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- In the past decade, California has seen a devastating drought, enormous and deadly fires, and a skyrocketing homeless population.
- Taken together, these factors are making the state increasingly unlivable.
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California is becoming a precarious place to live.
Seven of the state’s 10 most destructive fires have occurred in the past decade. From 2011 to 2015, it endured a major drought that forced families in the Central Valley to bathe from buckets and drink water from plastic jugs to avoid contamination. And California’s homeless population has increased so much that it now makes up a quarter of the national total.
These problems are only getting worse.
Rents are climbing throughout the state, and the effects of climate change have become more pronounced, posing fundamental threats to the safety and livelihoods of California residents.
Here’s how the California dream is turning into a nightmare.
California’s fire season is getting longer and more destructive.
The annual wildfire season in the western US is now 78 days longer than it was 50 years ago.
In California, the portion of the state that burns from wildfires every year has increased more than fivefold since 1972. Nine of the 10 biggest fires in the state’s history have occurred since 2003.
The 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people, was the deadliest fire ever in California and the sixth-deadliest fire in US history.
To minimize the risk of sparking power lines igniting more blazes, California’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers this fall.
- Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
From June 2014 to December 2017, PG&E power lines prompted more than 1,500 California wildfires. Many engineers and energy experts have attributed these fires to the company’s failure to trim trees and upgrade its infrastructure.
The company is thought to be at least partly responsible for the Camp Fire last year, and a broken jumper cable on a PG&E transmission tower may have started the recent Kincade Fire in Sonoma County.
In October, PG&E initiated multiple rounds of blackouts, affecting an estimated 2 million Californians, to lower the risk of its lines igniting more fires. The company has said it will continue to instate blackouts when wildfire risk is high.
“We’ll likely have to make this kind of decision again in the future,” the company’s CEO, Bill Johnson, said at a news conference on October 10.
From 2011 to 2015, California was the driest it’s ever been in recorded history.
- REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
Millions of trees died and thousands of lawns disappeared as homeowners were encouraged to tear up their grass.
That emergency situation has ended, but the effects linger. Some parts of central California are still “abnormally dry,” according to the US Drought Monitor.
As global temperatures continue to warm, California’s risk of drought is expected to rise. A 2018 study predicted that the state would see an increase of 25% to 100% in extreme wet-to-dry seasonal swings.
The drought caused land to sink in the Central Valley, the state’s main agricultural hotspot.
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California’s Central Valley is still starved for groundwater because of the drought. The arid nature of the soil has forced farmers to overpump groundwater, causing the land to sink at a rate of 2 inches per month in some areas.
Arbuckle, a town known for its almond orchards, has sunk more than 2 feet in the past nine years, a survey from the California Department of Water Resources found.
This sinking could have dangerous consequences for the Central Valley’s infrastructure: It can cause roads to crack, give rise to holes in the ground, and damage underground water pipes. In the long run, that could threaten the region’s mega-farms, which produce about a quarter of US food.
California has more than 500 active fault lines. Scientists say a big earthquake is overdue.
Most Californians live within 30 miles of an active fault line.
On July 4, a 6.4-magnitude quake led to gas leaks and power outages in Ridgecrest, a small city about 125 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The following day, that same community saw an even more destructive 7.1-magnitude quake.
But residents near the San Andreas fault, which stretches 800 miles from Eureka to San Bernardino, have particular reason for concern: The fault is expected to produce what many call the “big one,” a high-magnitude earthquake.
The San Andreas fault hasn’t experienced a ground-rupturing earthquake in more than a century – an unprecedented “earthquake drought,” seismologists say.
“Chances are, we’re going to have more earthquakes in the next five years than we’ve had in the last five years,” Lucy Jones, a seismologist, told The Guardian in July.
More than 100,000 coastal homes in California are at risk of chronic flooding by the end of the century.
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A 2018 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that if global sea levels were to rise by 6.6 feet by 2100 – the most extreme scenario predicted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – $15 billion worth of property in California could be at risk of chronic flooding by 2045.
