Essential California: ‘We’re out of time’ on the Colorado River crisis

Scenes around Lake Mead as persistent drought drives water levels to their lowest point in history.
A boat juts from the shoreline of Lake Mead where the water has receded to the lowest levels since the reservoir was filled in the 1930s.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Monday, July 18. I’m Ben Poston, an investigative reporter writing from the San Fernando Valley.

When I moved to California nearly a decade ago, a good friend of mine gave me a copy of “Desert Solitaire” by Edward Abbey. After reading it, I became fascinated with the author’s journey on the Colorado River just before the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1963. He floated down a pristine river and through canyons that would never be the same after they were inundated by millions of acre-feet of water that now make up Lake Powell.

“Once it was different there. I know, for I was one of the lucky few (there could have been thousands more) who saw Glen Canyon before it was drowned,” Abbey wrote. “In fact I only saw part of it, but enough to realize that here was an Eden, a portion of the earth’s original paradise.”

Nearly six decades later, Lake Powell and Lake Mead — the two largest reservoirs in the United States — have been drained to just 27% of their capacity. Years before the current shortage, scientists repeatedly cautioned public water officials that overusing the river coupled with the effects of climate change would shrink the Colorado’s reservoirs to dangerously low levels, my colleague Ian James reports.


If officials had heeded those warnings and ordered larger cuts in water use sooner, reductions could have been phased in, making it much easier on the seven states that rely on the river, including California.

“If I’ve learned anything recently, it’s that humans are really reluctant to give things up to prevent a catastrophe,” said Brad Udall, a water and climate scientist at Colorado State University. “They’re willing to hang on to the very end and risk a calamity.”

Udall has looked over charts showing the reservoirs’ declines over the last 23 years and wondered at what point “should we have been smarter?” That point, he said, was about a decade ago.

“We’re out of time,” he said. The solutions now will have to be “harsh and drastic.”

[Read the story: “They sounded alarms about a coming Colorado River crisis. But warnings went unheeded”]

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


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USC Heisman winner Charles White shows his Trojan spirit but is suffering.
Charles White, the former USC running back who won the Heisman Trophy in 1979, is suffering from dementia and living in an assisted-living facility in Orange County.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Whatever happened to Charles White, the former USC running back who won the Heisman Trophy in 1979? Years of drug and alcohol abuse led him to sell his Heisman and he became an outcast. “Sometimes I went to the devil,” he told Times columnist Bill Plaschke. Ten years ago he was diagnosed with dementia and now, at 64, he lives in an assisted-living facility in Orange County. Plaschke writes: “He doesn’t really understand his condition. He certainly doesn’t know if this dementia diagnosis will change the narrative of his Trojans legacy. But he still knows he is Charles White, and he knows he loves cardinal and gold, and as he tucks himself in under a Trojans bedspread every night, he maintains belief that his school once again will welcome him home.” Los Angeles Times

Southern California’s real estate market might actually be cooling off after years of breakneck growth. Housing sales numbers are down, inventory is up and some properties are experiencing price cuts. That’s good news for potential homebuyers who might find some deals that didn’t exist last year. My colleague Jack Flemming shows what $700,000 can buy in seven areas around Los Angeles. Los Angeles Times

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Democrats are facing serious headwinds in the midterm elections. From inflation to gas prices to President Biden’s low approval ratings, the party is bracing for significant losses in the fall. But party leaders seem to think that several California races offer some of their best chances to flip GOP congressional seats.

According to an announcement Monday by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, five of six candidates added to their “Red to Blue” program are in this state. Candidates must show signs of strength to qualify for the DCCC’s Red to Blue program, which provides fundraising and organizing.

Dr. Kermit Jones, Assemblyman Adam Gray, former Assemblywoman Christy Smith, Dr. Asif Mahmood, and former federal prosecutor Will Rollins.
(Los Angeles Times; wire services)

The California Democrats added to the program are Dr. Kermit Jones, Assemblyman Adam Gray, former Assemblywoman Christy Smith, Dr. Asif Mahmood and former federal prosecutor Will Rollins. The sixth candidate is meteorologist Eric Sorensen, who is running in Illinois.

