to learn to get along with her.”

Yet as he looked forward for California, he also looked back at his own family history. When Brown was first sworn in, in 1975, he rarely talked about his ancestry. As the years mounted, however, he has increasingly turned to his family-origin stories to illustrate his belief in California’s potential.

Now the Brown family’s California Dream is a common trope in his rhetoric. He talks about the great-grandfather on the Perseverance, the grandmother who was the youngest of eight children, and the father, Pat Brown, who preceded him in the governor’s office.

Some of that reflection may be the natural consequence of age. But it also reveals a governor more assured of his own accomplishments and less fearful that he’s riding on his father’s coattails, said political scientist Sherry Bebitch Jeffe. A professor at University of Southern California, she’s been following Brown’s career since he ran for the Los Angeles Community College board in 1969.

The younger Brown first moved into the governor’s office less than a decade after his father had moved out. During those first two terms in office, Jeffe said, Brown went to great lengths to distinguish himself from his father.

“He did not want to live in his shadow,” she said. “Jerry wanted to build his own legacy, his own philosophy of governance.”

His early speeches reflect the schism. Brown—a 37-year-old bachelor at the time, who famously slept on a mattress on the floor of an apartment—opened his inaugural address in 1975 with a quick quip about his dad. “My father thought I wasn't going to make it,” to become governor, he said. “But here I am.” He went on to talk about problems with environmental and land-use rules, and the need to provide a better system for funding schools and farmworker rights.

For the next six years, Brown used his State of the State speeches to float ideas: developing more clean energy, building more prisons, making housing more affordable, putting a satellite into space, and overhauling the bail system. Then, as now, he acknowledged the uncertainty of the future and urged lawmakers not to spend too much.

But near the end of his first two terms, Brown’s 1982 State of the State speech reminisced about his father, his grandmother and his great-grandfather Schuckman, who traveled the plains from St. Louis to Sacramento during the Gold Rush.

“Let me read to you from the diary that was kept during that trek westward,” Brown said then, recounting in detail their journey across deserts, through rivers and over mountains. He spoke of oxen dying of thirst and wagons going up in flames.

“These were men and women who matched our mountains, and in not too many years, built these walls,” Brown said. “We are bearers of that powerful tradition. It still drives our people and the hundreds from foreign who arrive in our state each day.”

Most people assumed, of course, that 1982 speech would be Brown’s final State of the State. But after serving as Democratic Party chair, Oakland mayor and attorney general, he reclaimed the governorship in the November 2010 election. In his inaugural address in January 2011, Brown again read from Schuckman’s diary.

“We can only imagine what it took for August Schuckman to leave his family and home and travel across the ocean to America and then across the country—often through dangerous and hostile territory—in a wagon train. But come he did, overcoming every obstacle,” Brown said.

In 2015, Brown reflected on his father’s leadership in ways he never did in those speeches during his early years as governor.

“The issues that my father raised at his inauguration bear eerie resemblance to those we still grapple with today: discrimination; the quality of education and the challenge of recruiting and training teachers; the menace of air pollution, and its danger to our health; a realistic water program; economic development; consumer protection; and overcrowded prisons,” Brown said. “So you see, these problems, they never completely go away. They remain to challenge and elicit the best from us.”

Whatever challenges lie ahead for 2018 and beyond, Brown said on Thursday: “All of us—whatever our party or philosophy—have a role in play in defending and advancing our democracy. Our forebears set the example.”

Now he’s planning retirement on the rural land in Colusa County where Schuckman settled in the 1800s. Though Brown’s upbringing is very different from most Californians, his family stories can make the austere governor more relatable, said Roger Salazar, a Democratic political consultant who works for the Legislature’s Latino Caucus.

“It’s a story that I think a lot of legislators can relate to,” Salazar. “When you look back at your familial history and the context in which they came to California, I think that’s something that we all can connect with.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

California’s resistance began before there was a resistance.

When Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled his final budget on Jan. 10, it bookended eight years of a progressive march to reduce greenhouse gases, expand health care, grant more rights to undocumented immigrants and raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Along the way, voters have assented by passing temporary taxes on the rich—not once, but twice. The top marginal income tax rate is now 13.3 percent, the highest state income tax rate in the country.

In short, policies that are now labeled acts of resistance to President Donald Trump were alive and ascendant in California long before Trump won the White House. But the contrasts have become much more stark.

Instead of cutting taxes, the Democratic governor and his party’s legislative leaders have passed a gas tax to help pay for aging infrastructure. Instead of trying to shift government out of the healthcare marketplace, California is looking for a way to fund single-payer health care, including coverage for undocumented immigrants. Instead of criminalizing pot, the state is looking forward to collecting taxes on marijuana sales.

In the months between now and the June deadline for a final budget, the governor and the Legislature will hammer out details. The focus this year: what to do with an expected surplus of $6.1 billion—and there are definitely differing opinions all around. Republicans say return it to California’s 40 million residents as a nice tax refund. The governor's priority is to fill up the state’s rainy-day fund. Democratic legislators mostly want to spend it.

“We have a very different approach,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee. “Our focus, the people who we think need tax relief, are the working Californians who are making less than $25,000. That’s where we want to spend our money, making sure they have money to pay rent, to pay for food.”

Rather than giving out “huge corporate tax breaks and a huge tax break for the wealthiest in this country,” Ting has a long list of how he would like to spend that extra money, including:

• Increasing the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which puts money into the hands of the working poor.

• Expanding Medi-Cal health care for poorer Californians to cover all remaining uninsured residents, mostly undocumented immigrants.

