Northern California

The Cannabis Conundrum: Is California a Pseudo-Green State?

[Note: This final post in the GeoCurrents series on cannabis legalization strays from the blog’s stated guidelines, which emphasize factual reporting and seek to minimize political interpretations and ideological stances. It also leaves its own arguments hanging, providing no solid answers to the two central questions: why does California’s government favor high-carbon corporate cannabis over low-carbon artisanal production, and why does it allow criminal organizations to undermine the legal regime that it has so arduously created? Such matters will be explored later in a separate forum devoted to opinion-based essays.]

According to conventional thinking, California is a deep-green state, its leadership unwaveringly committed to environmental protection. No state is going to greater lengths to reduce carbon emissions, regardless of the short-term sacrifices that they entail. Although many doubt that California will be able to fulfill its ambitious energy mandates, few question the sincerity of its agenda. Even those who are skeptical about climate change are convinced that California is doing everything it can to guard against it, unwisely in their opinion. By the same token, California is widely regarded as highly progressive, leftwing state, its leadership devoted to helping marginalized communities and willing to take on the corporate establishment to improve the lot of the common person. In the rightwing press, California is sometimes portrayed as leaning so far to the left as to verge on socialism if not communism.

But when one examines California’s cannabis industry, a different picture emerges. Here official policy is not merely indifferent to carbon emissions, but rather acts as if it wants to increase them. Indoor growing facilities with massive carbon footprints are favored, while full-sun cultivators who seek carbon neutrality are hounded out of business. By the same token, the monied corporate sector is rewarded, while smallholdings are seemingly slated for liquidation. In the process, entire communities are being systematically devastated, Humboldt’s County’s Garberville being the prime example. What little rural prosperity was found in the backwoods of the Emerald Triangle is withering away. Only the elite-focused winery districts and coastal tourist towns will emerge unscathed. When it comes to cannabis, California follows a policy agenda that in other domains would be regarded as rightwing if not reactionary.

The resulting ironies run an ocean deep. Poor and middle-class Californians are asked to make major sacrifices to reduce their carbon emissions, with rising fuel and electricity costs burdening millions and sending many into energy poverty. Yet in cannabis we find an economic sector that could realize a massive carbon reduction at virtually no cost to consumers. Low-carbon artisanal cultivators could easily supply the market with high-quality and reasonably priced goods, as indeed they did for years under the medical-marijuana program. For some unspecified reason, this is not the path that the state has taken under full legalization. But California’s preferred course is heading quickly into its own dead end. As its political logic plays out, even the favored corporate sector is floundering, unable to compete with tolerated illegal operations. These well-funded growers  flout all the state’s carefully crafted regulations, often trashing the environment, exploiting their workers, stockpiling guns and biocides, and delivering to the public untested and sometimes highly contaminated products.

Why should cannabis form an exception to the supposed goals of the Californian political model? Why would the state’s government turn a blind eye to such blatant assaults on everything that it supposedly holds dear? These are difficult questions with no easy answers. When I ask my friends and relatives in Silicon Valley, all of whom are loyal supporters of the Democratic establishment, I get feeble responses that focus on incompetence and unintended consequences. The root problem, I have been told, is a simple a lack coordination, with cannabis regulators not receiving adequate guidance from the state’s environmentally devoted leadership.

I remain skeptical, to say the least. The conviction that climate change is an immediate existential threat that demands unwavering action on all fronts is ubiquitous in the Democratic Party. As a result, the idea that those in charge of cannabis would have somehow forgotten about carbon emissions when crafting their regulations is ludicrous. If we are to resist special pleading, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that California’s political establishment does prioritize climate change when it is inconvenient to do so, and thus does not really regard it as an existential threat. Its environmental policies, in other words, are designed instrumentally to satisfy allies and make electoral gains, not out of conviction or principle. Put differently, California is a pseudo-green state, and it is by no means alone in this regard. It is also a faux-left state, as the data bear out. A few generations ago, California was a land of opportunity, noted its relatively egalitarian structures and lack of rigid socio-economic hierarchies. Today it has the fifth highest level of income inequality in the country, trailing only New York, Connecticut, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Its economic gap continues to widen, to a large extent because of rather than despite official policies.

Why would California’s political establishment pursue a pseudo-green, faux-left political agenda? I have clear ideas about these issues, but this is not the place to air them. Finding another publishing outlet, however, would prove difficult if not impossible. As a result, I have decided to add a new opinion-based essay section to this blog, which should appear in a few months if not sooner.

The Carbon Footprint of Artisanal Cannabis Cultivation in California

[Note: This post is mostly based on discussions with small-scale, legal cannabis growers in Mendocino County, California. I have spent a lot of time in Mendocino since the early 1960s, when my parents bought a very small share of a very large ranch near the town of Covelo – my boyhood paradise. Since 2001, I have co-owned a piece of property near Anderson Valley, which I use as a rural retreat. Most of my neighbors and friends in the area are cannabis cultivators, and they have been eager to talk about their farms and tribulations.]

Every economic activity comes at some carbon cost, and artisanal cannabis is no exception. Most organic growers use large amounts of commercial compost, which has its own modest production footprint and must be trucked to their farms. More significant, irrigation water is almost always pumped from deep wells, an energy intensive procedure. The cannabis itself must be transported to testing and packaging facilities, and ultimately driven to the dispensaries in which it is sold. The big energy draw, however, comes just after harvest. From early-October to mid-November, the flowers are hung in drying sheds, one of the trickiest aspects of the production cycle. The proper humidity levels must be maintained; if the air is too damp, Aspergillus mold can easily spread, contaminating everything. If the weather is moist, dehumidifiers must run constantly, and even in dry conditions, dehumidification is necessary at night.

A few growers go to great pains to reduce their energy expenditures. Some make their own compost and compost tea from plants found on their own farms. I know one who gathers winter rainwater from his rooftops and stores it for summer irrigation. There are no alternatives, however, to dehumidifying the drying sheds. For those whose properties are tied to the electrical grid, the carbon footprint here is relatively modest. It is more substantial on off-grid sites, although still minuscule in comparison to indoor facilities. Although most off-grid growers have a few solar cells, few have enough to power dehumidification. Generators must therefore be used, powered by diesel, gasoline, or propane. Here, no surprise, is where the government suddenly finds its environmental concern. Generator-using off-grid growers find themselves falling out of compliance, putting their cultivation licenses at risk. When it comes to artisanal cultivation, regulation tends to be unforgiving.

Although carbon dioxide emissions are inevitable, they can be offset by sequestering carbon in the soil. This is done by heating organic matter in the absence of oxygen, converting most of it to charcoal. Once infused with nutrients, the charcoal is transformed into biochar. Buried in the earth, biochar remains stable for thousands of years, greatly enhancing soil texture and fertility. Geographers and anthropologists have known decades that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon used charcoal to create large expanses of extremely productive terra preta soil in what is otherwise an area of impoverished soil. In California, small-scale cannabis cultivators can use biochar to become carbon neutral and potentially even carbon negative. Doing so is regarded by some as the ultimate investment, one that improves their land for millennia. Yet they get no credit for such eco-conscientious behavior, as carbon sequestration is not factored into California’s cannabis regulations.

[Illustration: biochar, in buckets, ready to be sequestered in an artisanal cannabis farm]

 

If off-grid cultivators are to come into compliance and retain their cultivation licenses, they will have to install full solar arrays, at a cost of some $50,000 to $100,000 per farm. Few can afford such expenditures, adding to their woes. But those lucky enough to have been unlucky enough to have been harmed by the anti-marijuana campaigns of the 1970s and 80s, a potential lifeline is offered through California’s “Cannabis Equity Grants Program for Local Jurisdictions.” As the program’s website explains:

The purpose of the Cannabis Equity Grants Program for Local Jurisdictions is to advance economic justice for populations and communities impacted by cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs by providing support to local jurisdictions as they promote equity in California and eliminate barriers to enter the newly regulated cannabis industry for equity program applicants and licensees.

In the Emerald Triangle, many artisanal growers are eligible for such equity grants, and have been advised by local officials to use any funds that they might receive to install full solar arrays. Getting the money, however, is no easy matter. The necessary paperwork is so involved and extensive that some growers have been forced to hire consultants. Even so, their applications might linger for months are often rejected on technical grounds, forcing them to reapply. Some have reached the point of exasperation, suspecting that the program is little more than a cruel jest. As one grower told me, “It doesn’t matter what we do, as the government is determined to drive the hippies out of the hills.”