“Unlike their extreme Republican opponents, these candidates will fight for their district, work to protect reproductive freedom, battle to lower prices on groceries, gas and prescription drug costs, and seek commonsense solutions to combat gun violence terrorizing communities,” said Democratic campaign committee Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney in a statement. Los Angeles Times


The recent Supreme Court decision against restrictions on carrying firearms in public has accelerated a legal war on the Golden State’s gun laws. The ruling has also forced lower courts to begin reconsidering a whole host of legal challenges — with massive stakes in a country rocked by gun violence on a daily basis. The cases under new scrutiny deal with some of the most consequential restrictions on firearms in the nation, including the state’s bans on military-style weapons, large-capacity magazines and ownership of semiautomatic rifles by adults under the age of 21. Los Angeles Times

Multiple fights broke out over the weekend at Knott’s Berry Farm, forcing the amusement park to close hours early and sending patrons fleeing. Two injured people were taken to the hospital by paramedics, according to Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Sean Doran. Some of the fighting was captured on video and posted on social media as teenagers scuffled on a street outside the park. As the violence erupted, panicked visitors ran for safety. The park reopened Sunday morning. Los Angeles Times

Opening arguments begin Monday in Kristin Smart’s murder trial. Prosecutors at last will begin showing how they believe 19-year-old Kristin Smart was murdered a quarter-century ago after vanishing on her way back from a party to her Cal Poly San Luis Obispo dorm room. The first-year student’s body was never found, but police in 2020 arrested Paul Flores, who also attended the college, at his San Pedro home. Flores, now 45, is accused of killing Smart in May 1996 during an attempted rape in his dorm room, and his father Ruben Flores, now 81, is charged as an accessory for allegedly burying the slain student behind his home in nearby Arroyo Grande, then digging up the remains and moving them. Charges in a case that long frustrated Smart’s family came after a popular podcast about Smart’s disappearance called “Your Own Backyard” helped unearth new information and inspired witnesses to speak with investigators, authorities said. The trial was moved to Monterey County Superior Court in Salinas because of pretrial publicity. Ventura Star

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Across California, nearly 9 in 10 residents now live in counties with a high COVID-19 community level. At that point, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal masking in indoor public spaces. L.A. County is poised to become the first Southern California county to reinstate mandatory public indoor masking as the coronavirus cases and hospitalizations on the rise due to the super-infectious subvariants of the Omicron. L.A. County officially entered the high community level Thursday and if it stays there for the next two weeks, the county will reissue an indoor mask mandate with an effective date of July 29, officials said. Los Angeles Times

In the face of worsening drought, cities and water agencies are now investing heavily in large-scale wastewater recycling facilities — systems that will purify the billions of gallons of treated sewage that are currently flushed out to sea. The statewide potential for water recycling is huge as only 23% of California’s wastewater is currently recycled, according to a recent report. Los Angeles Times


She met the perfect guy, but then she found out he lived in the Valley. The author of this L.A. Affairs column explores a common Southland conundrum — whether to date someone who lives in a different region with all the soul-crushing travel ramifications. “Then I saw it. He was outside my acceptable mileage range. He lived in the San Fernando Valley. I lived on the Westside. This could never work out, I thought,” writes Sharon Clark, a retired UCLA administrator. Los Angeles Times

A road from the Westside through the hills before the Valley lead to a couple hugging.
(Julia Yellow / For The Times)

Hollywood stars embrace armpit hair. Miley Cyrus, Janelle Monáe, Jemima Kirke and Lourdes Leon, daughter of early adopter Madonna — are among the actresses, models and nonbinary celebrities embracing armpit hair in even the most glamorous getups. “I’ve always wanted to have a beard that I could stroke while I ponder my existence, and I think armpit hair is a close second,” said Ajani Russell, 24, an artist and actor who appeared on HBO’s drama “The Skate Kitchen.” Wall Street Journal

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Los Angeles: sunny, 86. San Diego: partly cloudy 73. San Francisco: 67, mostly sunny. San Jose: sunny, 85. Fresno: sunny, 108. Sacramento: sunny, 101.


Today’s California memory comes from Frank Tobe:

In 1959 I left L.A. and ended up in Hawaii. The max speed limit there was 45 and they didn’t have any freeways. When I came back in 1963 I got on the new freeway in West L.A. and drove north over the newly completed Sepulveda Pass. I was astounded that the road existed and marveled at the achievement but was scared by the speeds. I ended up in Van Nuys and pulled over to calm down. Now, of course, after 60+ years, I’m a pro at the speeds but every time I go north over the Sepulveda Pass I remember the days before when all we had was Sepulveda Boulevard.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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