The area with the most homes at risk is Marin County in the San Francisco Bay Area. The UCS anticipates that nearly 4,400 homes there will see chronic flooding in less than 30 years.
The state is also an expensive place to live. A gallon of milk in California could set you back nearly $3 on average.
The 2018 Cost of Living Index from the Council for Community and Economic Research identified California as the second-most-expensive state in the country – behind Hawaii – in terms of living costs.
The report calculated the annual average cost of living based on 60 goods and services in categories like food, housing, utilities, transportation, and healthcare.
An average monthly energy bill in California is about $237, while a doctor visit could cost about $150, the report found.
Rents and home prices are among the highest in the US.
- Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
The median listing price for a home in California is about $550,000, making it one of the most expensive places to buy a home in the country, behind Hawaii and Washington, DC.
Of the 10 cities with the highest rents in the US, half are in California. San Francisco has by far the highest rents in the country, while San Jose, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Diego also make the top 10.
A shortage of affordable housing has led to rising homelessness in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.
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California has the greatest number of homeless people in the country: about 130,000, or nearly a quarter of the nation’s homeless population.
The state is home to four of the 10 cities with the largest homeless populations in the US: Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and San Jose.
The homelessness crisis in San Francisco is by far the most acute; Leilani Farha, a United Nations special rapporteur, has called it a “human rights violation.” From 2017 to 2019, the city saw its homeless population rise by 30%.
In Los Angeles, meanwhile, the homeless population has increased by 12% since 2018.
To top it all off, California is heavily dependent on cars.
California isn’t as congested as Hawaii, New Jersey, or Washington, DC, but it had the highest number of registered cars in the country in 2014: about 28.7 million.
Its most populous city, LA, also has some of the most congested roads in the US. From 2003 to 2018, nearly 3,400 people died in traffic collisions in LA.
This congestion can lead to painstaking commutes. A study earlier this year found that in the city of Palmdale, just north of Los Angeles, 35% of residents commuted more than two hours, round trip, to work.
Driving also comes with an environmental cost, of course: Cars and light-duty trucks are responsible for more than 20% of US greenhouse-gas emissions.
California has the worst air pollution in the country.
- Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Five of those California cities failed to meet national air-quality standards.
The report identified Los Angeles as the US city with the worst ozone pollution, which can cause breathing problems and increase a person’s risk of a heart attack. Ozone pollution results from a chemical reaction between sunlight and pollutants from cars, power plants, industrial boilers, and refineries.
The Fresno metropolitan area in the Central Valley, meanwhile, had the worst year-round particle pollution, which comes from dust and other tiny particles (usually carbon dioxide and methane). The city of Bakersfield had the sharpest spike in particle pollution in 2019.
Particle pollution has been linked to lung and throat cancers, as well as heart attacks. A recent study found that it may also increase a person’s risk of developing brain tumors.
Many of California’s challenges stem from its size, but that’s only part of the problem.
- Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
California is the most populous state in the US, with nearly 40 million residents. Naturally, that gives rise to congestion, overcrowding, and rising costs of living.
But California’s problems also stem from its geography, the decisions of local companies, and the way it has chosen to build. The recent spate of wildfires is a prime example of this.
“While forest fires have always happened, [people] have impinged into areas that are prone to fire,” Marko Bourne, a former Federal Emergency Management Agency official, told Business Insider. “Now we’re being impacted by those fires directly.”
Over time, this mixture of natural threats and human activity could transform the state into a nightmare.
- Read more:
- PG&E has announced power outages for 2 million Californians, after acknowledging that a broken wire may have sparked the Sonoma blaze
- California’s homelessness crisis is spiraling out of control. These mayors want to solve it with tiny homes, trailers, and floating apartments.
- A small town in California has sunk more than 2 feet in the past decade, and it could be part of a disturbing trend
- A California fault capable of producing a magnitude 8 earthquake has started ‘creeping.’ It’s not the only one.