As 2023 opens, there is some good news, some bad news, some interesting news, and some no news to report.
The good news? The first 12 days of the 90 days that will determine whether California faces a 4th year of severe drought are off to a solid start – plenty of rain, snow, and sufficiently cold temperatures to keep that initial snowpack from the kind of premature melt off that nixed December 2021’s solid start. So far, so good, but “so far” is not yet nearly far enough to draw any conclusions. But there is a sliver of hope. The meteorologists are now telling us that the La Niña that they had predicted to remain firmly in place during the 1st half of 2023 is falling apart and with it the high-pressure ridge over the Pacific Coast that blocks storms from coming our way.
The bad news? Well, there is plenty of that – on the water front, that is. The hydrologists tell us that even if California gets above average rain and snow for a couple of years, that won’t solve our long-term water problems. The reason: Aridification, which is on its way to replacing “gaslighting” as next year’s new favorite word.
The American Southwest is drying out, as warmer, drier climatic conditions yield less of the variety of water (snowpack runoff) that our 20th Century infrastructure was designed to capture and convey to those areas of the state where absent artificial means, there isn’t enough of the stuff to sustain the population during the long dry seasons that characterize Mediterranean and desert climates. And that’s why when the seven (7) states that form the Colorado Compact met in Las Vegas last month, officials from the federal government informed them that they had until January 31 to negotiate major water cuts to stave off a possible collapse in supplies. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Camille Touton put it to them bluntly: “The hotter, drier conditions that we face today are not temporary. Climate change is here today and has made it likely that we will continue to see conditions like this, or worse, in the future. The Basin is seeing its worst drought in 1,200 years, and there is no relief in sight.”
As we reported December 15, all 19 million of those whose water retailers make purchases from the Southern California Metropolitan Water District (MWD) are under the same mandate as the 6 million in Ventura and Los Angeles County (primarily Los Angeles Water & Power) that have been under restrictions since the summer. For now, the call for conservation for the 13 million newly affected is voluntary. However, the MWD made clear that if drought conditions persist through the 1st three months of 2023, that call would become mandatory along with fines for those districts and providers that fail to meet specified conservation goals. To which we would add the following: To the degree to which California accommodates the federal government’s demand for significant givebacks in the state’s Colorado River allocation by indeed agreeing to provide “significant” permanent curtailments, a normal or above normal winter 2023 precipitation season may not be enough to stave off mandatory conservation along with fines for overages.
The water agencies in the Coachella Valley (e.g., CVWD and DWA) may not be customers of the Metropolitan Water District (MWD), but they and the 120 golf courses in their service areas are very much dependent upon the same Colorado River Basin that just caused MWD to extend its drought emergency to all of its 19 million customers. Given the direct connection between raw water draws off the Colorado River and the 120 golf courses in the region, this will be the 1st time in recent memory that the desert golf community will be substantively affected by curtailments as opposed to politically affected by the curtailments applied to others, making next week’s Colorado Basin focused water meeting at Mission Hills CC in Rancho Mirage timely.
Anyone reading this desirous of attending the January 11 afternoon session can contact either of us (Craig Kessler or Kevin Fitzgerald); we’ll get you registered. Peter Nelson and Dr. Robert Cheng are the featured speakers. Peter Nelson is in his 22nd year of consecutive service on the CVWD Board of Directors and a long-time member of the Colorado River Board. Dr. Robert Cheng is Assistant Director of CVWD, where he serves as that water district’s chief negotiator with the other agencies in the Colorado River Compact. Both can present with great authority regarding exactly where the Coachella Valley region stands regarding water supply and exactly what this portends for the largest concentration of golf courses not just in California, but the nation.
The interesting news? On December 30 the Biden Administration finalized a long-expected reworking of the EPA’s “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) Rule that repealed the Trump Administration’s reworking of the Rule as it had been substantially reworked by the Obama Administration in 2015.
In short, the WOTUS Rule defines what constitutes a body of water that is subject to federal regulation. Environmentalists have long advocated for expanding that definition to include any body of water with the remotest of possibilities of connection with bodies beyond their boundaries. Farmers, oil/gas industry, developers, ranchers, and builders of all stripes have argued that only those bodies of water with direct connection to streams, wetlands, tributaries, rivers, etc., ought to be subject to federal regulation, in other words, navigable bodies of water. They derisively termed the 2015 Obama Rule as the mud puddle or ditch rule, arguing that the 2015 reworking de facto included such bodies in the EPA’s regulatory web.
The Biden EPA and Department of the Army split the difference, arguing that their December 30 Rule was built on a streamlined version of the pre-2015 definition with sufficient flexibility to reflect evolving court decisions and scientific inquiry. Whether the new Rule passes judicial muster will soon be known, as the U.S. Supreme Court has granted certiorari to a case that promises to bring clarity to a subject that has been anything but clear for a long time. The upshot for golf? Golf courses are required to obtain discharge permits for any and all sources of water that are deemed capable of finding their way into water tables or navigable waters. Thus, neither good nor bad news, but “interesting news,” and tellingly, it too is about water.
Also falling in the “interesting” but not necessarily bad or good news category are some laws that went into effect Monday. The state minimum wage is now $15.50 per hour; a number of localities (city/county) that traditionally exceed the state minimum have gone up commensurately more. Mandatory family leave now allows employees to add one more extended family member to their list. Employees are now eligible for five (5) days of job-protected bereavement. And the most “interesting” of the job-related bunch; companies with 15 or more employees are now required to list salary ranges for all job postings.
Falling in the more “interesting” category because of their similarity to some of the local prerogative busting aspects of last year’s AB 1910, are some of the laws calculated to ease the state’s housing shortage. We watch these carefully because of their implication for AB 1910-like legislation that could cause a run on the state’s stock (22.3% of the total) of municipal golf courses. Under legislation that went into effect Monday, local governments are now barred from mandating parking spaces as part of developments in proximity to transit stops – any development, including commercial and/or retail developments that don’t involve a housing element. New housing projects are now allowed in commercial corridors otherwise zoned for large retail and/or office buildings, and certain kinds of student, faculty, and staff housing projects are now exempt from CEQA. A bill filed in the 2023 legislative hopper would do the same for church/religious institution owned properties.
State preemption of local zoning prerogative promises to continue in the 2023 session and beyond – as long as California has a critical housing shortage, which promises to be a long time. And it behooves golf to be vigilant in ensuring that to the degree to which golf properties might get caught up in this obviation frenzy, they only get caught up in a net that throws all other open and recreational space activities into the same mix. Golf made clear in the AB 1910 debate, and will continue to make clear, that while it does not object to partaking in a shared sacrifice scheme that includes the rest of the park/open space/recreational community, it does object to being singled out among them as the only sacrifice. Of course, we also agree with last year’s Los Angeles Times editorial that concluded that the state’s parks, sports fields, and open spaces ought to be Sacramento’s last resort in locating sites to mitigate the state’s housing shortage.
The no news? Nothing like AB 672 or 1910 has been filed as of yet, and we have heard no rumors of such filings. But there’s a long time between now and the 2023 calendar’s bill filing deadline – a full 7 weeks. We’ll be watching – watching that, watching the administrative agencies, watching the weather, watching the public utilities/water providers, watching the municipal sector, and watching the myriad places where the game of golf and public policy intersect.
Happy New Year!
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Last Friday was the last day of the 2023 session for bills to pass their houses of origin and move to the other house for consideration.Read More →
In light of the Lower Basin states’ conservation proposal, the Biden Administration has announced that it is temporarily withdrawing the draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) published last month so that it can fully analyze the effects of the proposal under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).Read More →
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