The following links are just news items and opinions that pass my desk throughout the week. I don’t necessarily support or advocate any of the items, they are just interesting reads.
California storms: The past three weeks were the wettest in 161 years in the Bay Area – How wet has it been recently in Northern California?
New rainfall totals show that no person alive has experienced a three-week period in the Bay Area as wet as these past 21 days. The last time it happened, Abraham Lincoln was president.
From Dec. 26 to Jan. 15, 17 inches of rain fell in downtown San Francisco. That’s the second-wettest three-week period at any time in San Francisco’s recorded history since daily records began in 1849 during the Gold Rush. And it’s more than five times the city’s historical average of 3.1 inches over the same time.
The only three-week period that was wetter in San Francisco — often used as the benchmark for Bay Area weather because it has the oldest records — came during the Civil War when a drowning 23.01 inches fell from Jan. 5 to Jan. 25, 1862, during a landmark winter that became known as “The Great Flood of 1862.”
And despite the recent wet weeks, Northern California is nowhere near the final yearly rainfall total of 1861-62. San Francisco on Tuesday had 21.75 inches of rain since Oct. 1. That total would have to more than double in the coming months to reach the 49.27 inches that fell in 1861-62, or the 47.19 inches that fell in the second-wettest year in history, 1997-98. Read More > in The Mercury News
For all their ferocity, California storms were not likely caused by global warming, experts say – As California emerges from a two-week bout of deadly atmospheric rivers, a number of climate researchers say the recent storms appear to be typical of the intense, periodic rains the state has experienced throughout its history and not the result of global warming.
Although scientists are still studying the size and severity of storms that killed 19 people and caused up to $1 billion in damage, initial assessments suggest the destruction had more to do with California’s historic drought-to-deluge cycles, mountainous topography and aging flood infrastructure than it did with climate-altering greenhouse gasses.
Although the media and some officials were quick to link a series of powerful storms to climate change, researchers interviewed by The Times said they had yet to see evidence of that connection. Instead, the unexpected onslaught of rain and snow after three years of punishing drought appears akin to other major storms that have struck California every decade or more since experts began keeping records in the 1800s.
“We know from climate models that global warming will boost California storms of the future, but we haven’t made that connection with the latest storm systems,” said Alexander Gershunov, a climate scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “Assuming that these storms were driven by global warming would be like assuming an athlete who breaks a record was on steroids.” Read More > in the Los Angeles Times
Californians approved billions for new water storage. Why hasn’t it gotten built? – In 2014, during the throes of last decade’s drought, California voters approved billions of dollars for infrastructure that would catch and store much-needed water from winter storms. The hope was to amass water in wet times and save it for dry times.
Nearly 10 years later, none of the major storage projects, which include new and expanded reservoirs, has gotten off the ground.
As the state experiences a historic bout of rain and snow this winter, amid another severe water shortage, critics are lamenting the missed opportunity to capture more of the extraordinary runoff that has been swelling rivers, flooding towns and pouring into the sea.
The seven dedicated storage projects funded by voter-approved Proposition 1 remain in various stages of planning. Many are big ventures, including the proposed Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley that would be California’s eighth largest reservoir. Such efforts require years of design, permitting and fundraising and are not easy to build. Still, some say progress has been too slow given the dire need for water.
A small water recycling program on farmland in Sacramento County and the enlargement of Los Vaqueros are expected to be the first to receive final checks from the state, perhaps this year. For other projects, including the Pacheco Reservoir,it could be several more years.
The length of time it has taken to select and finance these efforts was largely intentional. To win broad support for the bond measure in 2014, Prop. 1 put several conditions on the funding, including a requirement that the storage projects show “public benefit,” followed by an elaborate process to rank that quality. It took three years just to gather applications.
“Any large-scale water storage project is complex and requires a high degree of planning, engineering, construction, significant financing, and coordination with existing water infrastructure and operations,” said Paul Cambra, spokesman for the California Water Commission, which is in charge of awarding the bond money.
The proposition also is funding just a fraction of each project, meaning even after the cash is doled out, proposals will move forward only if and when additional money is secured. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle
California storms: A 2-inch fish is limiting how much water can be captured for cities and farms -The most drenching storms in the past five years have soaked Northern California, sending billions of gallons of water pouring across the state after three years of severe drought.
But 94% of the water that has flowed since New Year’s Eve through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a linchpin of California’s water system, has continued straight to the Pacific Ocean instead of being captured and stored in the state’s reservoirs.