• Expanding early education for 4-year-olds through preschool and transitional kindergarten programs.

• Increasing college aid.

• Expanding mental and social services to reduce the number of criminals who go on to re-offend.

As supportive as Brown might be of these Democratic aspirations, his administration is urging legislative leaders to proceed with caution. The state’s tax structure is more vulnerable than ever to the stock market gains and losses of its wealthiest citizens, and the governor said California must prepare for the next economic downturn, because a mild recession could wipe away at least $20 billion a year in revenues.

He also warns of uncertainty from Washington, D.C.

“There are certain policies that are radical departures from the norm, and California will fight those, whether it’s immigration or offshore drilling,” Brown said. “We don’t know what will happen. I wouldn’t want to portray a California-Washington battle, although there are some key differences, and we’ll espouse our values.”

Since Brown was elected to begin his second stint as governor in November 2010, the state has climbed out of the recession and enjoyed economic prosperity. The unemployment rate, which topped 12 percent, now stands at 4.6 percent. Since his return, California has added 2.4 million jobs, and hourly wages are up $4.76 an hour. The state, which carried a $25 billion deficit in his first year back, has enjoyed billion-dollar surpluses in recent years, and the state now has a rainy-day fund.

The governor’s proposed $190 billion budget is dominated by spending on education (29 percent) and health care (32 percent). Health care spending has been growing particularly fast since the state embraced the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The act not only grew the marketplace for private health plans; it allowed states to expand their Medicaid health insurance programs for the poor.

Because California is among 30 states that expanded Medicaid, the federal government is paying at least 90 percent of the cost for newly eligible enrollees. That has allowed California to draw billions in extra funding from the federal government to bolster Medi-Cal, the state’s version of the national Medicaid program. As a result, the number of people without health coverage in the state has dropped to a historic low: from 17.6 percent in the 1980s to 7.6 percent in 2016. Today, one in three Californians is covered by Medi-Cal.

Public schools too have greatly benefited since the recession, with much of the extra spending on schools going to improve teachers’ salaries.

However, if the federal government doesn’t reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program for 1.3 million children, that could add more than $850 million in costs to the state over two years.

Worse, if Republicans in Washington slash Medicaid funding in 2018, the state could lose between $25 billion and $50 billion, said Chris Hoene, executive director of the California Budget and Policy Center, a progressive think tank in Sacramento.

“The reality is California could not afford the scale of the cuts the GOP has been proposing,” Hoene said. “That’s going to put state leaders in a position of deciding who gets state services and how do they fund that.”

Other factors are straining the budget. For example, pension costs for public workers continue to be one of the fastest-growing liabilities—driven by lower investment-rate assumptions, higher health care costs and longer life spans.

Voters, too, could turn on Brown and lawmakers. Early polling suggests Republicans have a decent shot at repealing a gas tax hike that went into effect late last year. Brown said at a press conference Wednesday that he believes a repeal initiative could be defeated.

The Legislature’s nonpartisan budget analyst is also urging lawmakers not to commit to too many new spending programs.

“As it crafts the 2018-19 budget and future budgets, we encourage the Legislature to consider all of the uncertainty faced by the budget in future years and continue its recent practice of building its reserve levels,” the analyst wrote.

On the flipside, Republicans are calling for a tax refund, if not an outright repeal of state income taxes. They argue that California’s high taxes chase residents out of state.

“This surplus is a direct result of Capitol Democrats overtaxing hard-working Californians,” said Assemblyman Matthew Harper, R-Huntington Beach. “Rather than expanding an ever-growing list of government programs, our leaders should figure out a way to return that money to the people who earned it in the first place.”

Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, said he plans to introduce tax cuts aimed at helping families and small businesses stay in California.

“As we see all too often now, we are losing families and small businesses to neighboring states that have tax burdens much lower than California’s high-priced tax code,” Fong said on Twitter. “We have an opportunity to change that.”

Brown dismissed the refund idea, saying it would only prompt service cuts to public schools and universities later. “If you want to budget responsibly, you need big surpluses in years that are good,” he said.

Still, there’s a growing sentiment that California may have to respond to recent changes in the federal tax plan, specifically a $10,000 cap on state and local deductions that will hit millions of households.

According to the state Finance Department, the average deduction for state and local income taxes alone is nearly $16,000 per return, while state and local property taxes average less than $6,000 per return. Because a portion of those taxes will no longer be deductible, it acts as double taxation for California taxpayers.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, who is running for U.S. Senate, introduced legislation Thursday to shield Californians from bearing the costs of the tax overhaul. The bill, dubbed Protect California Taxpayers Act, would allow taxpayers to make charitable deductions to the state and receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on the full amount of their contribution. By having residents donate to the state government as a charitable contribution, the contribution remains deductible on federal taxes.

“The Republican tax plan gives corporations and hedge-fund managers a trillion-dollar tax cut and expects California taxpayers to foot the bill,” de León said in announcing his legislation. “We won’t allow California residents to be the casualty of this disastrous tax scheme.”

Brown was particularly vocal against the GOP tax proposal, calling it a “tax monstrosity,” but the governor expressed reservations about whether the state could sidestep federal law.

“It looks interesting,” Brown said. “But two questions: Can it work? If it does work, can the Internal Revenue Service issue a regulation and completely subvert it?”

De León responded that he was confident it would work, because similar charitable deductions have already been given out for education-based contributions.

For now, state Democrats are in agreement about a common threat.