The Gargantuan Carbon Footprint of Corporate Cannabis

The huge carbon output of modern cannabis production is no secret. According to Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment, 1.3 percent of the state’s total annual carbon emissions stem solely from cannabis. A rigorously researched and widely publicized 2021 article in Nature Sustainability found that indoor production, the dominant form in many areas, generates “2,283 to 5,184 kg CO2-equivalent per kg of dried flower.” This staggering carbon output comes mostly from the voracious energy demands of indoor cultivation. Rather than relying on the sun for photosynthesis, artificial illumination is necessary; rather than relying on the wind for ventilation, industrial-scale fans must be used. Dehumidification is also needed, as is cooling during warm periods. In Southern California’s scorching Coachella Valley, the state’s emerging center of corporate cultivation, air-conditioning expenditures can be astronomical. Here even the local water supply requires energy-intensive purification. And, as if to add insult to injury, carbon dioxide is intentionally released into growing facilities to enhance production, some of which inevitably escapes into the atmosphere.

Bizarrely, large cannabis corporations and their cheerleaders sometimes brag about their energy use. Consider, for example, this 2016 article from the Coachella Valley Weekly entitled, “Canndescent: Setting the Bar for Cannabis Cultivation in Desert Hot Springs”:

Impressive at every turn, Sedlin gave a tour describing how the Canndescent facility intends to grow, clone and package premium weed.

He proudly, and probably with more detailed information than necessary, showed how the plants require the perfect temperature, water and light for maximum growth.

The facility is equipped with a 160-ton air conditioner. DHS [Desert Hot Springs] water, known for its award-winning minerals and taste, is not however good for cannabis, so Canndesecent has to use a reverse osmosis system with a 5,000 gallon water backup supply. Plant fertilization is electronically distributed. A shiny outdoor tank containing 1,000 gallons of liquid CO2 pumps the right mixture into sealed rooms producing the ideal growing environment. …

Canndescents’ grow rooms look like something on a Mars’ space station. Everything appears sterile, bright, well-organized and utilizes every inch of space with custom, stainless steel, movable grow beds. Hi-tech monitors are taking constant readings of the air quality. Fans insure the air is moving evenly.

When confronted with this outsized carbon footprint, indoor cannabis apologists typically point to their solar cells, arguing that they are doing their part to reduce their impact. This is simple greenwashing. Solar cells provide “clean” energy only in a relative sense, insofar as they substitute for fossil fuels. If they are used instead to replace sunlight, they are anything but green. Few indoor facilities, moreover, have enough solar cells and battery banks to provide all their energy needs.

In California, indoor cultivation accounts for only around thirty percent of cannabis production, less than in most states with a legal market. But outdoor growing, known in the business as “full sun,” accounts for an even lower share (see the graph posted below). Most California cannabis is grown in greenhouses under “mixed light” conditions. Here most of the energy needed for photosynthesis does come from the sun, but supplementary artificial lighting is used as well. Power-hungry ventilation is also necessary, as are other energy expenditures unknown in outdoor growing. In the final tally, mixed light is far less carbon intensive than indoor cultivation – but far more carbon intensive than outdoor growing.

There are several reasons why indoor and greenhouse production predominate. Outside of California and a few neighboring areas that have a Mediterranean climate, high-quality cannabis cannot be easily grown in the open air. Low humidity is necessary during the crucial late summer and early fall flowering period; otherwise, the flowers will be attacked by mold. Dry weather through September and October, however, is uncommon over most of the country. As federal anti-cannabis laws prevent interstate commerce, each state must produce its own crop, requiring in most cases enclosed growing environments and extensive dehumidification. Under a rational, environmentally sound cannabis regime, most production would take place in California and neighboring states; a state like New York would no more use massive, artificially illuminated buildings for cannabis production than it would for lemons or artichokes.

The triumph of high-carbon cannabis in California stems from both market pressure and government policies. When large-scale corporate cannabis began to flood the market a few years ago, artisanal cultivators came under increasing stress. To remain competitive, many took up mixed-light production themselves, as it allows multiple harvests per year and thus helped maintain profits as the wholesale price started to drop. More insidious are the pressures imposed by consumers in the retail marketplace. Most self-styled connoisseurs prefer indoor flowers, as they tend to be more uniform, visually appealing, and potent than those grown in the sun. As a result, indoor growers enjoy a pronounced price advantage, easily making up for their additional energy costs. The root problem here is the adolescent nature of the core cannabis market, where raw potency reigns supreme, while social, environmental, and cultural considerations, as well as flavor, are usually ignored. If alcohol operated under the same market constraints, fine wine and artisanal beer would be marginalized long ago by 190-proof Everclear.

But the more fundamental reason for the collapse of low-carbon cannabis in California is government policies that discourage and sometimes even prevent full-sun cultivation, while favoring indoor and mixed-light production. Many of these policies are covert, as they are ostensibly aimed at other issues. Some, however, are straightforward. As a recent MJBizDaily article notes:

Onerous regulations or outright bans on outdoor cultivation sites by many California counties also have made it harder for outdoor grow operations to expand their footprints.

Of the 26 counties in the state that have issued cultivation licenses to date, 14 haven’t awarded any to outdoor growers.

To say that California’s  cannabis policies are hypocritical is an understatement of the first order, as will be explored in the final post in this series. But first we need to consider one more issue: the carbon footprint of full-sun cultivation. Although very low by comparative measures, it is not negligible. Some growers, however, do everything they can to minimize their emissions, and a few might even achieve carbon neutrality and perhaps even negativity. Yet for all their efforts, they receive little if any credit, whether in the market, from regulators, or from environmental organizations.

The Triumph of Illicit Cannabis Cultivation and Retailing In California and the Liquidation of the Artisanal Growers

Across much of the United States, legal cannabis firms are failing, and large sums of money are being lost. As noted in a recent Investopedia article, “Retail investors who once looked to cannabis to make them rich would now in many cases settle for getting their money back.” The collapse is most severe in the agricultural sector. Plummeting wholesale prices are driving most small-scale cannabis farms into bankruptcy. According to the same Investopedia article:

In California, … the wholesale price has wilted to less than $700 per pound. Some 60% of the pot farms in the Emerald Triangle, the traditional heartland of cannabis cultivation in northern California, have reportedly gone out of business since California legalized recreational use six years ago.

If anything, this article underplays the dire situation in the Emerald Triangle, a region usually defined as encompassing Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties in northwestern California. I know several artisanal cannabis farmers in the region who would be happy to receive $500 a pound, which is near their break-even point. Some cannot get more than $300, resulting in a substantial loss with each sale. A few years ago, they were receiving around $1200 a pound.

 

As might be expected, the wholesale price collapse is the result of oversupply, which stems from two main reasons. First, the state has awarded a sizeable number of cultivation permits to large, well-capitalized corporate farms, which have flooded the legal market. Second, illegal cultivation continues unabated in many areas. Illicit growers do not pay fees or taxes, nor do they fulfill the many onerous obligations faced by legal growers to remain in compliance. As a result, illegal operations often outcompete above-board farms, driving them out of business.

A downward spiral has thus emerged, with both county governments and the state losing the licensing fees and other revenues that they have been counting on. California now faces a lose-lose-lose situation, one in which scofflaws succeed while those who have gone to herculean efforts to become legal find that it has all been for naught. (I know retirement-age growers who had no computer experience whatsoever, as they had moved to the woods in part to get away from modern technological society. But to gain legal status they have had to master the intricacies of California’s online track-and-trace Metrc system, in which even leaves destined for the compost heap must be weighed and reported to the state. It has not been easy.)

The burdens placed on legal growers can be overwhelming, as will be explored in later posst. For now, a quote from an article by Kevin Rector, originally published in the Los Angeles Times, will suffice:

In place of handcuffs and prison sentences to deter cannabis cultivation, the state has established a vast system of taxes, fees and regulations to control it. The taxes are steeper and the rules more onerous than those in other agricultural sectors. … “Are all the small farmers destined to fail? That’s our biggest fear,” Casali said one recent morning at his farm. “It’s the War on Drugs Part II.”

But this a very different “War on Drugs” from the one that preceded it, as it focuses on those inside the law, while largely ignoring those outside of it. California’s political leadership feels guilty, for good reason, about the harms imposed on marginal members of society by the anti-marijuana campaigns of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. As a result, illegal growers are now largely tolerated. Small-business owners, however, are regarded differently, and are given much less consideration.

