Essential California: The drought, mass transit and baby Jesus

I invite you to start every morning with me and Alice Walton as we take Essential California daily. Alice, who joins The Times this week, has been keeping Angelenos in the loop on local politics since starting her City Maven website five years ago. We look forward to hearing from you as we continue to deliver important California news to your inbox. Please send us any questions, suggestions or complaints.

-- Shelby Grad, California Editor

Remember the Drought?

After a brief reprieve in December, the great California drought is back at the top of the agenda. January rainfall totals were grim: San Francisco recorded no measurable rain for the first time since the Gold Rush era. Forecasters say California's best hope in the coming months is the so-called atmospheric river, a type of weather system that dumped a lot of rain in December. California's snowpack -- a key source of water -- is at just 25% of normal. The problem? This season's storms have been relatively warm, leaving less snow in the Sierras.

Obama's Money Train

California's mass transit systems would be big winners in President Obama's proposed federal budget. The president would earmark $1 billion for various dream transportation and construction projects including:

— Subway projects in downtown L.A. and the Westside.

— Pushing BART into San Jose.

— Light-rail expansions in San Diego.

— Expanding a North Bay commuter rail line.

The budget now goes to the Republican-led Congress. After decades of false starts, work began last November on the Westside subway. The route has been shortened, and it is now planned to end just west of the 405 Freeway instead of in Santa Monica. So we can no longer call it the "Subway to the Sea."

O.C.'s New Politics

Orange County appears set for a political milestone: an Asian American majority on the Board of Supervisors. The victory by Andrew Do, a political unknown, over veteran Democratic legislator Lou Correa shows the rising clout of O.C.'s Vietnamese community. But there is also something "post-racial" about what's going on. "People don't think of us as Asian leaders," said County Supervisor Michelle Park Steel, who was born in Korea. Orange County today looks nothing like the old stereotypes. The Asian population is now the third-largest in the nation, after L.A. and Santa Clara counties.


Baby Jesus entrepreneurs: How can you not read a story that includes the phrase "jalapeño-sized Jesus?" A delightful look at the endearing, slightly off-kilter subculture of baby Jesus decorating. "Some customers want their Christ to dress like a mariachi, a day laborer, a rancher or Kobe Bryant."

Sam Smith boosts a Hollywood icon: A turnaround is underway at the circular Capitol Records tower in Hollywood. Capitol has jumped from the No. 5 to the No. 2 record label. A secret of success? Signing Sam Smith.

A distinction, a burden: California's first Muslim judge doesn't like to dwell on being a pioneer. But there is an irony, our profile notes: "U.S. Muslims were once called insular. Now, participating in public life, he was sometimes viewed as an infiltrator."

But is there a manifesto? A Los Angeles artist has created a gallery in his Hancock Park garage that is a perfect replica of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski's Montana cabin. "The simplicity of the structure is something that appeals to me," he said.

"Are you homeless?" Counting the homeless in posh Brentwood is more difficult than you might think. Volunteers are trained to look for "weathered skin" and "poor hygiene."


A plane (and an invention) in every garage: In Silicon Valley, the status symbol of the moment is a private plane. When you've got IPO money, jet rides make sense not just for longer business trips but for getting around the traffic-choked Bay Area, the Contra Costa Times reports.

DNA security risk? DNA samples for 16 million Californians are sitting in a nondescript government warehouse in the Bay Area. Some say it represents a massive privacy risk.

Tainted water: For years, oil companies have pumped wastewater into aquifers in the Central Valley. This is a problem as the drought-ravaged valley is desperate for sources of drinking water, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.


How many people are paying attention to upcoming city council elections? Consider voter turnout in recent non-mayoral primaries

— 1999: 18%

— 2007: 11%

— 2011: 14%