Essential California: Looking for a change of scenery, we got a lesson in the changing world

A woman in a park ranger's hat stands outdoors on a roadway looking toward where a chunk of it is missing.
A Yellowstone National Park ranger stands near a road wiped out by flooding near Gardiner, Mont., on June 19, 2022.
(Matthew Brown / Associated Press)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Oct. 21. I’m Corinne Purtill, a science and medicine reporter at The Times.

Earlier this year, my husband and I decided to take our two children to Yellowstone National Park, a place none of us had seen.

It was snowing in Yellowstone during the week we booked our tickets, more than typical for the season. By the time we got the kids new hiking shoes a few months later, it was warm at the park, unusually so, and the streams and rivers swelled with clean, cold melted snow.

Then months’ worth of rain fell in just a few days. The river rose, the ground gave way, and catastrophic floods washed away bridges, houses and roads a few days before we were meant to arrive. When we saw that the park was airdropping food to the tourists it couldn’t evacuate, we canceled. If we wanted to see the park before a modern climate disaster hit, we were too late.

The last few years have made it harder for me to think of any plans as certain, and undone the fantasy that anything is permanent. With a suddenly empty week of vacation time, we piled the kids in the car and headed north on Interstate 5 for a different kind of adventure.


I grew up in California, and I’m still delighted by the sheer amount of discovery within this state’s 163,000 square miles. We have hundreds of ecosystems and all six of the world’s major biomes. Nothing is static; any given mountain or desert or valley is a different creature depending on the season or the climate. Even so, the sight of Shasta Lake this summer stunned me.

The water level was half of what it should have been. The shrunken lake was ringed by a wide swath of exposed ocher bank, contrasting against the blue water like opposing lines on a color wheel. “Lakefront” homes looked out onto expanses of dirt.

In July, with the hottest part of the year still to come, Shasta Lake, the state’s largest reservoir, was at 38% capacity. Today it’s at 33%, according to an in-depth report the Wall Street Journal published this week. The reservoir serves many functions, and every single one of them has been affected by the ongoing and seemingly relentless drought.

Federal water managers have cut water to farms, imperiling the state’s $50-billion agricultural industry. They’ve cut water to cities, imperiling people’s ability to wash, cook and live their lives. Hydropower from the Shasta Dam power plant was halved this year. A shallow lake warms faster than a deep one, and so the federal Bureau of Reclamation spent $1.6 million on three 500-ton diesel-powered chillers to cool the water enough for Chinook salmon to spawn.

“There’s always the hope for a better year,” Fresno County grower Mark Borba told the Journal, “but it already looks bleak going forward.”

Nothing is certain, nothing is guaranteed; the landscapes our ancestors thought of as timeless are withering at the speed of a human lifetime. I wanted to take my kids to the first national park so they would remember it, in the hopes that the memory would be precious enough to them to inspire a sense of devotion and care for this world. But we never had to go that far. The lesson is always closer to home than you think.


[Read about climate change as well as climate solutions in our Boiling Point newsletter.]

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

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De León holds firm. Los Angeles City Councilmember Kevin De León broke a week of silence to announce in two different television interviews that, yes, he is sorry for his part in “the painful words” uttered in a grotesque closed-door conversation last year, but no, he will not resign. In lieu of the council member voluntarily stepping aside, some of the city’s most powerful players are resigning from further dealings with him. Black real estate developers behind the proposed $1.6-billion Angels Landing project in downtown L.A. told The Times’ Roger Vincent that they would no longer work with De León, citing concerns he holds a racial bias against them and has been stalling city approvals. Columnist Mark Z. Barabak writes that De León’s refusal to relinquish his seat “doesn’t bode well for his future”; columnist Gustavo Arellano calls it “a lesson in how to gaslight a city.” Los Angeles Times

Luna makes his case. Late last summer, after 36 years and every rank at the Long Beach Police Department, Robert Luna sat his family down and told them he planned to retire from the department and run to replace Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. Yet a recent poll found that more than half of likely voters had no opinion of Luna, and may not even know who he is. Connor Sheets profiles the man positioning himself as an even-keeled alternative to a blustering incumbent, as he introduces himself to communities he hopes to win over by election day. Los Angeles Times

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A “unicorn” makes the ballot. Prop. 28 does not have a single argument against it in the state voter guide. No money has been spent to fight it. The measure, which would increase funding for arts and music in schools without raising taxes, might be the rarest of all creatures: a political proposal that doesn’t make anyone mad. San Francisco Chronicle