Whether it’s federal tax changes or entitlement cuts, the leader of the Assembly, Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, said he’s most concerned Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration will take another swipe at liberal California in 2018. “We’re worried about the next shoe to drop.”

CALmatters is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

BONN, Germany—The camera and lights switched on, and Ole Torp, the Charlie Rose of Norway, leaned in, silver hair flashing, and posed his first question to Gov. Jerry Brown.

“Is the world going to hell?”

“Yes,” Brown answered swiftly.

The interview, taped last week in Oslo, was declared a fabulous success, one the television audience would quite enjoy.

On a nearly two-week swing through Europe—starting at the Vatican and ending at the United Nations climate change conference in Bonn—Brown offered a bleak appraisal of the global future: We are on a trajectory toward hell. It’s a headlong rush to a very unpleasant outcome. Mankind is on the chopping block.

Yet Brown dazzled. His message—the planet is burning up, and our oil-driven way of life must change—brought Vatican scientists to their feet. European parliamentarians in Brussels swooned, calling him a warrior. In Oslo, an international group of scientists paid Brown their highest compliment: inviting him to their inner sanctum for a day-long “dialogue,” a dreary recitation of the looming crash of spaceship Earth. Students in Stuttgart, inheritors of the mess Brown describes, mobbed the 79-year-old for selfies.

It wasn’t all adulation, all the time. A rebuke from a couple of parliamentarians in Brussels led to a sharp exchange over the effect of climate-change policies on the poor. And hecklers tried to shout down the governor during a speech in Bonn as they protested his oil policies.

But the criticism did little to deter Brown, who was on message throughout the trip: Climate change is a serious threat, but California is doing its part—and, especially, come to San Francisco next year for a climate conference that gets things accomplished.

In the absence of climate policy from the U.S. government, or recognition that human activity has played a role in warming the world, Brown has become a de facto climate leader—Al Gore 2.0, as an Afghan journalist here observed offhandedly. During his November trip, Brown was repeatedly called on to voice an opinion on President Trump’s assertion that climate change is a hoax. He told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in a taped interview that “Trump better get on board or get out of the way.” On most other occasions, Brown largely held his fire, perhaps not wanting to give the president’s arguments any oxygen.

Mostly, he focused on burnishing California’s “green” reputation—and his own, as he looks ahead to life after Sacramento, a subject he won’t go near. Brown reminded his audiences that the state has the nation’s strictest fuel standards, subsidizes electric cars, and demands the most energy-efficient buildings. He held sessions with members of the Under2 Coalition, a group of more than 200 nations, states and provinces that have pledged to reduce carbon emissions and work with each other to meet the goals of the U.N.’s 2015 Paris climate agreement. That includes a commitment to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

The group, which Brown helped create, is gaining in heft, with several new members acquired during Brown’s trip. According to the coalition, it represents more than 1 billion people and nearly 40 percent of the global economy.

Brown argues that climate-change policy is local as much as national or global, and that mayors, governors and regional officials can bring about significant change. That argument swayed the government of Fiji—which currently holds the rotating presidency of the conference—to name Brown to the position of special adviser for states and regions. That position did not give the governor access to the negotiating table, where the U.S. delegation and others are hammering out implementation rules for the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Brown’s stated purpose for going to Europe was to raise awareness about the threat of climate change. At every stop, officials said they found power in his message.

Sandy Pitcher, the chief executive of the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources for the state of South Australia, described Brown as “authentic.”

“He’s channeling something like the tough lesson you have to hear and should hear, ‘You’ll thank me for it later,’” she said. “I don’t think we have someone like him in Australia in the public discourse doing what he’s doing.”

Her state belongs to Under2. These so-called subnationals—or “supernationals” as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said here—will put on their own summit next September in San Francisco. The meeting, sanctioned by the U.N., will bring together nations and industry and require each entity to report its annual emissions and set a reduction goal.

The inclusion of businesses is unique. Brown said that businesses—some of them big carbon-emitters—could potentially provide the technology to solve pressing climate problems. And their presence can send a signal that California is open to, and for, business.

Now Brown and his staff are mostly back in Sacramento. It’s likely to be a hard landing for the governor, leaving the mostly enveloping warmth of like-minded people to tangle with a sometimes-unruly Legislature and get back to the arduous job of managing California.

He returns to a state where not everyone is in the thrall of the climate-crusader message. Critics in the environmental-justice movement, for example, say laws to reduce pollution have not yet made lives better in many low-income communities still plagued by toxic air, water and soil—that Sacramento’s good intentions seem to be scrubbing clean every backyard but theirs.

With legislative priorities looming for his final year in office, Brown claims to not have a comprehensive idea of what he wants to accomplish.

“I don’t have an agenda for next year. I don’t even think about it,” he told CALmatters in an interview during the conference that was only partly disrupted when Arnold Schwarzenegger, also in town for the conference, stopped by to chat.

“I’m a step-by-step kind of guy,” Brown said. “We have continuing work to increase the rehabilitative character of our prisons and jails. We have to up our capacity to transform lives instead of re-imbed and reinforce antisocial behavior. That will require effort, and mental health programs.”

Much of the environmental legislation he has championed is now on the books. With enormous political effort during the summer, he was able to extend the state’s cap-and-trade program until 2030. What’s next? Brown supports an electricity delivery system that spans the West, offering better integration and sharing of renewable power, among other benefits.

Such a plan would cede state decision-making to a regional authority, and Brown admits the highly complex project may take a while.

Control of the grid is a thorny issue. For example, states have varying requirements for the use of renewable energy, and California would hesitate to import coal-fired power from elsewhere. Working out such elements is complex and painstaking.