A recent Fox News article outlines many of the problems generated by illicit cultivation. It begins by describing a massive illegal grow in  Riverside County, which is also California’s new center of corporate cultivation. As the author writes:

“The illegal industry is competing with the legal industry and essentially putting them out of business,” says Sgt. James Roy, head of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department’s 12-person marijuana eradication team. “This place is no different than thousands of others we hit this year confiscating about a half-million plants in Riverside County alone,” Roy said…. Along with these growers, these illegal growers, comes a fair amount of violence and a lot of weaponry,” says Roy. “We serve warrants on operations like this every day. And in 80% of the locations, we are finding weapons, high-powered weapons, assault rifles, things like that.”

The same article tersely explains why legal growers cannot compete: “By requiring licenses to grow and transport pot, permits to sell it retail, and taxes to buy it, the state effectively imposed a 70% tax on legally purchased marijuana.”

One might expect the legal risks incurred by illegal cultivation to impose a stiff penalty of its own, thereby leveling the playing field. But that’s not how it works in California, where large-scale illicit growers, despite the violence, uncertain product quality, and environmental degradation associated with their operations, have little to worry about. No one in California is facing prison or even county jail for illegal cannabis operations, and the modest fines that are occasionally levied are just considered a part of doing business, if not just ignored.

It is not just cannabis farmers who are facing devastating competition from illegal operations, but also dispensaries. Particularly in the Los Angeles area, unlicensed and unregulated “trap shop” dispensaries have become widespread, and now significantly outnumber above-board operations. These illegal businesses are typically set up in conventional retail space and have the appearance of legitimate dispensaries. As a result, customers often have no idea that they are engaging in an illicit transaction. A recent article in cannabis.net outlines the problem:

Recently, an audit revealed that California’s 900 licensed cannabis operators have about 2,800 illegal competitors, more than three times the number of total legal sellers, which could be higher today. These unregulated stores, most of the time, have untested stock products that are not up to state-issued production standards, nor do they follow the state’s regulations for cannabis operations. Patronizing an unlicensed store is more or less the same as buying from a dealer around the block. You only get promises that you’re purchasing the best product in the area, whereas it’s basically junk.

Unlicensed dispensaries are so widely tolerated that Yelp has a page listing the “best illegal cannabis dispensaries near me.” (I cannot say, however, whether the dispensaries listed here are truly illegal.) For several years, the important cannabis website Weedmaps also listed unlicensed dispensaries, although that is no longer the case. If one wants to avoid patronizing illicit operations, the maps provided by Weedmaps are a good place to turn.

With these stories in mind, it seems that the root problem of the California cannabis crisis is a perverse set of attitudes on the part of the state’s political leadership. To put it simply,  California, and particularly its large cities, are tough on small legal businesses and lax on illegal ones. Under such a regime, it becomes extremely difficult – and often simply impossible – for the legitimate sector to compete with the underground one. As a result, the entire legalization experiment in California is failing. The expected revenues are not filling state and local coffers, and the myriad pathologies of the illicit market remain firmly ensconced.

The “soft-on-crime, hard-on-small-business” attitude is on its surface rooted in a left-wing political philosophy, one based on compassion for those who have supposedly been forced by circumstances beyond their control to engage in illegal activities. But, as will be explored later, what is actually encountered here is a form of pseudo-leftism, a perverse political philosophy that favors the corporate sector and is hostile to minuscule family farms and tiny retail firms.

ARkStorm Fears Recede in California Despite Flooding; Anomalous Lack of Rain-Shadowing Explained by Weather West

Fears of an impending ARkStorm in California have receded, although much of the state has been receiving prodigious amounts of rainfall and the forecast remains wet for the next 10 days. In the most recent storm, the heaviest rains have fallen in the Santa Barbara and Ventura areas, northwest of Los Angeles. The map posted below shows total precipitation amounts of up to 14 inches in a 24-hour period; other reports indicate that a few areas have received more than 18 inches. As would be expected, floods and mudslides have hit the region, causing considerable damage and taking several lives. For the state as a whole, however, the damage has been less than has been reported in many sensational news articles. I have read stories and seen videos that describe California as being “devastated,” “drowned,” and “underwater.” Despite the localized destruction, which should not be minimized, the recent storms have been beneficial for the state as a whole, washing away a devastating drought, at least temporarily. Even in some of the hardest hit locations, some rain enthusiasts posting on the Weather West blog are joyful for what they have received.

From a climatological perspective, the most interesting feature of the map posted above is not the torrential rain in places like San Marcos Pass, which periodically receive heavy and extended downpours. More unusual are the relatively high figures in inland areas that are rain-shadowed by mountains, such as the Cuyama Valley. Cuyama is extremely dry, receiving only 8 inches of precipitation a year on average. As bands of rain typically move from the south or southwest to the north and east, they dump most of their moisture over the coastal highlands as the air rises and cools; as the air descends and warms on the lee side, precipitation rates plummet. This dynamic is especially noted under conditions of an atmospheric river, which brings a relatively shallow but extremely wet airmass streaming in from the subtropics. As the recent flooding rains in the Santa Barbara area came from a stalled atmospheric river, the relatively high level of rainfall in Cuyama was unexpected.

A more pronounced precipitation anomaly was found further to the north, just to the east of the Sierra Nevada crest in east-central California. A high range, the Sierra rings most of the water out of winter storms. And as result, the Owens Valley, lying just to east of the southern Sierra, is extremely dry. The town of Bishop in the northern valley receives less than 5 inches of precipitation in the average year. Yet over the course of a mere 24-hour period on January 9th and 10th, 2023 – under conditions of an atmospheric river – Bishop received over 3 inches. And the downpour continues; just 11 minutes ago, commentator Unbiased Observer noted in Weather West that Bishop is closing in on 4 inches. This oddity demands an explanation.

Fortunately, such an explanation was made available, again by Unbiased Observer, on the Weather West blog, run by meteorologist Daniel Swain. I have posted the pertinent information below from the blog’s discussion forum. Such sharing of information among a devoted community of weather watchers is one of the many reasons why Weather West is such a valuable resource.

Should California Be Bracing for a Possible ARkStorm?

The storm currently hitting California has not produced as much precipitation as was anticipated, irritating some Weather West readers (see yesterday’s post) while reducing flood concerns for the present. But the forecast remains extremely wet over the next week and beyond. As the maps posted below show, rain in the lowlands and snow in the mountains could fall in prodigious quantities, which would probably cause extensive flooding (note the 256 inches of snow over roughly two weeks forecasted on one of the maps posted below). If the current seven-day forecast verifies, and if the wet pattern remains entrenched, California might even experience what is known as an ARkStorm, an event that occurs on average once every several hundred years. In an ARkStorm, much of the Central Valley, California’s agricultural heartland and home to millions of people, could be inundated for weeks.

As noted in the previous post, California has been locked in a persistent drought, experiencing only two wet years out of the past 12. An abrupt end to a long-term drought by devastating floods would not be unprecedented. Indeed, this is precisely what happened in the mid 19th century. As reported by EarthDate:

In the 1840s and 1850s, California was exceptionally dry, so by the fall of 1861, California ranchers were hoping for rain in late November they got what they were wishing for and – then some. It didn’t stop raining for 43 days and by January 1862 the Central Valley was filled with an inland sea.

The Great Flood of 1862 was that an extraordinary event, one that affected much of the western United States. The Wikipedia article on it provides a good summary. As it notes:

The event dumped an equivalent of 10 feet (3.0 m) of water in California, in the form of rain and snow. .. An area about 300 miles (480 km) long, averaging 20 miles (32 km) in width, and covering 5,000 to 6,000 square miles (13,000 to 16,000 km2) was under water over a period of 43 days.

Although this was the biggest flood in California’s recorded history, geological evidence shows that even larger floods have occurred over the past several thousand years. Of particular note were the years 440, 1418, 1605, and 1750. The largest flood was that of 1605 (± 5 years). As noted in a 2017 Quarternary Research article, this event may have even produced a large lake in the Mojave Desert that lasted for several decades. The Quarternary Research article claims that this flood may have been linked to a global cooling cycle associated with this so-called Little Ice Age. As the authors note, “This cooling was probably accompanied by an equatorward shift of prevailing wind patterns and associated storm tracks.”

The current concern is that global warming will lead to increased flood risks in California – along with increased drought risks. As Xingying Huang and Daniel Swain wrote in an August 2022 Science Advances article:

Despite the recent prevalence of severe drought, California faces a broadly underappreciated risk of severe floods. Here, we investigate the physical characteristics of “plausible worst case scenario” extreme storm sequences capable of giving rise to “megaflood” conditions using a combination of climate model data and high-resolution weather modeling. Using the data from the Community Earth System Model Large Ensemble, we find that climate change has already doubled the likelihood of an event capable of producing catastrophic flooding, but larger future increases are likely due to continued warming. We further find that runoff in the future extreme storm scenario is 200 to 400% greater than historical values in the Sierra Nevada because of increased precipitation rates and decreased snow fraction. These findings have direct implications for flood and emergency management, as well as broader implications for hazard mitigation and climate adaptation activities.

