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Environment Report: The Wet Weather Is in San Diego's DNA

The longtime head of the San Diego County Water Authority is staying on the payroll, Gov. Gavin Newsom is considering an overhaul of the California Public Utilities Commission and more in our biweekly roundup of environmental news.

Rain in downtown San Diego early 2019. / Photo by Ry Rivard

San Diego has been gloomy — cold, cloudy and rainy — pretty much since Christmas Day.

Communities in North County — Vista and Ramona — just had their coldest February on record, according to the National Weather Service.

So far, it’s rained three inches more than normal for this time of year in San Diego.

“People who are doing construction are sending me text messages saying, ‘When is it going to stop?’” said Alex Tardy, a weather service meteorologist.

While the climate is changing, all this, it turns out, is just winter.

“It’s special, but it’s just not unprecedented,” said Daniel Cayan, a climate researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The city of San Diego’s February was the coldest since 2008 but only the 55th coldest on record. The record was set way back in 1894. And heavy rains through the end of last month didn’t even break the top 25 wettest years to date.

Cayan said it is in the genetics of Southern California to go back and forth between wet and dry. California as a whole has historically bounced from mega droughts across some decades to extraordinarily wet periods that cause flooding in others.

There have been some exceptional moments this winter, but some of the gloom may seem more severe than it really is — a matter of perception — since we’ve just gone through a relatively warm and dry period that did bear the fingerprints of climate change.

“People probably forget that, but your body doesn’t forget that,” Tardy said.

Tardy is tracking the various extremes. Last year, he saw an eye-popping 117-degree day in Ramona, which was the community’s hottest day on record.

Every year from 2014 to 2018 was one of the hottest on record for San Diego and 2011-2016 was the driest period on record for the southern coast, according to figures Tardy has compiled. And, even though this year is off to a cold start, he expects the year could end up being another hot one, if coastal waters remain warm.

All the rain across the state will be good for water supplies and for generating hydroelectric power, though San Diego gets most of its water from far away mountains, not local rainfall.

As of Feb. 13, there was less water in local reservoirs than there was at that time last year, according to the San Diego County Water Authority.

Water Chief Stays on Payroll Through 2020

Maureen Stapleton, the longtime head of the San Diego County Water Authority, is expected to remain on the agency’s payroll through July 2020, earning $26,000 a month and receiving other employee benefits, including insurance. That’s under the terms of a deal between the agency and Stapleton, who recently announced her retirement after 23 years.

During then, the Water Authority will be led by one or more acting general managers. The current acting general manager is Sandra Kerl, who had been Stapleton’s deputy general manager since 2009.

Board Chairman Jim Madaffer said Stapleton has health challenges that would require her to take an extended absence. The deal also eliminated a “potential 18 months of severance in her current contract,” according to the agency. The Water Authority said Stapleton will be using her unused vacation days and sick leave. According to the terms of Stapleton’s contract, she was allowed to bank up to 150 days of vacation and accumulate sick days without limitation.

I profiled Stapleton last year. She helped the region secure its own supplies of water, making her a respected civic leader.

But amid a water war she helped launch and its bitter, personal disputes, observers began to openly question whether Stapleton would be able to end her career on a good note. Last year, one of the Water Authority’s board members said an intoxicated Stapleton came up to him at an industry event and accused him of sleeping with an employee at a rival water agency. There’s no evidence such an affair happened.

The Water Authority paid for an investigation of Stapleton’s behavior but never made it public. In August, during Stapleton’s annual performance review, the agency’s board of directors voted not to give Stapleton a raise or bonus.

Governor Eyes Utility Regulator Shakeup

Gov. Gavin Newsom is considering an overhaul of the California Public Utilities Commission and replacing its current leader, Michael Picker, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday. The commission oversees the state’s powerful private power companies. In that capacity, the CPUC has taken heat in recent years, particularly for decisions made during the regime of former Commission President Michael Peevey.

But Picker has also faced criticism for his handling of recent energy issues, particularly the bankruptcy of Pacific Gas & Electric, which he said the state should not have let happen. Those comments were viewed as a regulator’s attempt to bailout a company he was supposed to be regulating. Lately, a judge has taken PG&E to task for not doing enough to prevent wildfires, which is something the CPUC should have had a handle on.

Picker has also been notable because of his skepticism of government-run “community choice” energy agencies, like the one the city of San Diego is planning to form in coming months. He’s been vocal in suggesting these agencies could cause another energy crisis, in part because the CPUC doesn’t have as much control over them as it does companies like PG&E and San Diego Gas & Electric.

The CPUC has five commissioners appointed by the governor who make the decisions, and more than 900 staff members who help them. The CPUC regulates privately owned electric, natural gas, telecommunications, water, railroad, rail transit and passenger transportation companies, including Uber and moving companies. Most Californians get their energy from privately owned gas and power companies but their water from public agencies, which the CPUC does not regulate.

In Other News

  • The “super bloom” is back at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. While this seems particularly remarkable – flowers blooming in the desert and all – it’s also worth noting how green the whole state is right now, from coastal hills around San Diego to the mountains outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, places that were straw yellow during the height of the drought are now chartreuse.
  • Media Matters, a left-leaning media watchdog group, found that combined broadcast news coverage of climate change on major news programs fell in 2018 to less than three hours the whole year, even as events symptomatic of a changing climate – such as massive wildfires – made major news. Some programs, like “Meet the Press,” have begun to pay more attention to the issue. Public opinion about climate change, which an overwhelming number of scientists agree is occurring and is caused by human actions, has wavered over time.  Generally, belief in climate change was higher over a decade ago, but it went down amid tobacco industry-like public relations campaigns funded by oil and gas companies, and is now rising.
  • Two paragliders collided and died near Torrey Pines on Saturday afternoon, according to numerous news reports. Studies have put the injury rate for paragliders at anywhere between 26 to 360 injuries per 100,000 jumps, according to a 2016 paper in the World Journal of Emergency Medicine.
  • An Oceanside company, Car Sound Exhaust System Inc., or Magnaflow, agreed to pay more than $600,000 to settle federal allegations that it sold auto parts that bypassed or disabled emissions control systems, including catalytic converters. The company was founded in 1981 and has several hundred employees, according to a 2013 profile.
  • The new mayor of Escondido used his first “state of the city” speech to pay homage to the city’s farms. The city is at the center of San Diego’s avocado industry, which has been in decline, in part due to rising water prices and saltier water. Also in North County, Cal State San Marcos, Fallbrook Human Rights Committee and Universidad Popular have all recently been collecting supplies “for farm workers in Fallbrook who have been affected by recent rainstorms, which have hampered their ability to find work,” KUSI reports.
  • Farmers in California’s Central Valley are expected to get more water thanks to a rewrite of environmental regulations that govern the use of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. A few months ago, I wrote about what this may mean for Southern California. According to an investigation by KQED’s Lauren Sommer, the analysis behind that rewrite “will be done under unprecedented time pressure, with less transparency, less outside scientific scrutiny, and without, say federal scientists, the resources to do it properly.” Why is this happening? “Some see the fingerprints of acting interior secretary David Bernhardt, who once helped lead the charge to increase water pumping and weaken environmental standards in the Delta. At the time he was a lawyer for the Fresno-based Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural water agency in the country.”
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