“We don’t get instant coffee,” he said. “I didn’t do everything the first year. Each year, there are more things that become possible because we’ve done other things. It’s a good idea, and it will come.”

First things first: another summit, which Brown, in his grumpy fashion, said will be more of an anti-summit.

“There’s a lot of talking and there’s a lot of eating at these things,” Brown said. “I’ve talked enough. I want to get something done.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

LOS ANGELES (Reuters)—California legislators have raised fines for traffic infractions to some of the highest in the United States to generate revenue—and the poor are bearing an unfair burden, losing cars and jobs because they cannot pay them, civil rights activists said last week.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area said in a new report that the $490 fine for a red-light ticket in California is three times the national average. The cost is even higher if motorists want to attend traffic school in lieu of a conviction or are late paying.

“Our state is raising money off the backs of California families to balance the budget for special projects, and it’s using traffic tickets as a revenue generator instead of to protect safety, instead of to do justice,” said Elisa Della-Piana, the group’s legal director.

The report comes as lawmakers in some states and local jurisdictions have begun to recognize the implications of high traffic fines on the poor and unemployed, especially in minority communities.

Failure to pay a fine on time can lead to a motorist to lose one’s driver license and car, suffer further financial problems—and even wind up in jail.

“Studies show 78 percent of Californians drive to work, and a very high percentage need to have a license to have a job,” Della-Piana said. “If you can’t afford to pay $500 this month for a traffic ticket, that’s also saying to many families, ‘You lose your household income.’”

California lawmakers have begun to take baby steps to address the problem, Della-Piana said, with Gov. Jerry Brown lately vetoing new attempts by state legislators to raise fines or tack on new fees to traffic tickets, as they grapple with deep budget deficits brought on in part by mushrooming public employee pension obligations.

Brown, a Democrat, has also said in his latest budget proposal that the state should not be suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay a ticket.

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Democrat from Los Angeles, has introduced legislation that would reduce fines based on a motorist’s ability to pay.

Della-Piana said California should next stop arresting motorists who cannot afford to pay their tickets. Black people are statistically more likely to be jailed for such offenses, according to the report.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Published in Local Issues

California’s historic drought led to immense pressure to conserve water, and during the last year, most Californians stepped up to the task.

State “water cops” issued warnings and fines; people stopped washing their cars; towns let their parks fade from green to brown. But during El Niño this winter, some regions received enough precipitation to replenish reservoirs and aquifers, so in May, Gov. Jerry Brown lifted the statewide ban on excessive urban water use, giving more than 400 water districts the power to develop individual conservation standards.

It was a controversial decision, because sweeping rules had finally moved people to take the drought seriously. Water-policy experts fear the decision may lead to a let-up in conservation, even though nearly 70 percent of the state remains in extreme drought. That concern isn’t unwarranted: Although some districts want to keep enforcing strict mandates, others have been fighting for months to put a cap on them.

“A number of water suppliers don’t necessarily deserve (this) trust,” says Sara Aminzadeh, executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, an organization that unites water programs across the state. “It’s really dicey to return to local control, especially as we enter the hot, dry summer months.”

California’s water infrastructure is complicated: Supply comes from the snowpack, rivers, reservoirs, aqueducts and groundwater. These sources were so depleted in 2014 that Brown declared a state of emergency and asked districts to cut water use by 20 percent. When most failed to do so by 2015, Brown imposed the sharpest restrictions on water use in history: a ban on excessive water use for landscaping and urban areas that brought about a 24-percent reduction.

Under Brown’s May mandate, local agencies don’t need to meet specific conservation targets. Districts can analyze their water needs and certify conservation plans before submitting them to the state. They must ensure a three-year supply of water in case of future drought, and the agencies that will face at least three more years of drought must set high conservation standards.

Some broader restrictions from the governor’s mandate, like a ban on hosing off sidewalks or washing cars without hose nozzles, will remain in place. But theoretically, if the water supply and demand equal out, a district’s conservation target could be zero. That means people won’t face such strict requirements, which could lead to them returning to old water habits, such as watering lawns too frequently, turning on their fountains again, or filling up their pools. This new process also adds a reporting burden on the state board, which has to sift through hundreds of analyses to make sure each district is complying. It’s unclear how that will be done logistically; the board did not respond to a request for comment.

However it pans out, the new plan allows agencies to roll back conservation efforts without much consequence. Several water district managers say that even though following state standards and reporting numbers every month was a hassle, they saw huge gains that they hate to lose.

“Once you start changing behaviors, you don’t want to unwind that,” says Harry Starkey, manager of West Kern Water District. His district will continue to take detailed measurements of water usage and enforce landscaping restrictions, he says.

Other agencies are relaxing water-saving efforts because they have reserves for now. San Diego County recently lowered its reduction goal because a new desalination plant provides 10 percent of local water supply. Riverside Public Utilities says it has already exceeded conservation goals, so the district doesn’t need to enforce strict mandates. The Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, which got so much rain the local reservoir was spilling over this winter, is cancelling emergency-conservation programs and public-education programs for conservation. Several managers from around the state added that because water efficiency is now such an accepted part of everyday life, they don’t believe residents will stop saving water.

“Even before the regulations, we had moved the needle quite a bit,” says Todd Jorgenson, assistant general manager of Riverside Public Utilities. “Conservation, drought—these are common things to us, so we expect to continue those efforts.”

Most water agencies don’t have specific plans in place yet, but water managers say every water district in California will eventually need to raise rates to make up for revenue loss in times of drought, and it’s likely that in the future, there will be policy changes for how both commercial and residential water supplies work.