Environmental regulations aimed at protecting a two-inch-long fish, the endangered Delta smelt, have required the massive state and federal pumps near Tracy to reduce pumping rates by nearly half of their full limit, sharply curbing the amount of water that can be saved for farms and cities to the south.
The move has angered Central Valley politicians of both parties along with agricultural leaders, who have been arguing for many months that someone must help farmers suffering terribly during the drought. Now they are frustrated that the state Department of Water Resources and the federal Bureau of Reclamation aren’t capturing more water amid the record rainfall.
The Contra Costa Water District, which relies on Delta water, has been able to add almost no water to its largest reservoir, Los Vaqueros, in the past two weeks. Its level has gone from 48% full to 50% full. And less water has flowed into San Luis Reservoir, east of Gilroy, a major supply for the Santa Clara County Valley Water District, the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles, and others, than otherwise would have. San Luis Reservoir has gone from 34% full on Jan. 1 to 42% full on Thursday. Read More > in The Mercury News
California: 10.8 Million Mail-In Ballots ‘Disappeared’ in 2022 Election –
According to research by the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), more than 10.8 million mail-in ballots “disappeared” in California’s midterm elections last year.
California election officials mailed more than 22.1 million ballots to registered voters, but 10.8 million “disappeared.”
“A significant number of mail-in ballots were rejected during California’s first year of mass mail voting. During the 2022 primary and general election 226,250 mail-in ballots were rejected by election officials. These refusals represent the potential disenfranchisement of voters due to the move to voting by mail,” says PILF.
PILF researchers say that “with mass mail-in elections, the problems accumulate.”
The investigation reveals that “after counting the votes at the polling places and the rejected ballots in November 2022, there were more than 10 million ballots pending, which means that election officials do not know what happened to them.”
PILF says that “it is fair to assume that most of these were ignored or ultimately discarded by their intended recipients. But, under the mass mail-in elections, we can only assume what happened. Vote-by-mail practices have an insurmountable information gap.”
They also claim that “the public cannot know how many ballots were ignored, delivered to the wrong mailboxes, or even withheld from the proper recipient by someone at the same address.” Read More > at The Tennessee Star
Now, Senate Bill 9 — which Gov. Newsom signed in the fall of 2021 to allow as many as four units on single-family lots across California — may have earned itself a new nickname: Nothingburger.
According to a new report by UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation, the effect of the controversial housing bill has been “limited or nonexistent” — at least so far.
The report’s authors collected applications to divide up residential lots from 13 cities, including urban giants such as Los Angeles, San Diego and San José as well as the sleepier suburbs of Saratoga and Danville. They counted just 100 applications in all for a total of 282 potential units. Just 28 of those applications for 53 units have been approved so far.
To put that in perspective, Gov. Newsom wants cities across the state to approve an additional 2.5 million homes by 2030. And the Terner Center, itself, had earlier projected that more than 700,000 new homes might be feasible under the new law.
- David Garcia, Terner Center’s policy director: “Pretty much everywhere you look, Senate Bill 9 activity is very marginal. It is nonexistent in some places.”
This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. As CalMatters housing reporter Manuela Tobais wrote around the time of the bill’s passage, zoning is only one part of the equation. Construction costs, physical constraints, planning department capacity, local regulations and a limited appetite by most homeowners to carve up their place of residence were always going to make SB 9 an unlikely route out of the state’s housing crisis.
It also might be too soon to put a fork in the law.
- Terner report: “It is still too early to say that SB 9 is not working…Planners told us that while applications for SB 9 have been low, inquiries to their departments about SB 9 are high.” Read More > at CalMatters
Is the Bay Area on the verge of a housing construction slowdown? – The Bay Area, already one of the most difficult and expensive places in the nation to build new homes, is being buffeted by a turbulent economy that’s creating even more challenges for a region reeling from a housing affordability crisis.
The headwinds are plenty: Higher interest rates for construction loans. Rising labor and material costs. Slowing demand from homebuyers squeezed by more expensive mortgages. And fears of a looming recession as cities continue to recover from the pandemic.
That’s all raising the specter of a widespread housing construction downturn.
“There already is a slowdown, but I think it will magnify itself in 2023,” said Ken Rosen, chair of UC Berkeley’s Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics. “A lot of developers may put projects on hold until construction costs come down.”