(See the map made by Xingying Huang and Daniel Swain posted blow to compare historical ARkStorms and those predicted for the future.)

 

Daniel Swain’s avid followers at Weather West have noted how the current situation follows Swain’s recent ARkStorm article:

Many researchers are concerned that California is not doing enough to prepare for the possibility of devastating floods. One proposal for dealing with extreme precipitation events is to allow rivers to occupy more of their natural floodplains, as outlined in a New York Times article published today. Such an approach would also help recharge California’s aquifers, many of which are severely depleted. But as the author observes, this would be an expensive solution that would generate pronounced opposition. From an environmental perspective, however, it makes a lot of sense.

 

The Weather West Blog Community and the Possible End of the Great California Drought

One of my favorite blogs is Weather West: California Weather and Climate Perspectives, run by meteorologist Daniel Swain. Posting once or twice a month, Swain focuses on current and upcoming weather events and conditions. He delves into meteorological complexities but writes in an accessible manner that can be easily understood by non-specialists. More important for the concerns of GeoCurrents, Swain’s posts are always illustrated with informative and often striking maps. For those who appreciate the aesthetic properties of cartography, it can be difficult to beat meteorological mapping. I often find the patterns and colors almost mesmerizing.

Equally impressive is Swain’s devoted readership. Each of his posts receives thousands of comments. Many are deeply informed, and they are also often illustrated with useful maps and dramatic photographs. For weather enthusiasts such as myself, the cloudscapes that are periodically posted on Weather West are reason enough to follow the blog.

What I most appreciate about the Weather West community, however, is its idiosyncratic perspective on precipitation. Here we find a group of devoted people who love rain and fully understand just how essential it is. Given California’s seemingly interminable drought – 10 of the past 12 years have been dry, the last two exceedingly so – one might expect this attitude to be common in the state, but in my experience it remains rare. Even National Weather Service (NWS) forecasters in California sometimes write about the “threat of rain” during times of dire drought. A few years back I was so frustrated by such mindless wording that I wrote a letter to the NWS urging them to replace “threat” with “promise” under drought conditions. I was surprised to receive a reply, but it turned out to be defensive and entirely non-apologetic. But some people understand. The best birthday present I ever received was a CD put together by my wife filled with rain-positive song in many genres and from several countries. One of the most memorable was Luke Bryan’s raunchy country tune called “Rain Is a Good Thing.” As Bryan emphasizes, farmers certainly understand. As his song opens:

My daddy spent his life lookin’ up at the sky

He’d cuss kick the dust, sayin’ son its way to dry

It clouds up in the city, the weather man complains

But where I come from, rain is a good thing

When rain does come to California, the Weather West community exults. They post their own precipitation numbers with pride, and bitterly complain when their own locations are stinted, ending up in the dreaded “donut hole.”  Some tend toward pessimism and sometimes find themselves gently chided by those more hopeful about coming storms. Overall, they seek to teach and inform each other, and thus form a model blog-focused community. (“Model” is used as something of a pun here, as Weather West readers often urge each other to beware of “model riding,” or giving too much credence to particular meteorological model outputs. This is especially the case when the output in question refer to “fantasyland,” or the time beyond the period of relatively reliable forecasting.)

Currently, the Weather West community it very excited but also worried. California’s long-term drought has just broken, at least temporarily. December precipitation was pronounced over almost the entire state, and January looks to be wetter still. Swain’s most recent post, of January the 2nd, is titled “Major Norcal Storm Wed.; Potential High-Impact Storm/Flood Pattern to Continue for 10 Plus Day. Wet Antecedent Conditions Set Stage for Future Flood Risk.” Even the blog’s most rain-besotted commentators are now concerned that they may get too much of a good thing. Some are even sheepishly admitting that they are now hoping for a mid-winter ridge that would produce a spell of dry weather.

California’s abrupt transition from dry to wet this winter was not expected. Until quite recently, mid- and long-range models predicted yet another rainy season of little rain. As almost all the state’s precipitation falls between November and March, this is a crucial matter. Driving these dry forecasts was the fact that the Pacific Ocean is still in La Niña* conditions, which have persisted for the past two years. In La Niña winters, far Northern California often gets ample precipitation, but the rest of the state is generally dry. In these years, the jet stream is typically displaced to the north and must ride over a large high-pressure ridge somewhere in the eastern Pacific. If the ridge is displaced too far to the east, California is hard hit by drought. If the high-pressure zone is instead pushed westward, cold storms can ride over the ridge and produce moderate rain and decent amounts of mountain snow. Under the contrasting El Niño** regime, a different winter pattern typically prevails, with the jet stream ripping directly across the Pacific. El Niño years usually bring abundant precipitation, especially to Central and Southern California. What makes the current situation so unusual and perhaps even inexplicable is that California is now experiencing an El Niño pattern in a La Niña year, with one relatively warm storm after another lined up across the Pacific. Meteorologists are trying to figure out what is going on, and undoubtedly much more will be written on the subject.

If the current forecasts through January pan out, California could end up with full reservoirs and a very healthy snowpack in the higher elevations. But that does not mean that drought conditions will not necessarily return before the wet season ends. Last year, heavy precipitation in December was followed by a parched period stretching from January through March, generally the wettest time of the year. By the end of the summer, the state’s crucial reservoirs were frighteningly depleted.

But even if this February and March are dry, fears of a disastrously water-short summer of 2023 are currently being washed away. Indication for the 2023-2024 wet season also look promising, as La Niña is dissipating and El Niño looks like it might return. But El Niño sometimes fails to produce the predicted downpours, as was the case in the winter of 2015-2016. As U.C. San Diego Scripps Institute of Oceanography reported:

Most long-range forecast models predicted a potentially drought-ending deluge in California from the climate pattern known as El Niño in winter 2015-16, but the actual precipitation was far less than expected. … “Comparing this El Niño to previous strong El Niños, we found big differences in the atmospheric response across the globe, including California,” said Nick Siler, lead author of the study that was published in the Journal of Climate, and a postdoctoral scholar in the research group of co-author Shang-Ping Xie at Scripps. “We found that these differences weren’t all random, but rather were caused by tropical sea-surface temperature anomalies unrelated to El Niño.” … The results of the study suggest that El Niño events might not have as strong an influence on California precipitation as previously thought. They also suggest that recent warming might have had a hand in making El Niño drier. The Indian Ocean is known to be warming faster than other ocean basins

Climate change seems to be intensifying California droughts, just as it might be undermining El Niño rains. But it might also be making wet periods wetter, particularly those produced by so-called atmospheric rivers. As a result, the chances of a devastating “arc storm” are increasing. As we shall see in tomorrow’s post, Daniel Swain is one of the leading experts on this topic.

*Wikipedia Definition: “During a La Niña period, the sea surface temperature across the eastern equatorial part of the central Pacific Ocean will be lower than normal by 3–5 °C (5.4–9 °F).

**Wikipedia definition: “[El Niño] is the warm phase of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and is associated with a band of warm ocean water that develops in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific.

 

The Importance of the County in U.S. Geography

Recent GeoCurrents posts have examined county-level socioeconomic data, both for the state of Montana and the United States as a whole. Whenever I look at U.S. counties I am reminded of my father’s response when I told him that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in geography: “What does that mean? You’re going to memorize all the county seats?” Meant as a good-natured joke, his quip was telling, as it reflected the widespread skepticism of academia in the United States, the low reputation of geography as a scholarly discipline, and my own childhood proclivity for memorizing geographical information. It was also a comment on the perceived triviality of the county as a geopolitical unit. But U.S. counties are, at least in most parts of the country, anything but trivial. As recent posts have shown, counties are essential units for tabulating and recording information. When one wants a fine-grained depiction of any social or economic indicator in the United States, county-level mapping is usually the place to go.

 

“County,” however, is not exactly the right word to denote the 3,243 basic subdivisions of the country’s 50 constituent states. Sticklers for precision insist on “county equivalent,” as Louisiana is divided into parishes and Alaska into boroughs and “census areas.”  Not all parts of the United States, moreover, belong to a county. Virginia has 38 “independent cities” that are primary administrative divisions of the state. St. Louis (Missouri), Baltimore (Maryland), and Carson City (Nevada) are similarly unattached to any county. More common is the “consolidated city county” in which governmental functions have been merged. As the Wikipedia explains, “A consolidated city-county differs from an independent city in that the city and county both nominally exist, although they have a consolidated government, whereas in an independent city, the county does not even nominally exist.”

