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Opinion: California’s in another crisis. Cue the usual doomsayers

Houseboats near a drying shore
Houseboats are dwarfed by Lake Oroville’s barren steep banks, exposed because of falling water levels due to California’s extreme drought.
(Getty Images)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, July 10, 2021. Let’s take a look back at the week in Opinion.

Is Los Angeles a desert? The short answer is no; the more elucidative but probably less satisfying one is that it’s complicated. The question raises a number of interrelated issues about urban California, such as its often fraught relationship with the natural environment and the ability of places like Los Angeles to sustain themselves as the effects of climate change intensify. Maddeningly (to me, at least), well-intentioned thinkers writing for audiences in more humid environs tend to disregard these complexities for the sake of a tidy, typically moralizing argument. Two opinion pieces this week — one from the Los Angeles Times, the other from a certain East Coast daily newspaper — help illustrate what I’m talking about.

In the L.A. Times, the editorial board took up the question of whether Los Angeles is in a desert — a myth long parroted by people trying to argue that this city shouldn’t exist in the first place — and answered in a way that can be summed up as “no, but”: No, Los Angeles is not in a desert, because its average annual rainfall puts it in a less arid classification than, say, Las Vegas or Phoenix; but precipitation isn’t abundant, and global warming may bring us the climatic patterns found south in the deserts of Baja California. Far-flung areas that supply Southern California with water are also growing drier, threatening to truly turn Los Angeles into a desert if we fail to sustain ourselves with the precipitation that falls more locally.

This answer is untidy, not terribly prescriptive and even unsettling; it’s also honest. California’s water and climate challenges defy simple explanation or understanding. Los Angeles is already doing a lot right, as the editorial notes — over the last 30 years, the swift and widespread adoption of conservation measures allowed the region to grow in population without increasing its overall water use, a remarkable feat. But it isn’t enough because we face more challenges; the editorial board’s answer to the question of whether Los Angeles is in a desert helps us understand those challenges and, hopefully, accept their complexities.

Then there’s this piece in the New York Times, written by a former L.A. Times editor and fellow Californian, which frames the convergence of multiple chronic ailments into a moment of acute crisis as California finally grapples with limits. There’s a lot in this piece that makes me nod in agreement. Yes, cities have made land-use decisions that contributed to the current housing crisis and pushed new development into fire-prone exurban areas, and yes, rebuilding in these areas after they burn locks us into a deadly cycle of development followed by destruction. But the idea that the clock is ticking for California — no, that it has always been ticking, but we have been too enamored of our “seductive appeal” to notice — leaves this West Coast partisan with the nagging suspicion that what this narrative is really about is crowing that we have this coming. After all, would it have been very useful to write, after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, that decades of ill-advised, low-lying coastal development and nature-defying land reclamation in New York and New Jersey invited unnecessary destruction? What good is it to spend billions repairing a below-sea level subway system if we know it’ll be flooded and partially destroyed in the next superstorm?

If you think we’re in a desert, take a hike — no, really, to the San Gabriel Mountains. In the introduction to a group of reader letters responding to our editorial, I say that the view of Los Angeles from 5,000 feet affords a more accurate picture of water in Southern California: “Perched a mile above the city, you see vast alluvial fans and washes emanating from the mountains that are graded, dammed up and otherwise ‘controlled’ in ways that shunt water to the ocean and make urbanization possible. Prior to the area’s buildup, this water was left to find its own way to the sea or fan out over the basins that would eventually be paved over and turned into tidy street grids.” L.A. Times

In defense of single-family zoning — or, as the authors write, “the absolute wrong way to solve California’s affordable housing crisis.” City leaders from Hawthorne, Redondo Beach and El Segundo say that a state bill to allow the owners of parcels zoned for single-family homes to split their lots and add multiple units would put stress on cities that cannot handle the additional density and even worsen the affordable housing crisis. “The state could better address the affordability crisis by helping local communities create reliable and fast transportation options and collaborating on regionally focused solutions that aid those in greatest need,” they write. L.A. Times

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Thanks to Trump, we have an epidemic of unqualified candidates. Among the lessons from the 2016 election, writes columnist Nicholas Goldberg, were “you don’t need to be smart or experienced or level-headed or decent to win an election. You don’t need a rationale or a plan. You just need money, chutzpah and too much personality. Name recognition — positive or negative — doesn’t hurt either.” Now, we’re living with the consequences. L.A. Times

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Why are people still buying gas cars? As an electric car driver since 2018, I’ve asked that question after experiencing the silent, swift acceleration of my Nissan Leaf and schadenfreude at the sight of $4.50-a-gallon gasoline. Transportation researcher Britta Gross has an answer: The charging infrastructure was built for “early adopters” like me and not people in lower-income communities who will increasingly need to start driving electric cars if the state is to meet its goals. L.A. Times

Yes, the Olympics are political, including ridiculous rules on swim caps. Stick to sports? The Olympics haven’t only been about sports since at least the early 20th century, writes columnist LZ Granderson. So after 2016, when Simone Manuel became the first Black woman to win a gold medal in an individual Olympic swimming event, it might have been on-brand, if extremely disconcerting to see the Games’ swimming governing body ban the use of caps designed for athletes with thick, voluminous hair. L.A. Times

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As always, you can share your feedback by emailing me at paul.thornton@latimes.com.


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