The decline threatens to thwart the Bay Area’s effort to meet its state-mandated goal of approving more than 441,000 homes of all income levels over the next eight years, representing a roughly 15% increase in the region’s housing stock. Already, most cities and counties haven’t come close to meeting their individual targets in past decades. And housing experts and advocates contend that chronic underproduction — in part because many local officials have sought to limit growth — is at the root of the region’s astronomical rents and home prices. Read More > in The Mercury News
Microsoft to cut 10,000 jobs as tech layoffs intensify – Microsoft Corp on Wednesday said it would eliminate 10,000 jobs and take a $1.2-billion charge as its cloud-computing customers dissect their spending and the company braces for potential recession.
The layoff, far larger than cuts by Microsoft last year, pile on to tens of thousands of job cuts across the technology sector that’s long past its ceaseless growth during the pandemic.
The news is particularly dramatic for Microsoft, a software maker heavily invested in generative artificial intelligence that represents an industry bright spot.
In a note to employees, Chief Executive Satya Nadella said the layoffs, affecting less than 5% of the workforce, would conclude by the end of March, with notifications beginning Wednesday. Read More > at Reuters
Bad neighborhoods: 1% of counties responsible for 42% of America’s murders – Homicide rates have spiked, but most of America has remained untouched.
Only a tiny fraction of U.S. counties account for nearly all of the country’s homicides, according to research released Tuesday that showed a striking concentration where killings take place.
The worst 31 counties — generally urban jurisdictions — have about a fifth of the country’s population but accounted for 42% of the country’s homicides in 2020, said John R. Lott Jr., president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, which conducted the study.
The worst 5% of counties accounted for 73% of homicides. That ticked up slightly from 69% in 2014 and 70% in 2016.
Meanwhile, 52% of counties recorded no homicides in 2020, and another 16% recorded only a single killing.
“Murders are a problem in a very small percentage of the counties in the United States,” Mr. Lott told The Washington Times.
Even in those higher-homicide counties, the crime is still concentrated, he said.
Mr. Lott crunched the data for Los Angeles County and found that 10% of the county’s ZIP codes accounted for 41% of the homicides. Another 10% accounted for 26% more. Read More > in The Washington Times
Holiday sales fall short of expectations, set stage for tougher 2023 for retailers – Holiday sales came in below industry expectations, as shoppers felt pinched by inflation and rising interest rates, according to data from the National Retail Federation.
Sales during November and December grew 5.3% year over year to $936.3 billion, below the major trade group’s prediction for growth of between 6% and 8% over the year prior. In early November, NRF had projected spending of between $942.6 billion and $960.4 billion.
The retail sales number excludes spending at automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants, and is based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau. It covers the period from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31.
The holiday sales gains include the impact of inflation, which drives up total sales. The consumer price index, which measures the cost of a broad mix of goods and services, was up 6.5% in December compared with a year ago, according to the Labor Department.
For retailers, the shopping season’s results reflect the challenges ahead. As Americans continue to pay higher prices for groceries, housing and more month after month, they are racking up credit card balances, spending down savings and having fewer dollars for discretionary spending. Read More > at CNBC
Pittsburg could soon see road and school crosswalk improvements – Pittsburg’s roadways and school crosswalks could soon become safer as a result of two grants it received recently.
The biggest – nearly $3 million – comes from the California Department of Transportation’s Highway Safety Improvement Program. The second, $105,000 from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, will be used to help provide safer routes for walking and biking to school.
The state grant money is to be used for traffic safety studies and improvements at multiple locations in the city, according to the staff report.
Tentative plans include an audit of existing safety signs and striping for all arterial roads, installation of fluorescent street signs, and improvements to edge lines and centerline striping on 15 roads.
Roads slated to be improved include segments of Railroad Avenue, Kirker Pass Road, Willow Pass Road, Bailey Road, Pittsburg-Antioch Highway, East Leland Road, Loveridge Road, Buchanan Road, West 10th Street, East 10th Street, Harbor Street, North Parkside Drive, California Avenue, Century Boulevard and East 14th Street. Read More > in The Mercury News
Biden’s army of IRS auditors falls victim to hiring woes, ambiguous marching orders – President Biden’s vision for a supercharged IRS is running into the rough realities of hiring problems and difficulties in figuring out who should face more audits.
An inspector general revealed the struggles in a report this week, saying there are major headwinds to carrying out Democrats’ new law, which is pumping $80 billion into the tax collecting agency.
For one thing, the IRS has yet to dig out of a pandemic backlog of unprocessed returns. Also, a tricky job market and lack of expedited hiring authority are making it difficult to bring on more people who can clear the hurdles.