 

New York City is uniquely composed of several counties, as each of its five boroughs is also constituted as a county. Confusingly, for three of them the name of the borough differs from that of the county: Brooklyn is Kings County; Staten Island is Richmond County; and Manhattan is New York County. New York County is thus merely one part of New York City, inverting the normal city-county relationship. Many U.S. cities, however, are divided between two counties. Alabama alone counts 45 of these municipal anomalies.

The role and significance of counties varies significantly across the country. Wikipedia categorizes U.S. counties into three types: minimal scope, moderate scope, and broad scope. In most of New England, county scope is minimal indeed. In Connecticut, Rhode Island, and parts of Massachusetts, countries are no more than geographical designations used to tabulate information. Moderate scope counties, which have several essential functions, are found over most of the Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern regions. Broad-scope counties are typical of the West and South. As the Wikipedia notes:

In western and southern states, more populated counties provide many facilities, such as airports, convention centers, museums, recreation centers, beaches, harbors, zoos, clinics, law libraries, and public housing. They provide services such as child and family services, elder services, mental health services, welfare services, veterans assistance services, animal control, probation supervision, historic preservation, food safety regulation, and environmental health services. They have many additional officials like public defenders, arts commissioners, human rights commissioners, and planning commissioners.

 

The “less populated” counties of the West and South may not provide all these services, but they are nonetheless very important. In rural areas with few or no incorporated cities, it is the county that provides local administration, with the county seat serving as the crucial center of governance. I mostly grew up in such a non-municipal administrative town (San Andreas in California’s Calaveras County) and can attest to the significance of its county-seat status.

 

 

U.S. counties vary greatly in population. Los Angeles County, with 10,014,009 residents counted in the 2020 census, would be the country’s 11th most populous state if it were to secede from California. Contrastingly, Loving County in Texas had only 64 residents in 2020. I have some difficulty understanding how such a lightly populated area manages to function as a county. Evidently, it does not do so easily. As Texas Monthly reported in 1997:

 

 

 

Loving County residents are always thinking about the next election. Thirty-seven percent of the work force is employed by the county, mainly in elected positions. Elections are often knock-down-drag-out fights that have less to do with the issues at hand than the proclivity to “get caught in echoes of the past,” as one longtime resident puts it: the tangled web of family rivalries, personal vendettas, and enduring grudges among locals. Wide-open spaces don’t necessarily breed open minds; Loving’s spiteful, tribal politics have occasionally threatened to destroy the détente between the county’s families. “Years ago, when we found boot prints under Mother’s window, we knew it wasn’t prurience—it was politics,” says justice of the peace McKinley Hopper. “Although nothing’s more prurient than politics.

“Voter turnout is always a hundred percent, sometimes more,” says Hopper, who, as the 75-year-old patriarch of the Hopper clan, has witnessed plenty of election shenanigans. “Oh, there have been some red-hot lawsuits over voting! Some outlandish things have happened that made people madder than hornets. Texas Rangers have been brought in to view the whole thing, votes have been counted in an El Paso courtroom. People would ‘move’ to Loving County the night before Election Day and set up their bedrolls in different precincts. When my brother was sheriff, he showed up to vote once without his poll tax receipt. When he went across the street to get it, they closed the polls an hour early so he couldn’t vote.”

U.S. counties also vary greatly in terms of area. San Bernardino County, California, covers 20,105 square miles (52,072 km2), which means that it is significantly larger than the Netherlands. Contrastingly, Kalawao County, Hawaii, covers a mere 11.88 square miles. Problems can be generated by large county territories. San Bernardino’s seat, the city of San Bernardino, is located in the southwestern corner of the sprawling county, presenting a major inconvenience for people living in the town of Needles, 212 miles to the east. San Bernardino County itself has major issues with the state of California, its leaders complaining that they receive inadequate state funding. A secession measure will be placed before the county’s voters this November. As The Guardian  reports:

We need our state legislators to look at the return they are supposed to deliver to the people they serve,” she said. “We are one of the fastest-growing regions and it’s time to pay attention to that … We don’t have beaches, we don’t have all the skyscrapers but what we have is a family. We are a family-oriented county.”

For those interested in the “trivialities” of county geography, Visual Capitalist has a remarkable animated map of U.S. county development going back to the early 1600s.

Voting Patterns and Population Density – and “State of Jefferson” Exception

As has often been noted, electoral patterns in the United States increasingly correlate with population density; in general, densely populated areas vote for candidates in the Democratic Party while sparsely settled areas vote for candidates in the Republican Party. As a result, major metropolitan areas generally exhibit a pattern of concentric rings, which turn from blue to red as one travels outward from the urban center.

Different cities, however, show major variations on this theme. Minneapolis-Saint Paul exemplifies the annular pattern, with a dark-blue core surrounded by rings of lightening blue that eventually turn pink. Dallas-Fort Worth is more complicated. Here one finds urban cores that are just as blue as those in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, but the urban peripheries and suburbs are more variegated, while the exurbs and enveloping rural areas are a darker shade of red. The greater Milwaukee area is notable for its steep gradient; as one leaves the city, blue yields to pink. Seattle, in contrast, has a gentle gradient, with light blue extending across and beyond the suburban fringe. (The dark red precinct west of Everett is misleading: it recorded all of three Trump votes – but no Biden votes.)

 

It is not just major cities where this density-dependent electoral dynamic plays out. As can be seen on the map of the 2020 presidential election in central Illinois and southeastern Iowa, all cities with more than 50,000 residents went blue, or at least had blue cores, whereas no town with fewer than 5,000 residents had any blue precincts. Pekin and Quincy were unusual in having more than 30,000 residents but no blue precincts in 2020. Yet even here, the town centers were light pink rather than red.

Several parts of the United States do not follow this pattern. Rural areas dominated by Native Americans and Blacks tend to be heavily Democratic voting. The same has historically been true of Hispanic-majority rural areas, although many are now trending Republican. And as noted in previous posts, rural areas dominated by affluent amenity-seekers also tend to be blue.

In a few parts of the country, this linkage between population density and voting behavior disappears. Consider, for example, far-northern-interior California, a white-dominated region with strong anti-California sentiments associated with the “State of Jefferson” movement. Although the cities and towns here are more pink than red, they lack blue precincts. The one exception is in Susanville, a small city economically based on prisons. But Susanville’s exceptional blue precinct is small, with just 54 votes cast. In contrast, many of the more remote parts of this region are Democratic voting. This is particularly true in the west, an area that has been heavily involved in cannabis cultivation.

The city of Redding, the “metropolis” of far northern California, has grown rapidly in recent decades, surging from under 17,000 people in 1970 to almost 100,000 today. Many of its newcomers have relocated from California’s major metropolitan areas, seeking lower prices and a more conservative social and political milieu. Although the Redding areas has many attractive natural features, its average July high temperature of 99.9 degrees dissuades the affluent, as does its political climate. Left-wing outdoor enthusiasts find places like Mt Shasta City, Weed, and Dunsmuir, all located in the mountainous blue-zone between Redding and Yreka, far more attractive. In 60%-Biden-voting Dunsmuir, population 1,700, class-three whitewater rapids are uniquely located in the middle of town.

Cross-Class Connectedness in the Pacific Northwest and the Proposed State of Jefferson

On the map of “Economic Connectedness of Low-Socioeconomic-Status Individuals by County” (see the post of August 11), the Pacific Northwest appears as a highly variegated zone. Counties in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California range from the highest to the lowest category, with few obvious spatial patterns.

 

 

 

But as is true in the northern Rockies and northern Great Plains, ethnic differences underlay many of these county-level disparities. Counties with large numbers of relatively poor Hispanic farmworkers generally rank low, indicating a lack of connections across ethnic and economic lines. In agricultural southeastern Washington, counties dominated by highly mechanized dryland grain farming, such as Whitman, rank high, whereas as those dominated by more labor-intensive irrigated crops, such as neighboring Adams, rank low. Whitman’s elevated standing also reflects the presence of Washington State University. Across the country, counties with major universities tend to have relatively large numbers of cross-class friendships.