Tracy Quinn, water policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that it’s important for districts to keep in mind that even though local drought conditions may have improved, it doesn’t mean California is in the clear. This year, snowpack melted quickly and is now only 29 percent of its normal. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, meanwhile, says there’s a high chance for La Niña conditions this winter, which could mean another dry year ahead.

Since more extreme droughts are inevitable, Quinn says, water agencies should keep up strong conservation efforts and focus on in-depth reports for the state: “Water agencies should be cautious and plan for the likelihood that the worst may be yet to come.”

This piece was originally published in High Country News.

Published in Environment

When the California Coastal Commission fired its executive director, Charles Lester, late on Wednesday, Feb. 10, most members of the audience in the community center in Morro Bay were left distraught.

For seven hours, people from across California had taken the podium to declare their support for Lester. There were representatives from indigenous communities and organizations for underserved Hispanic populations in Los Angeles, former commissioners, and at least one resort executive. Almost 1,000 people gathered, nearly all of them in favor of Lester. But in a vote of 7-5, commissioners fired Lester—and they did so without offering any real explanation to the public.

Many fear Lester’s firing could mean increased pressure from developers, closed-off beaches and environmental damage to a quintessential Western landmark—one that runs from the surf breaks of San Diego to the wild cliffs of Big Sur and beyond.

Since the California Coastal Commission was established about 45 years ago, it has fiercely guarded 1,100 miles of pristine shoreline from the Oregon border to San Diego. It sets a high standard for environmental law, ensuring nearly all beaches along Highway 1 remain public and accessible, and that coastal development is shaped to protect endangered species and habitats.

Climate change has made this mission more critical than ever. In the last century, sea levels off California’s coast have risen seven inches, shrinking the coastline. In 2030, the water line will be five inches higher than it was a decade ago, and by 2100, it could rise up to three feet in some regions. These changes could mean less public access to beaches, a vital outdoors resource for California residents. Rising sea levels also mean that about $36.5 billion in property and 145,000 coastal residents are at risk.

In other words, the stakes of the hearing were much higher than one man’s job. Depending on the priorities of the commissioners, Lester said at the hearing, “Many of our public beaches could be lost, squeezed between the rising seas and shoreline development.”

Disagreements between coastal commissioners about development projects are nothing new. Twenty years ago, commissioners tried to oust the politically savvy, ardent environmentalist Peter Douglas, who was executive director for more than two decades. He survived a public hearing in 1996, plus at least one more attempt on his career.

Douglas hand-picked Lester to succeed him, and the commission unanimously approved the new director in 2011. Lester is more reserved and hasn’t appeared publicly often, which, several former commissioners said, may be part of the reason he was targeted. They claimed the commission staff lacked enough diversity, which Lester addressed and committed to improving before and during the hearing. They also complained of his weak managerial skills, such as not communicating well with commissioners. Lester told the Los Angeles Times after the hearing that most of these issues could be resolved through better communication.

Critics of the firing say that the reasons the commissioners provided were just a way to hide their true motivation: Lester wasn’t industry-friendly enough and too slow in approving development permits.

When he was notified in January that the commission was moving to fire him, Lester chose to hold a public hearing to push back, instead of simply stepping down. In the weeks that preceded the hearing, 93 NGOs signed a letter of support; 35 former commissioners spoke out in opposition to a firing; 10 congressional delegates warned Gov. Jerry Brown that losing Lester would threaten the nonpartisan nature of the commission; and 153 commission staff members signed a letter of support. About 14,000 comments, most in support of Lester, were sent to the commission.

Wednesday’s hearing, which lasted 12 hours, provided a unique opportunity for people to voice larger concerns about corporate interests infiltrating the commission and threatening access to public spaces—an issue becoming increasingly pressing in the age of climate change.

“The real concern isn’t whether Charles Lester is or isn’t the executive director,” says Mel Nutter, a pioneering member of the commission who served from 1977 to 1985. “The concern is what this may mean for the continued integrity of the California coastal program.”

After California’s population exploded in the 1960s, a voter initiative established the commission, in 1972, to regulate rampant development along the coast and protect it for future generations. The Coastal Act of 1976 extended the commission’s authority. Twelve commissioners review any major proposed action on the coastline, including development, wetlands restoration, energy projects and wastewater treatment. Four commissioners are appointed by the governor, four by the speaker of the state assembly, and four by the California Senate Rules Committee. All appointments are strictly political, and there are no criteria commissioners have to meet to be chosen, Nutter said.

Since the 1980s, funding for the commission has declined, but the agency has managed to mostly avoid regulatory capture, or lobbying efforts from special interests. Lester described the commission’s work as a “social justice program.” One of its key commitments is ensuring land access for low-income and minority communities by preventing mansions from blocking beach access and keeping affordable lodging along the coast. During his tenure, Lester also laid groundwork for coastal towns to cope with climate change, including securing $5 million for climate adaptation planning and sea level rise guidance for local governments.

Critics of the ousting have said that Commissioner Wendy Mitchell, appointed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and retained by Brown, led the push to get Lester fired. They pointed to Mitchell’s close relationship with corporate interests: Her political consulting firm has corporate clients, including PG&E and Cadiz, a renewable-resource-development company.

Ironically, in addition to being an advocate for climate change adaptation, Lester has been more development-friendly than most previous directors; under his leadership, the commission approved 98 percent of permit applications over the last five years.

