Friday, April 15, 2016
Striking back on Delta land buy
By Alex Breitler
Declaring that the Delta “will not be the next Owens Valley,” San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties — along with farmers and environmental groups — sued Thursday to block a Southern California water district from buying more than 20,000 acres of farmland in the heart of the estuary.
The lawsuit, filed in San Joaquin County Superior Court, charges that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California violated the law when it determined that the $175 million land buy is exempt from environmental study.
“The political leaders, residents, and landowners of the Delta decisively dispute this claim and hereby declare that we will not be the next Owens Valley,” Stockton attorney Brett Jolley wrote in a letter accompanying Thursday’s lawsuit. Jolley was referring to Los Angeles’ quiet acquisition of water rights and subsequent draining of the Owens Valley more than a century ago.
Thursday’s lawsuit asks a judge to put a stop to the Delta land purchase, which is currently in escrow, and, if finalized in early June, would make the L.A.-based water district a major landowner in the same watershed that it draws upon for 19 million southland residents.
In documents filed with both counties, Metropolitan concluded that the land purchase is exempt from environmental review because the California Environmental Quality Act “applies only to projects with the potential for causing significant effects.” In this case, no project has yet been formally proposed, the water district says.
“Metropolitan is simply buying property, and we don’t believe that constitutes a project under CEQA,” Cathy Stites, Metropolitan’s senior deputy general counsel, said Thursday.
Environmental analysis will come later, once Metropolitan has decided on specific uses for the property, she said.
Later isn’t good enough, proponents of the lawsuit say.
The water district has already made public statements about possible uses for the land, including providing a location to stage construction equipment or deposit spoils from Gov. Jerry Brown’s $15 billion twin tunnels project.
Metropolitan officials have also talked about things like bolstering levees to protect the agency’s interest in Delta water quality, and in constructing wetland habitat on the islands in the hope of improving the health of the Delta, which could, by extension, make water transfers to the south more reliable.
Moving forward on an expensive land purchase now would effectively commit Metropolitan to certain projects before their environmental impacts are known, the plaintiffs say.
“The idea behind CEQA is that before the government makes that investment, makes that final decision, that you review or consider what the environmental impacts will be,” San Joaquin County Counsel Mark Myles said Thursday. “Our position is that spending $175 million, that is some pretty hefty momentum. How do you unring that bell?”
Metropolitan claims a second exemption from CEQA: that the land purchase is intended to “preserve open space, habitat, or historical resources … and there is no potential for significant effects due to unusual circumstances.” But Myles argues that Delta lands are already developed in agriculture.
“(Metropolitan) does not intend to ‘preserve’ the property, but rather intends to significantly alter the property,” the lawsuit says.
The lands in question — comprising Bacon, Bouldin, Webb and Holland islands, as well as smaller Chipps Island in Solano County — are controlled by a Swiss investment company which is also named in the lawsuit.
Joining San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties in bringing the suit are the Contra Costa County Water Agency, the Central Delta Water Agency, and environmental groups Planning and Conservation League and Food and Water Watch.
Myles said he expects Metropolitan to seek to move the proceedings outside of San Joaquin County. Escrow on the sale is scheduled to close on June 8.
— Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or email@example.com. Follow him at recordnet.com/breitlerblog and on Twitter @alexbreitler.
McClatchy News Service
Northern California lawmakers question huge Westlands Water District deal
By Michael Doyle
WASHINGTON – Northern California lawmakers are turning up the heat on the Westlands Water District, with coordinated calls for congressional hearings and tougher Obama administration scrutiny.
Citing recent enforcement action by the Securities and Exchange Commission, House Democrats from outside the San Joaquin Valley on Thursday initiated what one lawmaker termed “an investigation” into the district and its proposed irrigation drainage deal with the administration.
“The Westlands Water District plays by its own rules, and trusting them with an agreement of this magnitude should give every member of Congress serious pause,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.
Westlands officials countered that they’d be happy “to educate the public,” before following up with a direct shot at the skeptical members of Congress.
“Some of (them) have demonstrated by their comments, and their desire to read their names in the news, that they either have little understanding of these issues or are willing to deliberately distort the truth to further their agenda of eliminating agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley,” Johnny Amaral, the district’s deputy general manager for external affairs, said in a statement.
A career-long critic of Westlands, Huffman led three other California Democrats in calling Thursday for the Republican-controlled House Natural Resources Committee to hold a hearing on the proposed Westlands drainage settlement. A hearing was already expected by supporters of the deal.
Simultaneously, Huffman and five different House Democrats on Thursday urged the Environmental Protection Agency to closely review the water quality consequences of the drainage deal.
And, in a three-page letter led by Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, and joined by five other Democrats, skeptical lawmakers cautioned President Barack Obama to reconsider the Westlands settlement made public last September.