Across a sizable area of southwestern Oregon and far northern California, however, both ethnic/racial diversity and the level of economic connectedness is low. On both scores, this region looks more like southern and central Appalachia than other parts of the Pacific Northwest. As the first set of triplicate maps shows, this region has a moderate level of economic differentiation (GINI Coefficient), a relatively low level of per capita GDP, and a relatively low level of income in its top economic tier. Here as well, county-rankings in southwestern Oregon and far northern California are not dissimilar to those of central Appalachia. As the next map series shows, the region is heavily Republican-voting – although it is not as Trump-inclined as West Virginia. It also has a large percentage of people over age 65. It deviates most sharply from central Appalachia in its relatively high percentage of people with high-school diplomas.

 

 

 

Although Oregon is conventionally divided east-by-west, in the western part of the state the north/south divide is equally important. Although the fertile Willamette Valley in the northwest was settled heavily by New Englanders, most of the rest of western Oregon was substantially settled by people from the upper south. Many rural areas still have an Appalachian feel.

Not coincidentally, the low-connectedness region of southwestern Oregon and far northern California forms the core of the controversial proposed state of Jefferson, which has received local support for decades. Proponents argue that their largely rural and relatively remote region has been ignored – and bullied – by the state governments of Oregon and California. Intriguingly, Wikipedia’s article on the State of Jefferson pushes its would-be borders farther to the south than has been the norm, including even Mendocino County. Although Mendocino may have a local Jefferson movement, it receives little support. As the precinct-level electoral map of the county shows, Mendocino is distinctly blue (Democratic Party voting). As a result, most of its residents want nothing to do with the populist right-wing Jefferson movement.

The Geography of Health and Longevity in Montana (and the Rest of the U.S.)

Maps of health and longevity show many of the same patterns seen on earlier maps posted in this GeoCurrents sequence. In the United States as a whole, several county-clusters of relatively low life expectancy stand out. The most prominent is in eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, and southern Ohio, an area mostly inhabited by Euro-Americans. Several areas demographically dominated by African Americans also post low longevity figures, including the southern Mississippi Valley and a few of the large cities that are visible on this county-level map, such as Baltimore and Saint Louis. Almost all counties with large Native American populations also have relatively low figures. Counties with Hispanic majorities, in contrast, generally have average or high levels of longevity, as is clearly visible in southern Texas. Although life expectancy tends to correlate with income, the correlation collapses in many of these areas. Hidalgo County, Texas is over 91 percent Hispanic and has a per capita income of only $12,130, making it “one of the poorest counties in the United States,” but it ranks in the highest longevity category on this map. In Camp County, in northeast Texas, the average life expectancy of white residents is only 74 years, whereas that of Hispanics is 92 years. In most Texas countries, Hispanics outlive whites. Presumably, diet and activity levels are major factors.

Life expectancy varies significantly across Montana, with some counties falling in the highest category and others in the lowest. In Montana, low figures are found in counties with large Native American populations and in the former mining and smelting counties of Silver Bow and Deer Lodge. The relatively wealthier counties of south-central Montana post high longevity figures.

The map of heart-disease deaths in the United States shows some stark geographically patterns. Rates are highest in the south-central part of the country but are also elevated across most of the eastern Midwest. Heart disease death rates tend to be lower in major metropolitan counties as well as in rural countries across much of the West and western Midwest. Many of the patterns seen on this map are difficult to interpret. Why, for example, would heart-disease death rates be much lower in western North Carolina than in eastern Tennessee? (Perhaps the obesity map, posted below, offers a partial explanation, although only by begging the question.) And why would some counties that are demographically dominated by Native Americans have very high rates whereas others, especially those in New Mexico and Arizona, have very low rates? In Montana heart disease tends to be elevated in Native American counties – and in Silver Bow (Butte). South-central Montana has low rates.

On the U.S. cancer death-rate map of 2014, high rates are clearly evident in areas demographically dominated by poor white people (central Appalachia) and poor Black people (the inland delta of the Mississippi in western Mississippi and eastern Arkansas). Low rates tend to be found in the Rocky Mountains, south Florida, and parts of the northern Great Plains. No clear patterns are evident in Montana. Gallatin and Liberty counties fall in the lowest category found in the state, yet have almost nothing in common. The small population of Liberty County, however, makes comparison difficult.

 

 

Finally, the patterns seen on the U.S. obesity map are similar to those seen on the preceding maps. The low rates found in the Rocky Mountains, extending from northern New Mexico to northwest Montana, are notable. The northern Great Plains have a higher obesity rate than might be expected based on other health indicators. Some odd juxtapositions are found on this map, with several neighboring counties of similar demographic characteristics posting very different figures. Why, for example, would Pecos County in West Texas have such higher rates than its neighbors? In Montana, it is not surprising that Gallatin County, with its youthful, outdoor focused population, has the lowest obesity rate.

The Regionalization of California, Part 2

Regions of California MapToday’s post continues and concludes the discussion of the county-level regionalization of California. We begin here with the Central Valley, one of the most distinctive aspects of the state’s physical geography. “Valley” is perhaps not the best term to describe this feature. I will never forget the words of Jung-man Lee, now a professor of geography at Seoul National University, when we visited the valley as graduate students in the 1980s. “Valley?,” he asked incredulously. “This is a not a valley, it is a vast plain!”

 
California Central Valley Region Map 1The Central Valley is characterized above all by its remarkably productive agriculture and its associated agro-industries, although it also includes many medium-sized cities. Of the top 10 agricultural counties (in terms of sales) in the United States in 2012, the Central Valley counted 7, while California as a whole counted nine 9. This region is characterized overall by low to medium wage levels, relatively high crime rates, California Central Valley Region Map 2high levels of unemployment, relatively low housing valuation, and large Hispanic populations.

California’s Central Valley is clearly differentiated into several sub-regions. The major distinction is between the San Joaquin Valley in the south and the Sacramento Valley in the north, both of which are named after their main rivers. The San Joaquin is a much wider and California Top Farm Counties Mapmore agriculturally productive valley than the Sacramento. It is also more densely populated and more urbanized.

California Farmland MapI have further divided both of these two constituent valleys into their own sub-regions. The northern San Joaquin counties have been differentiated from the “core” San Joaquin counties primarily because they are much more oriented toward the San Francisco Bay Area. Parts of San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties, for example, almost function as bedroom communities for Silicon Valley; although the commutes are fierce, the housing-price differential easily explains the phenomenon. The northern San Joaquin counties also have slightly more liberal voting patterns than those to the south.

In regard to the Sacramento Valley, mostly urban Sacramento County (population 1.4 million) is clearly separated from the more conservative and rural counties to the north. I have appended neighboring Yolo County to the Sacramento sub-region, both because it is economically linked to it and because it is characterized by relatively left-wing voting patterns, owing largely to the presence of the University of California at Davis. Finally, I have marked Solano as an “affiliated county” because a substantial part of its territory is physically situated within the Central Valley and partakes in its agricultural economy. Portions of Contra Costa and Placer counties are also located in the Central Valley, but they are too small to merit inclusion on the map.

 

 

California Eastern Sierra Region MapThe next region that I have distinguished, “Eastern Sierra,” rarely appears in regionalization schemes, mostly because its population is so small (roughly 34,000). This is a sparsely settled area indeed, characterized by lofty peaks and arid lowlands, containing both the highest (Mount Whitney) and lowest (Death Valley) elevations in the lower 48 U.S. states. It also formerly included a productive agricultural area, the Owens Valley, but the water that made farming possible there was acquired by Los Angeles and piped south, an episode made famous by the film Chinatown. The northern two counties in the region are politically distinctive, as they are the only sparsely populated counties in the state that routinely vote for candidates in the Democratic Party. This oddity stems from the fact that many former urbanites have moved to the area to enjoy its spectacular scenery and outdoor recreation opportunities. A bizarre footnote to this phenomenon was the idea of turning Alpine into a majority-gay county in 1970. As summarized by the Wikipedia article on the Stonewall Nation:

In 1970, Alpine County had a population of about 430 people, with 367 registered voters. Under a recent California Supreme Court ruling, new county residents could register to vote after 90 days in residence. Activist Don Jackson presented his idea for taking over the county at a December 28, 1969 gay liberation conference at Berkeley, California. He was inspired by gay activist and writer Carl Wittman, who wrote in his “Gay Manifesto”, “To be a free territory, we must govern ourselves, set up our own institutions, defend ourselves….Rural retreats, political action offices…they must be developed if we are to have even the shadow of a free territory.” He (incorrectly) suggested that if as few as 200 gay people moved to Alpine County, they would constitute a majority of registered voters. Taking over the county government, he said, would result in, “a gay government, a gay civil service…the world’s first gay university, partially paid for by the state…the world’s first museum of gay arts, sciences and history…[and a] free county health service and hospital…”

Not surprisingly, the proposal did not gain traction. As noted in the same Wikipedia article, “Despite announcing in November 1970 that it had close to 500 people ready to move, in February 1971, the GLF [Gay Liberation Front] released a statement that it was abandoning Alpine County for a warmer climate. It has since been suggested that the entire Stonewall Nation idea was a hoax perpetrated by the Los Angeles GLF to generate mainstream publicity.”