During the hearing, several commissioners blamed the media and environmental organizations for misleading the public about their motives. “Some of you now are convinced that we are behind a sinister plot to betray everything we’ve sworn to protect,” Commissioner Mark Vargas said at the hearing. “This is not a decision we come to rashly or suddenly, but after years of review with the executive director.”

Senior Deputy Director Jack Ainsworth will lead the commission until it finds an interim executive director and a replacement. Several commissioners contacted for this story were not available for comment or did not respond.

Gov. Brown, who signed the Coastal Act into law, has remained silent throughout the firing process. “This is a personnel matter—initiated without any involvement from our office—for the Coastal Commission to decide,” said Evan Westrup, an office representative.

Under state law, everything lower than the high-tide mark is public property. For 40 years, the commission has made sure that law was honored. The silver lining in Lester’s ousting may be broader a public understanding of the threats to coast, which could help shape environmental regulation in response to climate change.

Every house built is at risk from sea level rise, flooding and landslides, says Susanne Moser, a researcher at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. The coast now faces a battle “of short-term interests and long-term interests,” she says. “There’s more to the coast than being a cash cow.”

This story was originally published by High Country News.

Published in Environment

On a recent trip to California, I visited the North Coast, where spring usually means green hills with deep grass, strewn with lupine and bright orange poppies bobbing in sea breezes.

This year, we found stunted grass, browning hills and the local news obsessing over the worst drought in California's recorded history. Suddenly, the most populous state in the country faces a harsh reality, with water shortages threatening all aspects of life, from the economy, to our food supply, to the very livability of our homes.

Holed up in Bodega Bay, I heard Gov. Jerry Brown on the radio talking about mandatory water-use restrictions for California's 39 million people. Brown usually can be counted on to take on issues realistically, yet when asked if he would restrict the amount of water that goes to agriculture, he demurred. Agriculture had suffered enough already, he said.

While we are all grateful to farmers and farm workers—including those in the eastern Coachella Valley—for producing the food we crave, the tough reality of severe drought should compel us to take a closer look at agricultural water use. In America's entrepreneurial environment, we're not used to asking hard questions about legal private-sector activity, but this severe and lingering drought—not only in California, but also throughout the West—could, and should, force a serious debate about private-sector use of public water supplies. It is long overdue.

This may be an uncomfortable process for politicians who will have to consider a difficult balance: water supplies for cities versus water for rural industries, including ones that may not be able to survive in a drying region.

Here are the cold facts: Cities in California use between 10 to 20 percent of the state's developed water, producing 98 percent of its gross domestic product, while agriculture uses 80 percent of the water supply—and produces only 2 percent of the state's GDP. And of the 80 percent that agriculture uses, only a portion is used for crops that directly feed people.

We could drill down deeper and see who is using water and for what, but this is where politicians start squirming, given that farmers produce both crops and campaign contributions. The majority of Colorado River water and agricultural water in California goes to producing feed for cattle—low-value crops like alfalfa and hay. Those crops use 14 million acre-feet of water a year, which is far more than what is used by water-intensive crops like rice, cotton or wine grapes.

Alfalfa is a huge water-waster largely because of its high rates of evapotranspiration, as well as the overall inefficiency of flood irrigation, the main means of watering the crops. Seventy percent of California's alfalfa goes to dairies, which use more than 700 gallons of water per cow, per day, in facilities that have hundreds of cows, usually located in arid parts of the state. The 500,000 beef cattle in California require between 400 and 2,500 gallons of water for each pound of meat, depending on who supplies your statistics.

Of course, California is not the only area facing a drought. In the Rio Grande Basin of Colorado and New Mexico, the same pattern of alfalfa and hay production for desert dairies and feedlots depletes ground and surface water, leaving cities, wildlife and recreation chasing ever lower flows on this iconic river. According to The New York Times, livestock production uses 75 percent of Colorado River flows, which currently are 15 percent lower than they were in 1990—and dropping. Statistics for the Rio Grande are similar.

How do we handle a commercial interest that disproportionately burdens the public water supply? The dairy and beef industries, and forage growers, provide some jobs, but their high water consumption threatens many other crops and businesses—employing far more people—as well as domestic water-users who depend on water for survival.

In 1983, the California Supreme Court, in the case National Audubon Society v. Superior Court, ruled that water falls under the public trust doctrine, which says that important public resources are so fundamental to society that courts can impose restrictions when private development threatens public use. The court applied the public trust doctrine to water that had been appropriated under state law, ruling that those appropriations were contrary to the public interest.

If politicians remain unwilling to confront wasteful use of our public water supplies, it might be time to bring a case to the courts.

Tom Ribe is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in New Mexico.

Published in Community Voices

California has been taking strong measures to deal with extreme drought. Gov. Jerry Brown recently ordered cities to cut water use, and approved new regulations to limit the flow of water in toilets, urinals and faucets.

But some economists think that there are more efficient and effective ways to mitigate drought—so they’re starting to dust off the idea of water markets.

Putting financial tools to work in the world of water management, they believe, could free up more water for use, overcoming some of the major problems associated with dry spells, and avoiding the need for some crisis measures. Proponents say markets can tell us where water is scarce and where it isn’t, and could help address one of the more nefarious aspects of water-wasting: how cheap water seems compared to how important it is.

“Drought is a train moving at us at three miles per hour,” Jennifer Pitt, director of the Colorado River Program for the Environmental Defense Fund, says, “and if we don’t get off the track, it’s our own damn fault.”