“The Westlands agreement signed by your administration fails to include key safeguards for the environment and for taxpayers, and falls far short of the principles laid out by the Interior Department earlier in your administration,” McNerney and the other Democrats wrote.
Underscoring their point, the Democrats made public a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service contrasting the administration’s stated goals with the final terms of the deal.
The Westland settlement, unveiled last year, has not yet been approved by either the House or the Senate.
Years in the making, the settlement relieves the federal government of its obligation to provide drainage for Westlands’ farms. Federal officials now peg the overall cost of that drainage at upward of $3.5 billion.
Under the settlement, the 600,000-acre Westlands district will retire 100,000 acres and assume responsibility for providing the drainage that takes away tainted irrigation water, while the district’s remaining debt of about $375 million would be forgiven.
Huffman and the other Northern California Democrats were already critical of the proposed Westlands settlement, but they gained new ammunition last month with the SEC’s announcement that it had resolved a civil enforcement action against the district.
The district agreed to pay $125,000 to settle SEC charges that it misled investors about its financial health. The district’s general manager, Thomas W. Birmingham, also will pay $50,000 as part of the settlement.
The charges, which Westlands and Birmingham neither admitted nor denied, involved accounting maneuvers that allegedly masked revenue reductions caused by drought and corresponding cuts in water delivery.
“These revelations raise serious questions about Westlands’ ability to pay for drainage and the honesty of Westlands’ current leadership,” Huffman and the other Democrats wrote the House resources panel.
In a prior statement, Westlands cited the “remedial actions” it had taken and stated that it had “determined that entering into the settlement to fully resolve the matter was in the district’s best interest.”
Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10, firstname.lastname@example.org
Redding Record Searchlight
Bureau looking for ideas on getting salmon around dams
By Damon Arthur
Have an idea about how to get migrating fish past tall dams like Shasta Dam? The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation wants to hear about it.
And there is a prize, up to $20,000 for the best proposal, according to the bureau.
Connie Svoboda, a hydraulic engineer for the bureau in Denver, Colorado, said the competition is only the third time her agency has opened up a problem to anyone in the nation.
Typically the agency has sought proposals from engineering and environmental agencies and companies they work with regularly.
“This is such a great tool, because previously we could only reach out to the communities that we already knew,” Svoboda said. “The prize competition, through the Internet, allows you to reach out to the general public.”
While the bureau wants solutions that apply to all of the tall dams it operates, there is a problem the agency currently faces with Shasta Dam.
The bureau and other federal and state fisheries agencies want to re-introduce winter-run chinook salmon to the McCloud and Sacramento rivers upstream of Lake Shasta. The first phase of that effort, expected to begin next year, focuses on the McCloud.
Fish ladders and other types of passages around dams are common to get fish swimming upstream past dams and other obstacles, but the bureau wants a solution to get fish past dams when they are going downstream to the ocean.
In the first year of the proposed plan, the fish would be hatched at the Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery near Shasta Dam. Once they are about 2 inches long, they would be hauled by truck and released into the river below the dam at McCloud Reservoir.
Within a year, the young fish would swim downstream but would be trapped before they swim into Lake Shasta, the bureau’s project manager, John Hannon, has said.
After the young fish are collected they would be hauled by truck back to the Sacramento River so they could swim out to the ocean.
In the second year, they would again release fingerlings and put fertilized eggs in the McCloud . The young fish would again be trapped and collected near the lake. By the third year they would be releasing fingerlings, eggs and adult salmon into the river for spawning, Hannon said.
The chinook salmon live in the ocean about three years, and return to fresh water to spawn and die. The bureau wants proposals from the public about the best way to capture the young fish to get them past dams, Svoboda said.
“For this prize competition, we are interested in collecting the juvenile fish in the reservoir for transport downstream,” Svoboda said in a video posted on YouTube.
“There are challenges for collecting fish in the reservoir. The fish can have a very difficult time finding a single collection point in a very large reservoir. They may never find the collection point or they may be significantly delayed in finding it,” she said in the video.
There is already a trap at Keswick Dam used to catch adult salmon heading upstream from the ocean. Those fish are taken to the Livingston Stone Fish Hatchery. Hannon said that trap can be used to take adults returning from the ocean past the dam and haul them by truck to the McCloud.
In the previous two competitions, the bureau chose proposals submitted from companies and groups they had never worked with before, Svoboda said. She did not know how many dam passage proposals had been submitted because the competition is being managed by a company called InnoCentive.
She said proposals should be in the range of three to five pages and include drawings. Proposals don’t need to include a testable prototype, she said.
The judges, who work with federal agencies, may choose one winner and award the full $20,000 prize, Svoboda said. Both of the earlier competitions also chose more than one proposal, which means the winners split the amount of prize money.