California Bay Area Region Map 1Almost everyone agrees that the San Francisco Bay Area forms a distinctive region, although different sources delineate it in different ways. The most common definition, endorsed by the Wikipedia, is to include all nine countries that actually touch upon the Bay, even though Napa County barely does so. An alternative delineation, which seems to be diminishing, is that of a five-country Bay Area that coincides with the San Francisco Metropolitan Area (officially known as the “San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA Metropolitan Statistical Area”) as defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.

California Bay Area Region Map 2I have, however, defined the Bay Area region somewhat idiosyncratically, excluding Napa and Sonoma counties, which are instead placed in the northwestern region (see the previous post), but including Santa Cruz County even though it does not come close to the Bay itself. I have done so because Santa Cruz is closely linked, especially in economic terms, to the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley (Santa Clara County, essentially). Santa Cruz could, however, just as easily be grouped with the Central Coast counties, as it often is.

The Bay Area is, in general, an affluent area characterized by extremely high housing prices and left-wing voting patterns. It also has a high proportion of Asian residents. I have not subdivided the Bay Area largely because its main sub-regions are county-based. The “South Bay, for example” is essentially Santa Clara County, while “the Peninsula” is San Mateo County. The “East Bay,” however, includes both Contra Costa and Alameda counties.
California Central Coast Region MapA “Central Coast” region is found in almost all California regionalization schemes, although, again, its delineation varies. Santa Barbara County in the south, for example, is often grouped instead with Los Angeles, and for good reason. San Benito County is sometimes excluded from the Central Coast as well, as it is far from coastal, but it is difficult to figure where else to put it (a few sources place it in the Bay Area). Overall, the Central Coast falls near the middle of most social and economic indicators. This position is somewhat deceptive, however, as the region includes both highly exclusive areas (especially in Monterey and Santa Barbara counties) and highly productive agricultural zones that are home to many poor farm workers. Monterey County ranks 4rth nationwide in terms of its value of agricultural production, thanks to the narrow but fertile Salinas Valley. This valley specializes in labor-intensive vegetable crops. As noted in the Wikipedia:

Agriculture dominates the economy of the valley. Promoters call the Salinas Valley “the Salad Bowl of the World” for the production of lettuce, broccoli, peppers and numerous other crops. The climate and long growing season are also ideal for the flower industry … In particular, a large majority of the salad greens consumed in the U.S. are grown within this region. Strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, and spinach are the dominant crops in the valley. Other crops include broccoli, cauliflower, wine grapes, and celery.

Smaller zones of equally intensive agriculture are also found in the other counties of the Central Coast region. Tourism is also highly developed in many areas, but the central coastal swath of the Central Coastal region is so rugged that tourism and almost everything else is quite constrained. This is the famed Big Sur area, noted for its spectacular scenery and sparse population.

County-level regionalization is a much trickier proposition in Southern California than in Northern California. Many southern California countries are vast, spanning several distinctive regions, and several have extremely large populations. Los Angeles County alone has more residents than 41 U.S. states. The vast majority of Southern California’s population, moreover, is concentrated in a somewhat narrow zone situated to the south and west of the Transverse and Peninsular mountain ranges, where one finds an essentially continuous belt of metropolitan population. As a result of these issues, I have aggregated the five counties of the Greater Los Angeles Area into one region, which I have dubbed, for want of a better term, “Southland.” That leaves just Imperial and San Diego counties, which are quite different from each other and thus deserve separate regional status. Imperial County stands out from all other counties in California, particularly in its demographic characteristics, as its population is roughly 80 percent Hispanic.

 

The Regionalization of California, Part 1

Like all US states—and indeed, virtually political units—California is divided into a number of informal and special-purpose regions. Regional designations in California are used ubiquitously in the media, in academic reports, and in everyday conversation. They are unavoidable and necessary. But as is generally the case with regionalization schemes, the numbers, names, and spatial outlines of California’s regions vary widely from map to map and author to author. As a result, a certain degree of confusion ensues.

California regions map 1After scanning the internet for depictions of California’s regions, I assembled a number of maps and have posted them here. The first image shows six informal regionalization schemes, used mainly for tourism marketing or elementary education. As can be seen, the designation and delimitation of regions varies considerably. All but one of these maps, for example, specify a “North Coast” region, but the bottom-left map extends the North Coast southward to include the San Francisco Bay Area, a maneuver that almost no one in the Bay Area would ever make. The top-middle map, in contrast, places the Bay Area in the Central Coast region, but again this is not something that a native resident would do, as the Bay Area is habitually conceptualized as a region in its own right.

Some of these maps also get the basic geography of California wrong. Both the upper and lower maps on the left side of the set, for example, severely misplace the Central Valley. The upper-left map also misrepresents the spatial outlines of Los Angeles and San Diego counties. Of these six maps, the most idiosyncratic and least useful is the one in the middle of the bottom row. A vast swath of the state is labeled here as “central corridor,” as if its only significance is that of a transportation route between the Bay Area and Southern California. Unfortunately, such a geographically bigoted viewpoint is far from uncommon in the wealthy coastal districts of the state.

California Regions Map 2The three maps in the next set are based on counties and are designated in a more formal manner. As can be seen, the regions marked on these maps also vary to a considerable extent. Some of the regional labels found here are curious. I have, for example, never encountered the term “Upstate California,” and thus imagine that the author is a displaced and confused New Yorker. The same map also uses the designation “Inland Empire” in an inappropriate manner, extending it all the way to the Nevada and Arizona borders. As several of the maps in the previous set specify, “Inland Empire” is used in common parlance to refer only to the western slice of Riverside County and the southwestern corner of San Bernardino County, areas that are situated within the greater metropolitan area of Southern California. I must also admit to a distaste for the term “Inland Empire,” as there is nothing “imperial” about this region, and the same term is used to designate a region in eastern Washington and northern Idaho.

Regions of California MapWith these issues and problems in mind, I decided to create my own informal but county-based regionalization scheme, using the GeoCurrents customizable map of California. To be sure, my map has plenty of its own problems, the most important of which is the fact that many California counties span commonly conceptualized regional boundaries. But I do hope that that the regions designated here are somewhat more consistently conceptualized than those found in competing schemes.

 

 

 

Northwest California Region MapLet us begin with the northwest coastal area. Unlike competing systems, mine separates Del Norte in the far northwest from the counties located to its south. It does so primarily because Del Norte is much more politically conservative than Humboldt or Mendocino, in part because it lacks the countercultural element that is prevalent in the latter two counties. In the California 2012 Obama Vote Mapregion that I have designated “Northwest/Wine & Weed,” tourism is vitally important and local economies depend heavily on what might be called boutique agriculture, especially that focused on the two products tagged by the label. This region can in turn be subdivided partly on the same basis: more wine in the south, and more marijuana in the north, although Mendocino County scores high on both products. This region’s southern counties, Sonoma and Napa, are also more affluent and densely populated than those of the north, and are much more closely connected to the San Francisco Bay Area. Note also that Trinity County, which I have excluded from the region, could easily be placed within it, due especially to the fact that it is conventionally classified within the “Emerald Triangle” of extensive cannabis cultivation.

Far North California Region MapMoving to the northwest one finds the region that I have designated as Far North, and alternatively as “Shasta” after its signatory mountain peak; this same area is sometimes deemed “Jefferson” after its local semi-serious secession movement. The counties of the Far North have several features in common. This region is relatively poor, heavily dependent on natural resources, characterized by inexpensive housing (by California standards), lightly populated, markedly conservative in its voting patterns, and heavily White in terms of its demography. (The map shows a somewhat lower White share of the population in Lassen and Del Norte counties, but this discrepancy stems mostly from the presence of large state prisons: Pelican Bay in Del Norte and High Desert in Lassen.)

