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Water? Fire? Bad smells? These environmental stories shaped Southern California in 2022

Throughout 2022, lawmakers in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. set lofty goals — and laid out significant funds — in an effort to slow climate change and improve the environment. And Southern California already is benefitting from those efforts, with billions of dollars directed to install new electric vehicle charging stations, shore up water supplies, reduce wildfire risk and more.

But this year Southern California also was particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, as drought, beach erosion, extreme heat and other challenges hit home.

As the year winds down, here’s a look back at how seven major environmental stories shaped Southern California in 2022.

1. Drought deepens

The megadrought that started in the West in the late 1990s spiked in 2022, leaving reservoirs at historic lows and triggering unprecedented water restrictions throughout Southern California.

In April, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California for the first time declared a water shortage emergency. Some 6 million people in parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino counties were affected, with most limited to watering outdoors just one or two days a week.

Then, in September, nearly 4 million residents in L.A. County were asked to suspend all outdoor watering for 15 days during a heatwave while crews repaired a key pipeline. Other water agencies across the region have implemented their own restrictions.

Local lakes, and the communities that depend on them, also have taken a hit. Big Bear Lake is now more than 17 feet below normal, while Lake Elsinore was closed this summer after experiencing toxic algae blooms in its warm, shallow waters.

Kayaks are docked near the solar observatory in Big Bear, CA, on Friday, August 26, 2022. The lake is 16 1/2 feet below full and algae is giving the water a green hue. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

With hotter, drier conditions looking to be the new normal, water agencies and private companies spent the year seeking permits and funding for plans to bolster potable water supplies.

One such plan — the massive Poseidon desalination project off the coast of Huntington Beach — got shot down by the Coastal Commission in May. But in October, the commission approved the smaller Doheny desalination plant off the coast of Dana Point, saying it could serve as a model for converting ocean water to drinking water.

2. Flood of funding

In 2022, California received more than $16.3 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to fund nearly 500 projects, with hundreds of millions dedicated to reducing climate change and cleaning up the environment. Millions more for these causes are coming from the Inflation Reduction Bill and from the state, which had a record budget surplus heading into this fiscal year.

Nearly $310 million in federal funds from the infrastructure bill will help pay for projects that promise to capture, store and recycle more water in the drought-ridden West, including $12 million to expand an Irvine reservoir that serves central Orange County and $10 million to increase recycled water supplies in eastern Riverside County.

California received more than $64 million from the infrastructure bill to cap orphaned oil and gas wells, improve abandoned mine lands and clean up polluted sites, such as the arsenic-plagued historic mining community of Red Mountain in San Bernardino County.

The state also got $139 million to add fast electric vehicle charging stations on its roadways, including along the 15, 91 and 210 freeways. And the Inflation Reduction Act includes tax credits of $7,500 for buyers of new EVs. Seven Southern California school districts also got federal funding to swap diesel buses for electric school buses, with another $2 billion allocated to California to improve public transportation options.

But Californians overall — and Southern Californians in particular — rejected Proposition 30, a measure on the Nov. 8 ballot that would have taxed the wealthy to help pay for other EV rebates and charging stations.

3. California vs. gas pumps

As the price of gasoline shattered records this year, California made international news multiple times for its efforts to curtail the industry’s hold on residents.

The big headline came in August, when state regulators banned the sale of new gas-powered vehicles in California by 2035. Later that month, the Air Resources Board introduced a proposal that would require companies to phase out all diesel trucks by 2042. Then in early December, Gov. Gavin Newsom asked the legislature to develop a plan for penalizing gas companies that make exorbitant profits, with any fines collected refunded to Californians.

A worker changes the gas prices at a Arco gas station along Fair Oaks ave. And Monterey Road in South Pasadena on Wednesday September 28, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)
A worker changes the gas prices at a Arco gas station along Fair Oaks ave. And Monterey Road in South Pasadena on Wednesday September 28, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

The state and local cities also have taken aim at oil drilling this year, with mixed results.

In the wake of last year’s 25,000-gallon oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach, state Sen. Dave Min introduced a bill to end oil drilling in California waters by the end of 2024. The bill, which would have shut down three platforms off Orange County, died in May in the face of opposition from trade unions and the oil industry.

Local Democrats also tried to slow down efforts to repair the pipeline that triggered the spill. Amplify Energy, which owns the pipeline, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor crimes related to the spill and is facing nearly $70 million in fines and compensation. But the company got clearance to move forward and started repair work in October, with oil expected to flow again in early 2023.