Rather than complicated laws, policies and agreements, a market system could allow users to sell or buy rights from year to year, or to conserve water use without losing water rights. Such instruments, for example, would help a broccoli farmer lease his water rights to an almond farmer, earning money on a fallow field for a year while preventing a catastrophe in his neighbor’s orchard. Water law today often prohibits farmers from doing that.

While California’s drought has dominated headlines, the Colorado River Basin and many other watersheds are facing a longer-term problem: As the climate changes, dry areas of the planet are likely to get drier, so droughts will probably last even longer.

“Markets are going to be critical to the solution to drought,” Pitt says. That doesn’t mean privatizing water fully, but recognizing water’s relationship to the land it runs through—and therefore to property.

Currently, most water is bound to property rights, under a series of doctrines that make it hard to move around and hard to conserve. A use-it-or-lose-it aspect underpins many water policies. They may be mere slips of paper, but water rights can be as cumbersome to move as boulders. That lack of flexibility in Western water policy and law creates “quite a bit of tension and risk,” says Peter Culp, a water lawyer at Squire Patton Boggs, in Phoenix.

In a recent discussion paper for the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, “Shopping for Water: How the Market Can Mitigate Water Shortages in the American West,” Culp and co-authors Robert Glennon, at the University of Arizona, and Gary Libecap, at the University of California at Santa Barbara, give five proposals for putting water markets in place: “Reform legal rules that discourage water trading to enable short-term water transfers; create basic market institutions to facilitate trading of water; use risk mitigation strategies to enhance system reliability; protect groundwater resources; and continue to expand federal leadership.”

That means, for example, that states could encourage water users to free up water on a short-term basis. (The broccoli farmer who gives his water for a year for the sake of his neighbor’s almonds is an example of this.) They also suggest finding ways to link water rights to consumption, rather than diversion, and to ensure that junior water users are not harmed in times of drought. They advocate for eliminating the “beneficial use doctrine,” which demands that all water must be used for a beneficial purpose, such as agricultural irrigation or a city utility, or see its right forfeited. That idea, the authors say, hampers markets and discourages efficient use of water.

Water markets certainly have detractors and caveats. There’s a lot of reluctance to move out of the old system, which has been in place for years and is surrounded by complicated, hard-to-untangle laws and traditions.

Such rights could also be traded without regard to the rural communities that rely on them, says Patricia Mulroy, the former water czar for Las Vegas and currently a fellow at Brookings.

“Once the market forces take hold, the only thing people will talk about is the money,” she says. “And only the economists and the accountants will move their lips.”

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

On March 17, the California State Water Resources Control Board made it clear: Californians need to escalate the battle against the continuing, disastrous drought that’s plaguing our state.

Gov. Jerry Brown first held a press conference to reiterate the need for increased voluntary water conservation. Soon after, though, he went on the offensive: In an executive order issued April 1, he delivered the first list of state-mandated water-use restrictions in California’s history—mandates which will remain in effect until at least Feb. 28, 2016, although most people believe they’ll remain in effect well beyond that date.

The order means the two main water-management agencies in the Coachella Valley—the Desert Water Agency (DWA) on the west end, and the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) on the east end—have been charged with creating, implementing and following local water-usage-reduction programs.

The CVWD held a board meeting to solicit public input on April 14.

“I’d estimate that we had nearly 100 people there—and we don’t get any people at our meetings very often,” said Heather Engel, the agency’s director of communication and conservation. “I think the board really appreciated the outpouring from the community and the sharing in the discussion. Here’s the thing: We need to hear from them which restrictions are feasible and are going to be accepted by them.”

The CVWD’s new strategies and restrictions will be announced at the board meeting on Tuesday, April 28.

Over at the DWA, on Tuesday, April 21, the board of directors held a public meeting—and an estimated 200-plus citizens packed into the small meeting room, overflowing into the lobby. The size of the crowd required that Katie Ruark, the DWA public information officer, deliver her multimedia presentation on water-conservation efforts twice—first in the meeting room, and then to the disgruntled citizens forced to stand outside the meeting room’s doors.

While the CVWD put two weeks between the public-input meeting and an announcement of new restrictions, the DWA issued revised policies just hours after public input was received on April 21. Given that tight turnaround, it’s difficult to understand how the public comments could have influenced the final policy announcement.

The DWA restrictions, which took effect immediately, declare that “the following uses of water are now prohibited (or continue to be prohibited): washing of hardscapes; running water to wash vehicles (buckets and stop nozzles on hoses are permitted); (and) the use of potable water in fountains or other decorative water features (unless necessary for aquatic pets).”

The decree continues, “Irrigation restrictions include: using potable water outside of newly constructed homes and buildings that is not delivered by drip or micro-spray systems; outdoor residential irrigation shall be restricted to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, after 7 p.m. and before 7 a.m.; a commercial, industrial or institutional customer may implement an alternative water use reduction plan that achieves reductions in water use equivalent to those expected from the restrictions prescribed herein, if approved …; runoff such that water flows onto adjacent property, non-irrigated areas, private and public walkways, roadways, parking lots, or structures is prohibited; irrigating up to 48 hours after measurable rainfall is prohibited; the use of potable water to irrigate turf within street medians, and turf within the dedicated right of way on either side of a public street, is prohibited.”

The restrictions end with: “Additional restrictions for hotels and restaurants include: Restaurants may provide water to customers only upon request; (and) operators of hotels and motels shall provide guests with the option of choosing not to have towels and linens laundered daily.”

The DWA also asked customers to refrain from emptying and refilling swimming pools from June 1 through Oct. 31, unless absolutely necessary.