California White Population MapIn subdividing the Far North region, I have excluded Modoc and Lassen from the core counties. This move is due to the fact that Modoc and Lassen are much more conservative than their neighbors and stand out on many other indicators as well; in terms of both physical and human geography, they fit much better with northern Nevada than with the rest of California. Non-core Trinity County, on the other hand, is less conservative and has a stronger counter-cultural element, while Plumas has much in common with the Sierra counties to the south. Tehama County, on the other hand, has been placed within the Central Valley region, but it has much in common with the Far North region as well.

 

 

Sierra California Region MapThe Sierra/Gold Country region is distinguished in part on historical grounds. Owing to the Gold Rush of 1949, this was the first part of the state to be settled by English-speaking people in large numbers (along with San Francisco and Sacramento). The counties of this region extend from the edge of the Central Valley through the gradual western slope of the Sierra Nevada USA population density maprange. (Placer County, however, also includes a small portion of the agricultural Central Valley). Historically, population in this region was concentrated in a rather narrow north-south belt in the foothills, an area called the “Mother Load” after its rich, gold-bearing rocks. Population plummeted after the gold deposits were exhausted, and the local economies switched to ranching and logging. Later, tourism surged in importance, and Nevada County in particular gained a counter-cultural element similar to that of Mendocino and Humboldt counties.

 

Sierra California Region Map 2The Sierra/Gold Country region is currently characterized by fairly strong support for Republican political candidates (less so, however, in Nevada County), medium levels of income, moderately low population densities, heavily White populations, and low levels of violent crime. Placer and El Dorado counties are distinguished from the rest of the region by their inclusion of some of the suburbs of Sacramento and they share as well the Lake Tahoe basin, noted for its winter sports and other recreational opportunities. As California Income Mapcan be seen on the income map posted here, they are markedly more affluent than the rest of the region. Sierra County in the north is differentiated by its tiny population and the fact that it does not encompass any portion of the distinctive foothill belt. Large parts of the Sierra Nevada range are also found in several other counties, but these counties are demographically and economically anchored in the Central Valley and are thus placed within that region. In the far south (Fresno, Tulare, and Kings counties), moreover, the distinctive foothill zone is quite narrow and never supported gold-mining communities.

Calaveras County MapPopulation has expanded dramatically over much of the Sierra region in recent decades as people have moved in from the more crowded and expensive parts of the state. Calaveras County, for example, saw its population almost double from 1980 to 2000. I know this story well, as I moved from suburban Contra Costa County to rural Calaveras in 1970, when I was 13 years of age. At the time, the entire country did not have a single traffic signal. The county as a whole has changed greatly since then, although my own hometown, San Andreas, has hardly transformed at all. (San Andreas has no connection with the famous geological feature of the same name, resulting in its unofficial slogan: “its not out fault”.)

In working on this current series of posts, I was quite surprised to discover that Calaveras has one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the state, as the county has its share to meth labs as well as unsavory characters and questionable areas. It was also the site of one of the most grisly episodes of serial murder in California history. But evidently the county as a whole is a fairly wholesome place.

 

 

Surprising Patterns in Geography of Crime in California

California Violent Crime MapMapping crime rates by county in California shows few easily explicable patterns. At first glance, the map of violent crime (which is unfortunately somewhat dated) appears almost random. That of property crime shows a concentration in the Central Valley (which I have outlined on the map), but only a slight one: note how low the rate is in Kings County. The California Property Crime Mapremainder of this post will focus on the map of violent crime, seeking correlations with patterns found on maps of other phenomena.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

California Crime Income Map

 

Is violent crime geographically associated with income at the county level? The first set of paired maps indicates that any such correlation is meager. Relatively high rates of violent crime are found in rich counties such as San Francisco and Alameda, and in relatively poor counties such as Shasta and Tehama. Likewise, relatively low rates of violent crime are found in rich counties such as Marin and San Mateo, and in relatively poor counties such as Glenn and Trinity.

California Crime Population MapIs violent crime geographically associated with population density? The next set paired maps indicates that any such correlation is meager. Relatively high rates of violent crime are found in densely populated counties such as, again, San Francisco and Alameda, and in sparsely populated counties such as Alpine and Shasta. Likewise, relatively low rates of violent crime are found in densely populated counties such as Orange and Santa Clara, and in sparsely populated counties such as Modoc and Trinity.

California Crime Politics MapDo voting patterns have any connection to violent crime rates? As the next set of paired maps indicate, the answer is again “no.”

 

 

 

California Crime Ethnicity map 1What if one turn to the hot-button issue of crime and race & ethnicity, a topic so controversial that I hesitate to even mention it? But in this case as well, no clear correlations exist, at least at the county level of analysis. Consider, for example, the paired maps of violent crime and the Hispanic population. Although the southern half of the Central Valley (the San Joaquin Valley) has a generally high violent-crime rate and a large California Crime Ethncity Map 2percentage of Hispanic residents, some of the most Hispanic counties in the state have very low rates of violent crime (Imperial and Colusa). Nor is there any clear correlation between the state’s relatively small Black population and the violent crime rate. Note that Alpine, by far the most violent county in the state according to these statistics, has no Black residents whatsoever.

California Crime Ethncity Map 3Similar things can be said in regard to California’s White and Asian populations. To be sure, many overwhelmingly white counties have very low rates of violence, such as Calaveras and Trinity, but Tehama and especially Shasta counties are also heavily White yet have strikingly high California Crime Ethncity Map 4rates of violent crime. Heavily Asian counties tend to have low crime rates, but that is not the case in regard to San Francisco.

 

 

 

 

Several of the counties that stand out most clearly on the map of violent crime deserve more consideration. Alpine County, with its particularly high level of crime, is the largest mystery, although its minuscule population means that such figures might not be very indicative. San Joaquin County, on the other hand, is no surprise, as its main city, Stockton, has long been regarded as a relatively dangerous place with a grim and decaying downtown. It is probably not coincidental that Stockton suffered severely in the economic crisis of 2008, earning it the unenviable title of “Foreclosureville USA.” (To be fair, however, Stockton does have many nice neighborhoods as well as a habitually underrated university, the University of the Pacific.)

The high rate of violent crime in Shasta County, on the other hand, did come as a surprise to me. But the elevated—and rising—level of crime in the county’s main city, Redding, has been noted by several publications. In 2012, Forbes magazine rated the small city (metro population 182,000) as the fifth most dangerous place for women in the United States, with a particularly high rate of rape. An exaggerated local blogsite calls itself “Crumbling Town – Redding, CA: The Horrific Demise of a Once Beautiful and Peaceful Town in Northern California.” Its most recent post is grimly amusing:

We have so many jailhouse tatted adult men riding children’s bicycles, we have no choice but to embrace them as our official mascots. They can be found zipping in and out of traffic, casing parking lots, trolling alleyways, pedaling through quiet neighborhoods by day, returning to rape, pillage, and plunder by night. They look so cute, how can anyone not love them?

The mascot’s costume is consistent with his lifestyle: He can go skin or shirt, shorts or long, shaved head or hat. He accessorizes with stolen headphones, sunglasses, and knives. His body is illustrated with tattoos. He always has a bulging backpack and frequently carries enormous bags of “recyclables”

Redding’s Ubiquitous Mascots own this town. Untouchable by police, living lives of anarchy with no consequences or responsibilities.

Time Magazine noted the high rate of crime in Redding in 2014, but unlike the other sources that I consulted it offered an explanation:

There were 1,298 violent crimes in the Redding metro area in 2012, up from 851 violent crimes in 2007. On a standardized, per 100,000 resident basis, violent crime rose more than 53% in that time. Additionally, property crimes rose by more than 50%, the most of any metro area reviewed, despite a nationwide 12.7% decline in such crimes during that time. According to the Redding Record Searchlight, some area residents believe that the area’s high crime rates may be related to marijuana cultivation. Officials in Shasta County — which makes up the Redding metro area — recently elected to ban outdoor growing, although the city of Redding is not included in the ban.

I am quite skeptical, however, of this explanation. The heart of marijuana cultivation in California, the so-called Emerald Triangle of Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino counties, has a low to moderate crime rate. Cannabis is also widely grown in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, in a belt extending from Nevada to Mariposa counties, a region that happens to have the lowest rate of the violent crime in the state.

But it may not be marijuana cultivation per se that is associated with crime, but rather with who is doing the cultivating. I recently had an instructive conversation with the sheriff of a north-coastal California county on precisely this issue. According to him, the hippies living in the hills who have been cultivating small patches for decades are no problem at all, but the young men moving in, those with “perpetually sore shoulders” seeking to get rich, are a major problem. Perhaps Shasta County has many of latter sort of cannabis cultivator. But I suspect that its real problem is associated instead with biker gangs and methamphetamine production.