Toilet party gets flushed. To understand the challenges of constructing anything in the world’s most expensive city to build in, look no further than the Noe Valley toilet — a proposed 150-square-foot San Francisco public restroom with exactly one porcelain throne and an inexplicable $1.7-million price tag. That’s the current rate for a small public restroom in the city, Recreation and Parks officials say, even when (as in this case) the plumbing for a bathroom is already installed. City politicians quietly canceled a scheduled news conference to celebrate the bathroom’s funding after the cost came to light, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Heather Knight writes. And the toilet now has its own Twitter parody account. San Francisco Chronicle


“Whoever planned this ... planned a good one.” It’s been more than three months since thieves broke into an armored Brink’s tractor-trailer at an Interstate 5 rest stop and made off with millions of dollars in jewels bound for the International Gem and Jewelry Show. In interviews with people in and around the world of L.A.’s jewelry district, Daniel Miller and Richard Winton try to get to the bottom of a million-dollar-plus question: What happened to the goods? Los Angeles Times

“Miscellaneous snacks” turn out to be drugs. Narcotics detectives and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task force agents seized about 12,000 pills believed to contain fentanyl Wednesday morning at Los Angeles International Airport. The suspect, who tried to flee before being detained, attempted to pass through Transportation Security Administration screening “with several bags of candy and miscellaneous snacks” that turned out to be stuffed with pills, deputies said. No need to panic over trick-or-treating: Police believe the candy guise was for transport only. Los Angeles Times

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Cancer-causing gas is contaminating California homes. More than 4 tons of the carcinogenic gas benzene are leaking into California homes each year through gas stoves, a new study finds. The report found the highest benzene levels by far in the north San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys, though homes in every region studied — Greater Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and Fresno — had benzene levels far above the limit determined to be safe by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazards Assessment. Orange County Register

The female of the species is less studied than the male. Ever since being called to the L.A. Zoo to treat an ailing chimpanzee, UCLA cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz has made a specialty of looking across the animal kingdom for clues to human conditions. Her latest focus is on cross-species similarities in female health, a field that has long been underfunded, understudied and misunderstood. We can’t go back in time, Natterson-Horowitz told me, but we can fill some of the gaps by looking to the animal world. Los Angeles Times

2020’s fire season set us back even further than we realized. Between 2003 and 2019, California reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 13%, blocking 65 million metric tons of pollution from the atmosphere. But a single, devastating year of wildfires may have canceled out all those gains, according a new study from UCLA and University of Chicago researchers. The 2020 fire season, the worst in state history, released twice that amount of pollutants, “almost like a new sector of emissions in the economy,” said Dr. Michael Jerrett, a UCLA professor of environmental health sciences. Los Angeles Times


Big Sur rules. “It was here in Big Sur that I first learned to say ‘amen,’” the author Henry Miller once wrote, describing his adopted coastal home in “the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look.” Eighty-five years after the completion of Highway 1 through this stretch of California, Christopher Reynolds explored Big Sur to learn what a traveler should know about it now, he writes, and “to look for hints of those days in the 1920s and ’30s when the coast road opened and the world rushed in.” Los Angeles Times

There’s an ecological jewel just off the California coast. Scientists from around the world converge regularly on the stretch of the Pacific from Jenner to Pescadero, some 30 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge and just past the continental shelf. The wildlife-rich region is turning out to be one of the most important spots for understanding marine life of all kinds. San Francisco Chronicle

Padres beat Phillies to tie NCLS series. That’s all we care to say about it. San Diego Union-Tribune

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Los Angeles: 83, sunny. San Diego: 74, sunny. San Francisco: 64, partly cloudy. San Jose: 80, sunny. Fresno: 88, sunny. Sacramento: 83, sunny.


Today’s California memory is from Jessette Porter:

As a young girl growing up in Pearl City, Oahu, my world was a small island surrounded by a vast ocean. My four sisters and I would regularly hatch plans to swim to distant islands we dreamed of visiting. Our first family vacation was to the mainland, to visit family in the North Bay. After landing in San Francisco, we headed north and arrived at the entrance of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Mid-span, I had a revelation: We had finally found a way to other islands. Our dream came true! The Golden Gate Bridge remains my very favorite place to be in California. It is that special place where dreams come true.

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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