“A continued challenge the IRS faces is having to evaluate a high number of applicants in order to find successful candidates both willing to accept the job offer and also be able to pass the required background checks,” the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration said.
The IRS did add thousands of customer service representatives last year, which means taxpayers should have better luck getting answers when they call this year. Last year, 85% of calls went unanswered and those that did go through were on hold for about half an hour.
The enforcement side is proving tougher to solve, the inspector general said.
Officials are still trying to figure out how to comply with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s instructions on whom to target for audits. At least over the next year, the IRS won’t be able to expand its ranks of auditors because of “employee attrition and hiring challenges,” the inspector general said. Read More > in The Washington Times
California’s next flood could destroy one of its most diverse cities. Will lawmakers try to save it? – In early 1862, a storm of biblical proportions struck California, dropping more than 120 inches of rain and snow on the state over two months. The entire state flooded, but nowhere was the deluge worse than in the Central Valley, a gash of fertile land that runs down the middle of the state between two mountain ranges. In the spring, as melting snow mixed with torrential rain, the valley transformed into “a perfect sea,” as one observer put it, vanishing beneath 30 feet of water that poured from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. People rowed through town streets on canoes. A quarter of all the cows in the state drowned. It took months for the water to drain out.
More than 150 years later, climate scientists say the state is due for a repeat of that massive storm. A growing body of research has found that global warming is increasing the likelihood of a monster storm that could inundate the Central Valley once again, causing what one study from UCLA and the National Atmospheric Center called “historically unprecedented surface runoff” in the region. Not only would this runoff destroy thousands of homes, it would also ravage a region that serves as the nation’s foremost agricultural breadbasket. The study found that global warming has already increased the likelihood of such a storm by 234 percent.
In the crosshairs of that storm is the Stockton metropolitan area, which sits at the mouth of the San Joaquin River. Stockton and its neighboring suburbs are home to almost 800,000 people, and they rank among the most diverse places in the country — as well as some of the most economically distressed places in California. Thanks to decades of disinvestment, the city’s only flood protection comes from decades-old, leak-prone levees. If a major rain event caused enough runoff to surge down the mountains and northward along the San Joaquin, it could burst through those levees, inundating the city and flooding tens of thousands of homes. One federal study found that much of Stockton would vanish beneath 10 to 12 feet of water, and floods in the lowest-lying areas could be twice as deep. The result would be a humanitarian disaster just as costly and as deadly as Hurricane Katrina.
The “atmospheric river” rainstorms that rolled into California from the Pacific Ocean this month have underscored the Golden State’s vulnerability to floods, but experts insist that the destruction of Stockton isn’t inevitable. As is the case in flood-prone communities across the country, local officials know how to manage water on the San Joaquin River, but they’ve struggled to obtain funding for Stockton and other disadvantaged cities along the waterway. Even as California lawmakers have plowed money into drought response in recent years, they’ve left flood measures by the wayside, and the federal government has also been slow to fund major improvements. Read More > at Grist
Unionization rate hit all-time low in 2022 despite growth in overall members – The percentage of American workers who are members of a union fell to a new low in 2022 despite the total number of unionized workers increasing.
Driving the news: 10.1% of workers were unionized in 2022, down from 10.3% in 2021 and a high of 20.1% in 1983, the first year the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported comparable figures.
Why it matters: Unions play a powerful role in the workforce, with advocates saying they advance worker rights while critics say they stymie progress.
By the numbers: The workforce added 273,000 unionized jobs in 2022, up 1.9% from 2021.
- But the number of total jobs increased by 5.3 million, a 3.9% jump, outpacing the growth in union roles.
- 71% of Americans approved of labor unions in 2022, the highest mark recorded by Gallup since 1965.
- But companies like Starbucks and Amazon have resisted unionization efforts, arguing that they’d be better off without them.
Zoom in: The rate of union membership among public-sector workers is five times greater than the rate of private-sector employees — 33.1% to 6%, according to the BLS. Read More > at Axios
America’s Police Exodus – A 2021 survey showed that police departments nationwide saw resignations jump by 18 percent—and retirements by 45 percent—over the previous year, with hiring decreasing by five percent. The Los Angeles Police Department has been losing 50 officers a month to retirement, more than the city can replace with recruits. Oakland lost about seven per month in 2021, with the number of officers sinking below the city’s legally mandated minimum.