There will be at least one $5,000 winner and no winners will receive less than $2,500, according to competition rules.
More information about the challenge, which closes May 10, can be found online at http://bit.ly/1oohjL8.
Facebook @damonarthur_RS email@example.com 530-225-8226
Wall Street Journal
California’s Water Injustice
Despite El Niño rains, the feds keep favoring fish over farmers.
El Niño has doused northern California, but farmers in the state’s Central Valley won’t see much benefit. The Obama Administration is again indulging its progressive friends at the expense of low-income communities.
The Bureau of Reclamation recently announced that Central Valley Project agricultural water contractors south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta would receive a mere 5% of their contractual allocation this year despite brimming reservoirs in the North. Lake Shasta is at 90% capacity, and billions of gallons of water were released from Lake Folsom this winter to avert flooding.
Meantime, wildlife refuges and farmers north of the Delta—those in Democratic Reps. Jerry McNerney and John Garamendi’s districts—will get 100% of the water they’re owed. The liberal gentry in the Bay Area, which pipes its pristine water directly from Hetch Hetchy reservoir, also won’t be affected by this government water rationing. Federal biological opinions limit Delta water pumps to a third of capacity to protect endangered smelt and salmon, which can get sucked into the machines. Despite these restrictions, fish populations continue to decline.
The Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged last year that “existing regulatory mechanisms have not proven adequate” to halt the smelt’s decline and that “we are unable to determine with certainty which threats or combinations of threats are directly responsible.” The bigger culprits appear to be invasive species, Delta farm fertilizer, Sacramento effluence, the drought and, perhaps, natural selection.
The Obama Administration is nonetheless doubling down on a failed policy. Amid this winter’s storms, Delta water regulators reduced water pumping to protect putatively vulnerable larval and juvenile smelt. Three adult smelt—and no juveniles or larvae—have been killed by the pumps this year.
This environmental injustice has piqued Senator Dianne Feinstein, who on March 11 demanded that federal agencies base “pumping decisions on better science.” “In some instances these decisions were made even though available data suggested no smelt or salmon were anywhere near the pumps” while “in other cases, adult smelt were spotted as far as 17 miles from pumps, which led to reduced pumping levels,” she noted. “There are real-world consequences to the decisions” such as a melon farmer and his father who lost their farms, which employed 450 workers.
Ms. Feinstein’s pleas were ignored. On March 24—two days after the White House hosted a “water summit” to discuss challenges “in predominantly poor, minority, or rural communities, where water inequality can go hand-in-hand with socioeconomic inequality”—the Democrat appealed to President Obama.
“It seems to me that the agencies operate the system in a manner that may be contrary to the available data,” Senator Feinstein wrote. “Between January 1 and March 6 last year, 1.5 million acre feet of water flowed through the Delta and 745,000 acre feet were pumped out. During the same period this year, 5.5 million acre feet of water flowed through the Delta, but only 852,000 acre feet were pumped out.”
The San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority says 700,000 acre-feet of water—enough to irrigate about 200,000 acres of land and sustain 700,000 families for a year—were lost between Dec. 1 and March 22 due to pumping restrictions. On March 25 regulators announced they would reduce pumping even more to protect smelt larvae. Forget you, Feinstein.
As she noted, restoring depleted groundwater reserves during wet years is essential to prevent aquifers, land and infrastructure from collapsing. It’s also needed to sustain farms. During the drought, farmers have had to drill deeper wells or buy water at a premium from those with senior water rights. The alternative is to leave land fallow—some 500,000 acres last year.
This government-made water shortage has had a trickle-down effect on the Central Valley, where unemployment is in the double digits and nearly a quarter of residents live in poverty. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Madera and Merced economies shrunk by 1% in 2014 while San Jose’s GDP grew 6.7% and San Francisco’s 5.2%.
House Republicans and Senator Feinstein have backed legislation to give federal agencies discretion to increase pumping during heavy storm flows. Ms. Feinstein last month told the Sacramento Bee that Mr. Obama hasn’t engaged. The unavoidable conclusion is that the President and his green patrons care more about protecting fish larvae than the poor.
Santa Maria Times
Berry growers targeted in arson abandon farmworker housing plans
By Mike Hodgson
The owners of a strawberry farming operation who were buying new Nipomo homes to house their migrant farmworkers announced Wednesday they are abandoning their plans after receiving threats and losing one home still under construction to an apparent arson fire.
Greg and Donna France, who own Santa Maria-based Mar Vista Berry, announced they would not pursue their housing plan in a statement released through the California Strawberry Commission in Watsonville.
“It is with great regret that we are cancelling our plans to provide quality housing for our guest workers after the burning of the Mads Place homes in Nipomo,” the statement said.