Per State Water Resources Control Board policy, no restrictions are being placed on the agricultural industry. In CVWD territory, agriculture accounts for 50 percent of total water usage, as compared to 17 percent by golf courses, and 33 percent for domestic use—public and private, commercial and residential.

Both of the valley’s agencies have been told to reduce their customers’ total usage by 36 percent as computed against 2013 usage numbers. By comparison, some water districts in the state have been asked to reduce usage by as little as 6 to 10 percent. The percentage target for each district was based on per-capita usage numbers, so this high target for valley residents was predicated on consistently high per-capita average-usage totals.

In a letter to the State Water Resources Control Board by DWA general manager David Luker, he blamed seasonal residents for much of the high water usage.

“During the warmer season, approximately 30 percent of water bills are sent out of the state of California,” Luker wrote. “Seasonal residents have homes that use water whether they are here or not, but they are not counted as population. The water use of seasonal residents is placed on the backs of year-round residents, as seasonal residents are not included in population data.”

Unlike the DWA, the CVWD declined to make a comment to the SWRCB.

“A 36 percent reduction is not going to be easy as a whole water district,” said Engel. “We still think that the state’s per-capita number for us is not a fair representation, but we have decided that, no, we’re not going to push back. We’ve decided that if the state wants us to reduce by 36 percent, then we’re going to do what we can to reduce by 36 percent.”

At the DWA’s public meeting, numerous community speakers urged the board to adopt and implement a tiered-billing policy soon—even though a state appeals court had just ruled that a four-tiered pricing plan adopted by San Juan Capistrano was in violation of Proposition 218, a 1996 initiative passed by voters that prohibits government agencies from charging more for services than their actual cost.

However, the CVWD, which has had a tiered-billing system since 2009, is confident the agency’s system could withstand any legal challenge.

“We don’t think it will have an effect,” Engel said about the ruling. “Our understanding is that the court’s problem was not with budget-based tiered rates in general, but with rate structures that arbitrarily set the pricing. Our rate structure is based on our cost to provide service.”

Published in Environment

Proposition 1, the $7.5 billion water bond that 67 percent of California voters approved last week, will provide millions of dollars for projects everyone likes.

It sets aside funds to strip pollutants from valuable urban aquifers; it will bring in money to repair aging pipes that leach pollutants into drinking water. Locally, the Salton Sea could get part of the $500 million the measure authorizes for restoring damaged ecosystems.

So what about it makes many environmental groups so mad?

The Center for Biological Diversity, Food and Water Watch, and San Francisco Baykeeper all took an explicit stand against Proposition 1, as did virtually every fisherman’s advocacy group in the state. The Sierra Club, though it officially opposed the legislative bill that produced the ballot measure, remainedneutral in theory, but the group’s position statement announcing neutrality also used the word hate.

Chelsea Tu, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, says the problem comes down to this: While the bond measure does indeed give a nod to higher environmental concerns, “those beneficial provisions are far outweighed by the $2.7 billion in the bill set aside for surface and groundwater storage provisions.”

In other words, the “public benefits” it funds could mean new dams: One would flood 14,000 acres in Colusa County north of Sacramento for the proposed Sites Reservoir; another would augment current San Joaquin River water storage at Temperance Flat. Prop 1 funds could also go toward adding 18.5 feet to Shasta Dam—a $1.1 billion project touted as a “bargain“ by Westlands Water District General Manager Tom Birmingham, but opposed by the Winnemem Wintu tribe, which was flooded out of sacred lands once when the dam was finished in 1945.

Proposition 1 does not explicitly state that any of the $2.7 billion will fund dam projects, however, and not every environmental group worries quite so much. “The era of big dams is over,” pronounced Doug Obegi, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, on the organization’s blog. “The water bond does not earmark funding for Temperance Flat or any other surface storage project.” Dams cost too much money to make sense anymore; even with taxpayer subsidies, they “can’t compete economically with these regional and local water supply projects.”

Emphasizing that NRDC “strongly opposes” both Temperance Flat and a Shasta Dam raising, Obegi’s organization endorsed Prop 1.

Tu thinks that’s not only “optimistic,” but at odds with Gov. Jerry Brown’s oft-stated agenda.

“Every time the governor talks about the water crisis, he talks about building out water infrastructure projects that go back to the 1950s,” she says. “Those are projects that both state and federal legislatures have been pushing for many, many years.” They’re also projects that the state’s agricultural interests, which consume more than three-quarters of the state’s water, have lobbied hard for, along with a multibillion-dollar tunnel project that would suck water from the Sacramento River before it ever gets to the ailing California Delta. (Prop 1 was written to be “tunnel neutral.”)

Adam Scow, California campaigns director for Food and Water Watch, calls Prop. 1 “a bunch of mystery meat,” ominously geared toward finding more ways to deliver water to industrial agriculture. Even more alarming, he says, is that according to the provisions of the bill, the nine members of the California Water Commission have been tasked with allocating the meat. Those nine members have been appointed by “Big Agriculture’s closest ally,” Scow says. “A man named Jerry Brown.”

Scow thinks Proposition 1’s other benefits recede in light of that fact. Aquifer cleanup, water for fish, habitat restoration and drinking water for disadvantaged communities are all good, he says, and even necessary. They just don’t have to be yoked to what he calls “a bloated bond deal,” written with industrial agriculture in mind.

“We do need to address the inequities in water rights we have in this state,” Scow says. “We just don’t need a bond deal to do it.”

But that bond deal is exactly what Californians overwhelmingly approved on Election Day.

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor for High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

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