The list goes on: Chicago has lost more cops than it has in two decades. New Orleans is backfilling its shortfall of officers with civilians. New York is losing more police officers than it has since such figures began being recorded. Minneapolis and Baltimore have similar stories. St. Louis—one of the most dangerous cities in America—has lost so many cops that there’s a seven-foot-tall, 10-foot-wide pile of uniforms from outgoing officers at police headquarters called “Mount Exodus.”
And in San Francisco, just across the bay from Richmond, the police department has seen 50 officers out of a force of fewer than 2,000 take off for smaller, suburban departments, according to Lieutenant Tracy McCray, the head of the city’s police union.
A big part of what’s prompting police to leave America’s big cities is the perception the public has turned against them. A 2020 poll showed that only seven percent of police officers would advise their kids to go into law enforcement. Eighty-three percent of those who wouldn’t recommend it cited “lack of respect for the profession.”
The shift in police officers’ perception of how they’re viewed by the public happened gradually—starting with the first Black Lives Matter protests of 2013, after the shooting death of Travyon Martin and the acquittal of the man who killed him, George Zimmerman. There were more BLM demonstrations: in 2014, following the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York. Then came the 2015-2016 Democratic presidential primaries, in which BLM played a prominent role.
And then, in late May 2020, George Floyd, a black man, was killed by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, and it was caught on video. The incident ignited protests across the country—a “racial reckoning”—and, soon after, reform.
In some cities, including Portland, Oregon and Columbus, Ohio, local governments set up police review boards with the power to subpoena police records and oversee day-to-day policing. States including Illinois, Minnesota, and Oregon tightened use-of-force standards. New Mexico and Minnesota required officers to intervene if another officer was using what might be deemed unreasonable physical force.
It became popular—even fashionable—for politicians in progressive circles to flaunt their anti-police credentials. In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, the city council resolved to “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department.” (They reversed course after crime surged.) In New York, after winning the Democratic congressional primary, now-Rep. Jamaal Bowman tweeted: “Police officers have sworn to protect and serve the institution of white supremacy.”
Honey bees are not in peril. These bees are. – Want to save the bees? First, throw out most of what you know about them.
What do you know about bees? That they produce honey? That they live in a hive? That they swarm?
Well, I have news: These characteristics don’t actually describe most bees in the US. Of the roughly 4,000 native species, not a single one produces true honey. Not one! Most of them live alone. Most of them have no queen.
The bees that many people are familiar with are honey bees, Apis mellifera, a nonnative species that Americans brought over from Europe centuries ago. Beekeepers manage them like any other farm animal, to produce honey and pollinate crops.
European honey bees are arguably the world’s most famous insect. They’re honey bees! Fuzzy, buzzing, honey-making honey bees! And they deserve at least some of this attention. About one-third of the food we eat comes from plants that honey bees pollinate, and they face several threats, which has fueled a national campaign to “save the bees.”
But all of that attention on honey bees has, some ecologists argue, overshadowed their native counterparts: the wild bees. They’re an incredible bunch, found in all sorts of colors and sizes, and they’re important pollinators, too — better, by some measures, than honey bees. On the whole, native bees are also at a much greater risk of extinction, in part, because of the proliferation of European honey bees.
Honey bees are ultimately not at risk of disappearing. So perhaps, then, all this time we’ve been saving the wrong bees.
The bee that many Americans adore was carried here on wooden ships 400 years ago. At the time, US farms were small and pollinated by wild insects. Settlers used the new bees (newbies?) for candle wax and, of course, honey.
But in the following centuries, as farms spread and native pollinators declined, honey bees became big business as commercial pollinators. Conveniently, the bees pollinate a wide range of crops and they live in colonies that can be trucked across the country, arriving at farms when plants are in bloom.
Today, the US has nearly 3 million colonies of honey bees, amounting to tens of billions of bees. They pollinate roughly $15 billion worth of crops each year, from California almonds to zucchini.
If native bees aren’t like honey bees, what are they like? Most of them are solitary and nest in the ground. Most don’t have queens. They don’t do dances to find honey. And none of them produce the kind of honey we eat (bumblebees do make a honey-like substance from nectar, though in much smaller quantities).
They’re also a diverse bunch. Some are just a couple of millimeters long and look like gnats, while others — bumblebees and carpenter bees, for example — are longer than an inch. Many bees consume nectar and pollen, like honey bees; others eat oil!
As a group, wild bees are considered incredibly important pollinators, especially for home gardens and crops that honey bees can’t pollinate. Tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, for example, require “buzz pollination;” bees have to vibrate their bodies to shake the pollen free — a behavior that honey bees can’t do (bumblebees and some other native species can). Read More > at Vox