Environmentalists had cause to celebrate in November, when the L.A. City Council voted to start phasing out oil and gas extraction. L.A. County supervisors approved a similar ordinance in October.

Several communities also took action this year to limit leaded gas for small airplanes. And in September, California became the first state to ban the sale of all new natural gas-fueled furnaces and water heaters by 2030, while several cities, including Los Angeles, voted to ban most gas appliances from new construction.

4. Heat risks rise

As emissions from burning fossil fuels continue to trap heat in the atmosphere, Southern California is seeing more hot days each year. So researchers and regulators this year put the risks of extreme heat front and center.

California created an “extreme heat” action plan this spring. And in September, Newsom signed into law a package of bills related to heat safety, including one that will create a statewide heat warning system by 2025.

Cities also are taking action. Los Angeles this year became the third city in the country to hire a chief heat officer.

In July, UCLA released an online tool that lets the public search for heat-related data by ZIP code. The tool shows health risks from excessive heat don’t play out equally from city to city. The tool’s creators hope the information will guide officials’ decisions about emergency planning.

5. Shoring up beaches

Southern California got a front-row seat to how climate change is affecting sea levels in 2022, when beach erosion in south San Clemente once again temporarily shuttered a popular train line. A study by the Orange County Transportation Authority and Caltrans says almost the entire 7-mile coastal rail corridor in Orange County is threatened by sea level rise and related hazards.

Workers do a regular assessment of railroad tracks in south San Clemente on Monday, October 3, 2022. They use an “inclinometer” to gauge how much the tracks move due to erosion, said Octavio Romo, a track inspector with Herzog. “It moved a couple inches,” since a couple weeks ago, he added. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Erosion caused by climate change and infrequent sand replenishment also threatens homes and businesses all along Southern California’s coast. So earlier this year, the federal government approved nearly $25 million to replenish sand along Huntington Beach and Newport Beach and in San Clemente. And volunteers started working to recreate dunes along Manhattan Beach that once provided habitat for wildlife and a buffer from the sea.

This year also was great one for viewing marine life off the coast of Southern California, from “moon jelly” sightings to a rare leaping sperm whale to a “Sharknado” moment with a great white shark.

6. Wildfires spark controversy

A September wildfire killed two people and burned 21 structures near Hemet, while a May blaze destroyed 20 multi-million-dollar homes in Laguna Niguel. A fire near Castaic Lake injured seven firefighters, while one near Big Bear triggered evacuations and fear for the isolated mountain community.

But by recent standards, California’s 2022 fire damage was relatively tame. So some of the year’s biggest wildfire news was instead about how to prevent them in the future and the impact that catastrophic wildfires have on wildlife and the environment.

A UCLA study released in October revealed that nearly 20 years of progress on clean air in California may have been wiped out 2020’s deadly fire season. A month later, the state Legislative Analyst’s Office advised legislators to focus more on addressing related health risks, particularly for vulnerable communities.

Still, environmental groups and some local residents continued to oppose wildfire prevention plans that call for thinning forests, including one such project on the north shore of Big Bear Lake.

7. That stinks

Vehicle emissions and wildfire smoke aside, Southern Californian communities faced major odor pollution problems this year.

El Segundo residents still are contending with a stench that’s plagued them ever since the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant experienced a massive sewage spill in July 2021. The local air quality district in September told L.A.’s Sanitation Department, which operates the plant, that more needs to be done to address the lingering problem.

Local regulators also took action against a private composting facility that contracts with public agencies across Southern California to process sewage sludge and other organic materials. A fire smoldered for months deep in Synagro’s compost pits, blanketing the nearby community of Hinkley — made famous by the film “Erin Brockovich” — in horrible smells.

Workers move materials at Nursery Products, an 80-acre biosolids composting facility southwest of Hinkley, CA on Thursday, June 23, 2022. A fire has been burning inside the Synagro-owned facility's composting material since May 28, with foul odors reported for miles. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Workers move materials at Nursery Products, an 80-acre biosolids composting facility southwest of Hinkley, CA on Thursday, June 23, 2022. A fire has been burning inside the Synagro-owned facility’s composting material since May 28, with foul odors reported for miles. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

That facility became overrun in part because of a new California mandate that kicked in at the start of the year, requiring communities to recycle their food waste to reduce atmosphere-warming methane caused by food rotting in landfills. That program has gotten off to a bit of rocky start, with more funding, supplies and education needed for the state to meet its related clean air goals.

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