“The crime of arson and continued threats against the property, our prospective workers and ourselves has raised our concerns about the ability to ensure the safety of the workers and to maintain a safe environment for the neighbors,” it continued.
“We do not want to see anyone hurt, not our workers and certainly not any of the neighbors.”
The couple were in the process of buying seven new homes on Mads Place, a cul-de-sac in Nipomo, and planned to house workers brought in from Mexico under the federal H-2A program, in each of the homes.
Three had been completed, and two were in the framing stages when a suspicious fire destroyed one and damaged the other of the two under construction the night of April 6 after neighbors learned of their plans and stories were published by the media.
Some veiled and not so veiled threats were made to the Frances and on news media websites before and after the fire.
But Carolyn O’Donnell of the California Strawberry Commission said the Frances’ decision to abandon their plans to house workers was not precipitated by any recent threat.
“They needed to assess the situation and what they were going to do,” O’Donnell said. “They did receive another threatening letter yesterday, threating property and bodily harm. But the decision had largely been made before that.”
The statement reiterated the Frances’ apology for not meeting with Mads Place neighbors and discussing their plans in advance, although San Luis Obispo County officials had known about them since early last year.
It also said the Frances are working with law enforcement officials to post a reward for the arrest of the arsonist.
“To the individual(s) who committed the crime of arson and made multiple and serious threats of further harm, you have not won,” the statement said. “Violence and intolerance are never the solution and we are saddened to have seen it emerge in our community of Nipomo.
“Because of our concern for the neighbors we have met and spent time with through this process, we are working with authorities on offering a reward of $10,000 to anyone with information that leads to the arrest of this arsonist(s) so they are no longer a threat to this neighborhood or the broader Nipomo community.”
O’Donnell said the Frances turned to the H-2A program because of a labor shortage that is being faced by agricultural operations throughout the state.
Much of that is due to the crackdown on illegal immigration. American workers are also not applying for farm labor jobs.
“It got to the point they had to do something,” O’Donnell said.
In their statement, the Frances said their efforts will be repeated by other farming operations in both Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, and it will be up to the agricultural community working with the community at large to come up with a solution for housing the migrant workers.
Despite having their plans shattered by arson and threats, O’Donnell said she doesn’t believe the Frances are despondent.
“I think they’re optimistic they will work out a solution,” she said. “But in the meantime, they’ve got a farm to run, crops to harvest and berries to sell.”
Los Angeles Times
Pacific fisher denied protection under the Endangered Species Act
By Louis Sahagun
Federal wildlife authorities on Thursday denied Endangered Species Act protection to the small, isolated populations of Pacific fishers in Washington, Oregon and California, including the southern Sierra Nevada range.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2014 proposed listing the largest member of the weasel family as threatened throughout the region because of threats including logging, wildfires and the use of pesticides by marijuana growers.
On Thursday, however, agency said those threats were found to be not as significant as previously thought. In addition, Robyn Thorson, director of the agency’s Pacific region, said that “voluntary conservation measures” by the timber industry could increase habitat for the carnivore.
Also Thursday, Weyerhaeuser Co., one of the world’s largest private owners of timberlands, announced plans to commit up to 3 million acres of forested holdings in Washington and Oregon to support efforts to reintroduce fishers throughout the western U.S.
Environmental groups led by the Center for Biological Diversity said the agency’s decision not to list the Pacific fisher was “politically driven” and not based on the best available science.
“The politically driven reversal of proposed protection for the fisher is the latest example of the Fish and Wildlife Service kowtowing to the wishes of industry,” said Tanya Sanerib, an attorney at the center. “Fishers may be tough enough to prey on porcupines, but they need Endangered Species Act protection to survive.”
Strongly associated with old-growth forests, fishers are mostly dark brown and have long, slender bodies with short legs and long, bushy tails. They have triangular heads with sharp pronounced muzzles and large rounded ears. Their face, neck and shoulders are silver or light brown, contrasting with glossy black tails and legs.
The fisher’s range was reduced dramatically in the 1800s and early 1900s because of trapping, predator control, logging and urban development.
Of particular concern is the fate of the southern Sierra population south of Yosemite National Park, which has been reduced to as few as 300 animals.
Overall, there are an estimated 4,000 fishers in the northern forests of the United States and Canada.
The center petitioned to protect the Pacific fisher in 1994 and again in 2000. A decade later, the center sued over the delay in protecting the animal, and the agency was required to issue a decision this year.
In a related matter, a federal judge in Montana a week ago chastised the agency for yielding to political pressure when it reversed a proposal to list the wolverine — then ordered it to protect the species as soon as possible.
“Just like the wolverine and the coastal martin,” Sanerib said, “once more we may be forced to head to court to defend species, science and law from political interference.”
Follow me @LouisSahagun for more fascinating stories.